Editor's Note: The following article is excerpted with permission from Factory Man by Beth Macy (Little, Brown and Co.). The book details Vaughn-Bassett Chairman John Bassett III's man's battle to save hundreds of jobs by demonstrating the greatness of American business. Part 1 of the excerpt appeared in the August issue.
It was cold inside the factory where John Bassett III finally met with businessman and Communist Party official He YunFeng in northern China in November 2002. The workers’ breath froze in little puffs of vapor. The Chinese furniture magnate looked him “in the damn eye,” Bassett recalled. Then he said something that raised the hair on the back of the Virginian’s neck.
He YunFeng would be happy to provide Bassett with the dressers at a fraction of what they cost to make, a feat Bassett knew would not be possible without Chinese government subsidies. All Bassett had to do in return, He YunFeng said, was close his factories.
John Bassett pictured the whole lot of his hard-charging forebears turning en masse in their graves. He thought of his 1,730 workers — many of whom had followed their parents and grandparents onto the assembly lines — standing in unemployment lines instead. He thought of the smokestacks that for a century had borne his family’s name, and of the legacy he wanted to leave his kids.
Back at home, he felt alone in the industry, with only his two sons and his scrappy little factories; the last American furniture-maker, after three centuries, willing to make a stand. If he could prove the Chinese were selling the product below the cost of the materials; if he could prove their factories were buoyed by Communist government subsidies, in an illegal price dump designed to drive American companies out of business — his company just might survive. If together they could persuade the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission, maybe the entire industry could be saved.
But those were big ifs, with potentially huge pitfalls. Surely he would be scorned by longtime customers and competitors. He’d be ridiculed by the handful of families that have ruled the $50 billion industry, including some members of his own family who were too busy closing down factories — and cashing their checks — to protect their furniture-making legacy.
He’d be ostracized for standing almost single-handedly against the outflow of furniture jobs from America, for striking back against the one-percenters who were about to move damn-near all their plants to Asia and tear the heart out of the Blue Ridge region he loves.
From the taverns of Virginia to the halls of power in Washington, D.C., from the buzzsaws on the factory floor to the backroads of Liaoning, China, where he would uncover a great lie at the heart of globalization, the answer was clear to John Bassett now. Alone or not, he was going to war.
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