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54: The Story of American Labor- with Rachel Slade
Episode 5419th June 2024 • a BROADcast for Manufacturers • Keystone Click
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Meet Rachel Slade

Rachel is an author and journalist (trained as an architect) with more than 15 years of publishing experience. Her first book, "Into the Raging Sea," about the 2015 sinking of the American cargo ship El Faro, was a NYT Notable Book and winner of the Maine Literary Award. Her second book, "Making It in America," about the American manufacturing revival, came out in January 2024.

She has a passion for uncovering and developing compelling tales about politics, work, design, and urban planning that engage and inspire audiences across different mediums and genres. She has produced dozens of long-form articles and provocative essays, several of which have received national recognition and awards, including the CRMA for Excellence in Civic Journalism and the CRMA for Essays/Commentary/Criticism.

Connect with Rachel! 



Making It in America: The Almost Impossible Quest to Manufacture in the U.S.A. (And How It Got That Way)


Turn empty offices into little factories  

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00:00 Introduction and Personal Failures

01:20 Overcoming Challenges in the Workplace

02:49 The Importance of Embracing Failure

03:30 Discovering a Love for Physical Activity

04:02 Introducing Our Special Guest: Rachel Slade

05:55 Rachel Slade's Journey and Works

06:56 The American Shipping Industry and Labor History

09:06 The Impact of the Pandemic on Manufacturing

16:47 The Apparel Industry and Immigrant Labor

23:30 The Role of Immigrants in American Manufacturing

27:43 The Knowledge Economy and Manufacturing

30:30 I Just Learned That: Fun Facts and Insights

39:50 Book Recommendations and Closing Remarks

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Connect with Lori on LinkedIn and visit for your strategic digital marketing needs!  

Connect with Kris on LinkedIn and visit for OEM and aftermarket digital solutions!

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And so I was like, would you guys share something, or would you be cool telling me something you failed at and either learned from, or you're just like, nope, walked away, done.


[00:01:50] Erin Courtenay: Just one thing. For me.


So then I had to navigate, how do I move away from that? So it was a warning to me. I didn't heed the warning and learn from the outcome. So that's one.


[00:03:06] Erin Courtenay: Yeah, you did. It was very gracious. There were no F bombs. I feel like you really have the...


[00:03:16] Lori Highby: You know, I'm not gonna, I mean, I couldn't, there's lots of things and I've admitted failures numerous times, but I wanted to share something.

I attended an event last night about intrapreneurship and there was a lot of conversation around if you really want intrapreneurship within your organization, you have to give time for failure. You cannot expect awesomeness all the time and you have to allow that time for people to learn from their mistakes and not penalize, but almost you know, not penalize the mistake, but be accepting of it.

So I thought that was really something enlightening to hear.


And that's really changed for me. And it's. I don't know. I'm going to be on a soapbox about it from here on forward. So get ready.


[00:04:37] Erin Courtenay: That's right. Way to go. We all need that. Well, I'm so excited today. We have an amazing guest. I got really pumped about talking with her after I read a book review about her recent book and she so graciously agreed to come on our show. So without further ado, let me tell you a little bit about Rachel.

nto the Raging Sea, about the:

Rachel has a passion for uncovering and developing compelling tales about politics, work, design, and urban planning that engage and inspire audiences across different mediums and genres. She has produced dozens of long form articles and provocative essays, several of which have received national recognition and awards, including the CRMA for Excellence in Civic Journalism and the CRMA for Essays, Commentary, Criticism.

Welcome, Rachel. We are so delighted to have you here. You know, this book, I am going to say this and I stand behind it, needs to be required reading across curriculums and at the university level municipally. We have a citywide reading program here called the Big Read. I'm going to contact some people and say, hey, let's make this our book because it's just filled with the story of America, essentially, and manufacturing and how those two things just work together.

So I'm just so pleased to have you here.


So this was, you know, this started during the pandemic for me, just really kind of understanding our history, reckoning with who we are. But, but mostly through how we work, you know, and, and so much of that obviously in our past and hopefully in our future involves making.


