For several decades, Doug Gamble often focused on the continuing challenge of fighting plant closings as a key way to save jobs, communities, and manufacturing companies. Now, he is also part of Manufacturing Renaissance’s growing efforts to help forge a strong and equitable industrial policy on a national scale.
Gamble is the secretary and longest-serving member of Manufacturing Renaissance’s board of directors. When he talks about current work on the national coalition that has created the Manufacturing Renaissance Agenda, it reinforces his belief in the positive impact of the work the organization does – and can now have on industrial policy in this country. “The work of Manufacturing Renaissance can be applied on a national scale,” he says. “Now there’s growing enthusiasm that can help make this happen.”
Gamble, who grew up in Maryville, Tennessee, was teaching U.S. history at Stanford University when he moved back to Tennessee in the 1970s.
Focus on Worker Rights and Social Justice
He worked for the Highlander Research and Education Center, a leadership training school dedicated to social justice issues. The Center is well known for having trained many activists during the civil rights era, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis. Gamble’s work for Highlander focused on worker-led occupational health and safety. Later, in his work as director for the Tennessee Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, he was actively involved in successful statewide efforts to pass a “Right to Know” law. The law was instrumental in helping workers determine causes of illnesses thought to be work-related and investigate chemical hazards impacting their work.
From the mid-1980s to 2002, Gamble was International Representative for Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) and, later the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) in Tennessee. “I hadn’t been working for more than five minutes when I saw that plant closings were a big deal,” he says. “We spent a lot of time working on bargaining and closing agreements.”
He was also in the middle of efforts to form the Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network, one of a number of local organizations around the country that focused on plant closings. During this time, he connected with Dan Swinney, Founder of Manufacturing Renaissance, who also focused on industrial renewal in his work.
Meanwhile, Gamble’s work was often charged with the job of helping local unions deal with pressure from management – pressure that often led to plant closings in situations where workers could have been part of the solution to keep companies open.
For Gamble, the story he encountered became a familiar one. Now, it’s a story that he and many others in the labor movement hope to recast in the coming years. “The trajectory started in the 1980s and kept going,” he says. “The trend of deindustrialization accelerated in rural areas and in urban areas like Chicago. The idea of a social contract between capital, workers, and communities continued to fall apart.” In his last three years of working with the union, Gamble was involved in a Cornell University study that confirmed this view.
His local work continued to connect with people and organizations focused on national solutions. One such group was the Sociotechnical Systems Roundtable, whose premise was that social and technical systems in the workplace are dependent on each other. “The idea,” he says, “was that workplaces could be more efficient and more humane – and that well-led unions could certainly be helpful.”
Meanwhile, he has been an active member in Showing Up for Racial Justice.
Plant closings, worker rights, racial justice – these and other issues have long been on Gamble’s radar. Now, he says that the current moment may very well offer a new opportunity to address these issues. “One of our challenges today is to help people understand that this struggle affects people in different communities – whether they are rural, urban, whatever. When you see a community that has been devastated – where roads are closed, there’s violence and drugs, schools are in trouble – people face similar issues.”
These days, a common voice may be emerging as disparate groups realize that there’s power in collaboration. Gamble says that “so much of this work has been about relationships.” That’s as true as ever, considering the different types of organization that are fueling the movement for a more equitable industrial policy. “We must reach out to people who have different motivations,” he says. “Racial justice, climate change, worker rights, making money. There is room for everyone. We have to be purposeful about it.”
Gamble also emphasizes that creating a strong industrial policy in this country will be about more than “redistributing a small pie. It’s also about wealth creation.”
As he looks ahead, he says the challenge is not just about representing many different elements of this movement for industrial policy – but convincing policymakers who have different backgrounds and constituencies as well. “This is a great opportunity.” he says. “I hope we are at the point where we can create policies that work for all communities. We can’t just dream it to happen – it has to be organized.”