Walmart Announces Another Made in USA Pledge as Workers Ask the Retailer to Keep Light Bulb Production in Ohio

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Mar 08 2021 |
Walmart says it wants to support U.S. manufacturing but its business model remains based selling cheap imports, which ultimately undermines many American workers and makers. Getty Images

Walmart says it will spend $350 billion on American-made goods. Using its influence to ensure Made in America LED bulbs stay on its shelves seems like a good place to start.

It’s that time of year again!

Walmart unveiled yet another commitment to American manufacturing last week, saying it will spend $350 billion through 2030 on products “made, grown or assembled” in the United States.

This isn’t the first time the retailer has done this, of course. Walmart first announced a $250 billion commitment back in 2013, and it has made similar announcements ever since.

While there have been a few success stories, we’ve always been skeptical (and we aren’t the only ones). The whole thing has always struck us as a nice PR campaign rather than an actual, transformative effort to truly support Made in America.

For one, it’s unclear where Walmart even stands on its original commitment from eight years ago, although President and CEO John Furner promised last week that the company is “on track to deliver.” Second, the “grown” part of the commitment does a lot of the work here – we previously pointed out that two-thirds of it comes from groceries, not manufactured products.  

But the larger issue is that the vast majority of products on Walmart shelves continue to be imports – the company was the No. 1 importer in the United States in 2019, according to the Journal of Commerce. And rather than take steps to decrease its imports in favor of locally made goods, Walmart continues to announce commitments to do just the opposite. In December, for example, it said it will spend $10 billion a year on products that are Made in India.

There is no doubt the Walmart business model has hurt American workers. The Economic Policy Institute estimated that Walmart’s imported products from China alone cost 400,000 U.S. jobs.

Now, I could go on and on pulling statistics and data points, but there’s actually a very telling real-world example happening in Ohio right now that highlights just how dubious Walmart’s Made in America commitment really is.

For decades, workers at the GE-Savant factory in Bucyrus, Ohio have made light bulbs. In recent years, the plant has supplied LED light bulbs to Walmart.

But in January, GE-Savant announced it planned to offshore production of the bulbs to China. Members of IUE-CWA Local 84704 joined with leaders like Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) to protest the decision and keep the plant’s LED light bulb manufacturing from being offshored, but the company ultimately moved ahead. The last day of production was March 6, leading to 81 layoffs.

“For years, Ohio workers at the GE-Savant plant helped drive the success of the company,” Brown told the Bucyrus Telegraph-Forum. “Now, rather than exhausting every avenue to save these jobs, the company has decided to lay off 81 workers in the middle of a global pandemic. Workers and leaders in the Bucyrus community fought for these jobs as hard as they could, and they all deserved better.”   

But now the union and city officials are continuing the fight – and they’ve got their eyes set on Walmart. A local delegation plans to visit Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., where they say they will remind the retailer about its Made in America commitments.  

During a recent city council meeting, union member Steve Pifer noted that workers always did their part for the plant, including by shifting production to LED lights. Now it’s time for Walmart to prove that their Made in America commitment is more than just a public relations ploy.

“Our plant began to hum like the well-oiled machine it was,” he said. “So what changed? What went wrong? Because we were told the LED was the future of the plant and Bucyrus lighting operations.

“Behind the scenes Walmart and GE changed their plans and began to offshore the production of bulbs to China including to a GE-owned factory called Top Star. The 10-year commitment to boost Made in the USA is still promoted by Walmart, but now the collaboration with GE is to build anywhere but in America.”

For its part, Walmart has said “it’s ultimately [GE-Savant]’s decision where to manufacture their products.”

That seems like… nonsense?

Let’s be real: Walmart has the power here. Companies like GE-Savant want their products on the shelves of the biggest retailer on the planet. If Walmart tells GE-Savant that it wants to source these bulbs from Ohio and not China, GE-Savant is going to make the bulbs in Ohio.

After all, Walmart spent decades pressuring its suppliers to offshore production. Why couldn’t it exert that same kind of pressure to keep jobs in the United States?

Walmart has an opportunity to show that it is truly committed to strengthening American manufacturing. And hey, using its position to save the jobs of 81 factory workers is a far better story than any corporate press release.

Here’s hoping Walmart does the right thing. But in the meantime, you can keep the pressure on and stand with these workers by joining IUE-CWA Local 84704 in asking GE-Savant and Walmart to maintain production in Ohio. Add your name here.