[00:07:33] Rachel Slade: Yeah, so it's interesting because the shipping industry, so this is the American shipping industry, and it's my investigation actually started with the thinking of El Faro. And you guys are on the Great Lakes, you're, you're in the Midwest. I'm here on the East Coast, and so, you know, on the Great Lakes, it's all American shipping. And obviously on the coast, we have a lot of international shipping, but I knew nothing about shipping. All I knew was that this ship, which was filled with American mariners went down in the Atlantic in 2015 and actually literally disappeared, it vanished for 24 hours. So I was like, how is this even possible in America in 2015? But through that, you know, through that investigation, I started to learn a lot more about the labor history of America because mariners here are mostly unionized.

nk we really realized that in:

And so, I think what I knew from working in the maritime, studying the maritime, we really all felt very, very much during 2020 ,during the pandemic. And I thought, okay, this is a time to understand what do we make? What don't we make? What did we make? And how did so much of that capability leave our country and how can we get it back?

So. That was my journey. That was my start. And then I needed a way in.


What compelled you to tell their story specifically? Cause I'm sure there's hundreds and maybe thousands of people that you've met that have. Similar past stories, experiences, but yeah. So let's hear about that a little bit.


When I was here in Boston I ran a magazine that was part of Boston Magazine and every issue, we highlighted a maker. But most of those makers were craftspeople, which, is part of making and very important, but very small shops. So what I was actually looking for was manufacturing on a relatively small scale that I could wrap my head around, but also manufacturing that involved unions.

So I was looking for a small shop that wasn't sponsored, that wasn't financed by VC or private equity. I was really looking for basically working class folks who believed in the American dream, who believed in capitalism, but also believed we would never offshore. And that, that the labor movement is critical to reviving the American manufacturing landscape.

So I was looking, it turns out I was looking for a Unicorn. There are very few companies that do this ,and I was lucky enough during the pandemic to be asked by Down East magazine, which covers Maine to reach out to these folks because they had actually, they make apparel, but during the pandemic, they pivoted to making masks for first responders and for, for all kinds of workers who needed to work.

You know, a lot of us had the luxury of being able to isolate in our homes. Thank God, but a lot of us did not have that luxury. And so for those folks, they needed masks and masks were not available. And a few companies out there became real heroes. Ben and Whitney retooled their their manufacturing factory to make masks, and they actually designed their own masks, and they actually were able to, through their union contacts, find paper that they could actually use for the filter in the mask.

I mean, it just became this incredible story of resourcefulness but, this is community building, right? Like, at its heart, manufacturing has this ability to, like, really pull us together, really make us a lot smarter as a group than any of us are individually. Like, there are no single winners here, right?

This is really what I think is the best part of being an American is you know, when push comes to shove, we're very resourceful and, and we do see the importance of coming together, you know. But in this day and age, I feel like it, sometimes it takes a lot. And we did have this extraordinary moment.

2020. Extraordinary. I mean, extraordinarily tragic as well, extraordinarily frightening, but amazing things also came out of that.


[00:14:12] Rachel Slade: Absolutely. Yeah, there's, there's this economic phenomenon called the multiplier effect. So when you spend the dollar in your community, it actually stays in the community. You know, you're supporting folks who are buying at the local restaurant, maybe, you know, hiring an accountant paying a lawyer they are going into you know, the supermarket where your neighbors are employed, right?

So what happens is every dollar that's spent, and there's data on this, in your local community can bounce around a couple of times and grow before it leaves. When you, when you start to blow that out towards like the American community, our nation, and I just want to couch this by saying, you know, I'm, I'm not some crazy American, you know, I mean, I, I love America cause this is my country. But I think every country needs to be thinking about this, you know, so this is not. Exclusive to America, but the point is that when you buy clothing or goods orfood that was grown by Americans, then you're supporting people who are paying taxes, right? So when they pay taxes, they're supporting the things that we actually enjoy and use every day, like roads, right?

They are supporting my community by contributing to our country in a meaningful way. And when you buy products from abroad, like let's say China, your money leaves this country forever. It can do no more good in this country. I wanted to mention that Amazon and other companies, Fast Fashion, there's a company called Shein, I don't know if your listeners are aware of this, and Amazon is guilty of this too. They're able to ship Made in China goods straight to your house without paying any tariffs, without paying any taxes. And that means that when your money is going straight out of the country, it's not going to have that opportunity to grow. To help you to help your children. It's leaving forever.

And so whenever you buy those things straight direct from China, you're basically exporting our economy. You're allowing the economy to be taken over by somebody else. And in China's case there's, there's no question that there's been a real interest in actually taking over so much of American manufacturing that we would ultimately be dependent on Chinese capabilities.

And again, I, I have nothing against the Chinese, but I just want us to like think about that for a minute. What does it mean to be so dependent on another country?


[00:17:34] Rachel Slade: I mean, the apparel industry is a really hard thing to do here in America. It's very labor intensive. There's very little automation in it. There's, there's some, and if you're doing, if you're doing t shirts, there are ways to automate, there are ways to automate cutting and that sort of thing.

But because it's so labor intensive, and I think because it involved women, most of the people doing the sewing here in the United States, I'm thinking of Fruit of the Loom, and Hanes, and all these companies they were actually making a very good living, but it was expensive for companies. And a lot of these companies had big buyers like Walmart and now Target.

And those big buyers were very interested, obviously, in providing very cheap goods to Americans. That's what they were all about is bargains. And so they actually put a lot of pressure on manufacturers to cut their costs. And when you put that kind of pressure on manufacturers, a lot of them made the choice to go broad.

rican Free Trade Agreement in:

And so, yeah, so the apparel industry, lots of women in the industry. They didn't have a lot of political power, and while the unions could see, could anticipate what NAFTA would do to American manufacturing. They didn't really have much control over the, the political decision making back then. So yeah, so the apparel industry, finally, you know, a lot of it is happening in LA. That is basically the epicenter of manufacturing of apparel manufacturing in the United States. Used to be in New York, obviously, but people are doing this all over. There are small factories like American Roots up in Maine where people are discovering it as possible, but it's very difficult.


[00:20:20] Rachel Slade: Yes. So these were two people, Ben and Whitney, had never been in manufacturing before. They didn't know anything about apparel production. And when they first started their company up in Maine, just outside of Portland, which is, you know, it's the biggest city in Maine. They really thought that they were going to get folks coming through the door who had been in the apparel industry.

it was too late. You know, by:

So who walked through the door? Anam Jabir Anam Jjabir was the first person to answer their call for training. They were going to provide training because nobody knew how to do this stuff. Nobody knew how to work with lock stitch professional sewing machines. So they had to provide their own training.

They had to pay for this. And then Namjabir had come from Iraq and she was a political refugee. She and her family had escaped death, they would have been killed in Iraq during the American war there, and they'd spent many years as political refugees and they ended up in Maine. And they did not want to be supported by government or charity.

They wanted to work. And very quickly, then, the immigrant community in Maine discovered American Roots. People started to come from all over. They came from the Congo. They came from Angola. They came from Vietnam. And these were people, for the most part, who were left extremely desperate situations and arrived in Maine and wanted to work.

ht? We're talking about March:

Like, it's just, it's such a moving story. And it's, and it's very real and I know that it happened in other places across America. But the truth is that, you know, apparel manufacturing, textile manufacturing has always depended on immigrant labor. Like new people coming, who don't maybe speak English, who have probably incredible skills from other places. But because they are not licensed or don't have the proper accreditation or whatever it is, they need to start somewhere.

And so manufacturing offers them a pathway to, middle class life. Which is so moving.


The question on the table is, we go back and forth between our better angels and our worst impulses as a nation. And, and, and our worst impulses actually some level of exploitation has led to progress, and you have to be honest about that, but how do we manage a balance that where the better angels, like Ben and Whitney, are really in the driver's seat more often than not.

And once again, just before we move on to our next section, I just want to encourage everybody to get Making It in America and spend some time really thinking about what it is that we can do to lift up our Better Angels.


All over the United States. Obviously, it came out of the Industrial Revolution. So, you know, throughout the 19th century, there are a lot of beginnings, a lot of glimmers of hope. And then, you know, labor fortunately was finally able to get a hold on a lot of American industry because immigrants were coming from different countries where they had seen how labor could work. They understood how to organize, for example and they also needed support. When you come to this country, when you don't know the language obviously, it's very frightening.

And so the labor movement also provided education, they provided English classes, they provided training, they also provided banking. You know, a lot of immigrants come here and I think there's fear or misunderstanding about how banking works. So a lot of immigrants begin unbanked, which is difficult.

So, so the labor movement, you know, was able to provide all kinds of structure for people who otherwise probably would have been easily exploited. But in terms of, how we think about immigration today, there is a tremendous amount of evidence that immigrants really help the economy because they are able to do work that maybe people who are born here are not willing to do.

, they founded the company in:

You know, here I am in Boston, and this is one of the epicenters of the knowledge economy, and we've got venture capitalists up the butt here, right? Like so many people who want to finance things, and they're all very focused on tech. And of course, tech has a lot to do with manufacturing. But what frustrates me is that I'm looking at Harvard Business School. I'm looking at MIT Sloan. Those are the business schools here, like in my backyard. And oftentimes they don't connect what they're doing to making. A lot of what they're interested in, for example, when it comes to finances, mergers and acquisitions and that kind of thing, which is very much about draining the lifeblood out of American industry. Or, you know, developing new apps that allow you to import stuff without tariffs. I'm thinking of Amazon.

So, I'm really hoping that at some point we can connect the makers, of people who are really interested in, like, this fascinating thing of manufacturing, bringing automation into manufacturing, high tech manufacturing, and the knowledge economy. You know, the financers, the tech people, it's happening.

It's happening. It's starting to happen. But not fast enough for me and not enough. This seems, I think for a lot of folks, maybe a little unglamorous like, oh, you're making stuff. Oh, you're in a factory. Like, what's that all about, right? And so actually I have a piece in the Boston Globe that's arguing for changing our zoning laws so that we can actually do high tech manufacturing right here in downtown Boston, where we have literally hundreds of thousands of square feet of empty office space now. Right. Yeah, bring back manufacturing. Yeah, it will solve so many problems.


Well, thank you so much for, you know, illuminating as to the history and the facts on the ground and also a call to action to, to really pay attention to what's going on. So I just want to let you know how much we appreciate you before we move on to our next section, which I'm a little intimidated. This section of our show is called I Just Learned That, and as a journalist, you're just learning things all the time. And sometimes we all struggle. We're like, I don't know. What did I just learn?

And so I'm going to kick it off because, and I'm cheating a little as I was going through my notes on Making in America last night. I was like, Oh, here's a fact. Here's a fact. Here's a fact. So this one's kind of cool and also kind of illuminating. This is a direct quote from your book, so please forgive me for not turning it into my own language.

By the:

[00:32:02] Kris Harrington: Yeah, well, just to follow up, comment on that.

Cause we didn't get to ask Rachel about how the labor feels about freedom and how they feel about some thoughts that they've shared about being unionized and what that means to them. So there's just so much value. You have to get the book, you've got to follow Rachel.

But I also learned something from Rachel in doing some of the research here, and it was in a different conversation that you were having. And it's that 90 percent of our medicines come from India and China. And I guess I had no idea first that it was so high. I mean, I don't even think I thought any came at all. So when I heard 90%, I was like, wow. And you think about. The topic of healthcare, which we're not going to dive into, but that's a whole another aspect of the care that goes with our healthcare system. And that really surprised me. So 90%.


[00:33:04] Rachel Slade: Absolutely shocking.


Some of the gals in my office were talking about this and then I read an article and I was just really fascinated by it. But historically, like new coined terms and phrases, you know, when someone picks up something because it was, on a TV show, you know, like the friend zone, or wasn't a gaslight, catfish, so that type of terminology. But now TikTok influencers and just folks that have quite a big audience are kind of making up their own phrases and that's becoming the new, you know, the new language of, of, of Gen Z right now. Like micro cheating, or...


[00:33:59] Lori Highby: Or Girl hobby, I don't know, I didn't look at these words.


[00:34:07] Lori Highby: Poly work, which means you have multiple jobs. Almond mom, which means you are raised by a diet obsessive mom. parents.


[00:34:17] Lori Highby: An almond mom.


[00:34:21] Lori Highby: I know! I was like, the gals in my office were talking about this, like, they are on TikTok way more than I, I'm never on TikTok, but and I'm like, what are these words you guys are saying?


[00:34:38] Lori Highby: Sure, go for it.


It wasn't crazy expensive. And so, believe it or not Shakespeare and other writers right around that time were inventing all kinds of new words because they needed new words. There just wasn't enough vocabulary to do the kinds of things that they wanted to do.

And here's a fun fact. The first Americans who arrived here and I'm, I'm pointing like right here in Boston, came really before Shakespeare had taken off. And so they didn't actually have access to Shakespeare. And so they had a very limited language, which actually became quite shocking when more British started coming over kind of post the Shakespeare revolution.

And so the post Shakespeare revolution arrivals from England were like, wow, these people are speaking in a weird way. They don't have all of our language. They don't have our vocabulary. But the point is that when we do develop new new methods of communication, it necessitates actually this kind of blossoming of discovering new language.

And so that's absolutely what Shakespeare did. A lot of words that we use today, he developed not just from old Scandinavian other things, but also from his knowledge of Greek and Latin. So and it wasn't just Shakespeare again, but yeah, but a lot of our vocabulary comes from that moment. And Lori, I love the idea that we're in another moment.

You know, there have been many moments when cultures come up against each other and you get, like, a new kind of language. And now you're talking about new language to talk about the crazy stuff that's happening in our world right now. I love it.


[00:37:07] Erin Courtenay: And I think, I love how it sort of ties everything back together. Manufacturing with the printing press, and we have modern TikTok, and we have language. And we also have this idea that to some extent, everything old is new again. So, you know. This is great.


[00:37:29] Erin Courtenay: Rachel, do you want to share something that you've recently learned with us?


[00:37:38] Erin Courtenay: Oh yeah. It has to do with, it sounds like things were really fancy there in New York a long time ago, and they kind of liked it that way as a little bit of a gated community on Long Island.


[00:38:03] Erin Courtenay: So do they have the audio?


And he also built the Long, Long Island Expressway. Now again, I, I'm sorry, I apologize. I am very East Coast centric. I was born here, I was raised here, so I think a lot about New York. I went to school in New York. But I love thinking about the idea, and this came out in the book, that Long Island originally was a totally gated community of robber barons and Vanderbilts, and they had these massive estates and polo grounds and golf courses.

And they actually hired private armies to keep people like you and me out. Because there was a strong desire, obviously, at the time to get out of the city before these highways were built. And so you had the icky immigrants and, you know, middle class people with their cars trying to get out to the beaches and whatever else Long Island offered, because they would look at a map and they'd be like, this looks like a nice place to go.

And the wealthy people on Long Island, and these were uber wealthy people, they were the billionaires of their time, did everything in their power to make sure that folks couldn't get out there. Including, like I said, guns, dogs not financing road building, buying politicians to ensure that their gated communities remained gated and protected.

And, oh my gosh, I mean, I was just reading about that. It's natural. You can't blame the billionaires for wanting to keep their billionaire playground, but at the same time, you know, this, that, this is also the kind of another part of manufacturing, this huge concentration of wealth and what people do with it.


[00:40:21] Erin Courtenay: Thank you for that book recommendation. It sounds like a really good piece of history as well. Well, before we close out today, I'd love you to let our readers know where they can find you. If you want to be found, let them know a little bit more about your publisher and your book, and then we'll say goodbye after that.


And I am also on LinkedIn and Instagram as well. So I think I'm fairly easy to find. And my book is Making it America, The Almost Impossible Quest to Manufacture in the USA and How It Got That Way. It just came out in January and and it's just been a wild ride. So I really appreciate being able to talk to you today.

It's been fascinating. Thank you.


[00:41:25] Kris Harrington: Yes. Great. That was wonderful. Yeah.


We'd love to connect and have them share their story with us. All right. Until next time.




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