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Under the Hammer

by : Daveparts
Saturday December 13, 2008 - 15:55

By David Glenn Cox

Through serendipity I received a four-page, color brochure in the mail the other day. Online Auction Due To Plant Closure, 2 Day Auction of Over 700 Lots of Textile & Plant Support Equipment. I thought it odd that I should receive this in the mail, but maybe someone thought I might be in the market to open my own textile mill, or perhaps, like the outsourcing companies, they have to post the jobs locally first.

JPEG - 33.1 kb

Anyone out there looking to open a textile mill? I didn’t think so, but this is a worldwide auction so someplace in the world I bet there will be interest. In a strange twist of Orwellism the auction is brought to you by (and I kid you not) "Go Industry," asset sales and services worldwide. You just don’t know whether to laugh or cry, they don’t even attempt to hide it anymore. The army should change its name to Kill People and Wreck Stuff Inc., a division of Pentaco, the death and dying folks!

Being born in the North and moving South as a teenager I was always fascinated by the way a field of cotton can fool the eye. It can be 80 degrees outside but as you drive by, just for an instant your eyes see a snowy field. As the cotton is harvested it is taken by cotton wagons to the gin for processing, the open-topped, wire baskets half the size of a tractor-trailer lumbering behind a straining tractor. Occasionally a gust of wind or an overloaded wagon would drop a dry drift along the roadside, and just like its snowy, frozen counterpart it starts out white and pristine, then it becomes dirty from traffic, then it finally melts into the dirt.

Every county in cotton country had a cotton gin and some had two or more and from there the cotton would make its way to the textile mill, just like the one that’s being auctioned off. Every community of any acclaim had some sort of mill or plant manufacturing products from the locally-produced cotton. When America was a rural, agrarian society a hundred and fifty years ago they shipped the raw cotton to England and England built her empire upon it.

Not far from here is the Threadmill Complex, a picturesque, three-story brick structure adorned with Greek columns and gingerbread trim that for three quarters of a century provided the nation with numberless varieties of thread and twine. Her trimmings spoke to us of her prosperity; her prosperity brought income to the community.

Today she is a combination shopping mall and office complex but she speaks to us still. Like the cannon in front of the National Guard armory which has become a rusting curiosity, fallen from its high station as a symbol of community strength, it has become but a toy for children to play on.

Like any factory job, work in the thread mill was hard and monotonous and the cotton dust made the hot air almost impossible to breathe. The pay was low and when workers began to try and organize in the 1930’s, deaths were not uncommon. The mill’s owners and workers were stuck with each other as the mill was the only job available besides farming. The mill owners couldn’t move away because they were already located in the lowest-paying region of the country. The farmers feared the mill closing would make selling their crops more difficult and the local government usually worked at the behest of the mill owners.

For generations a twilight war was fought between workers and owners as was illustrated in the film "Norma Rae." Before its demise the sewing mill in Montgomery, Alabama, was an armed camp with steel louvers over all its windows. There were armed guards at the barbed wire-topped fence gates and guards in the parking lots defending their own fenced perimeters from anyone dispensing information about union organizing. But it was more paranoia than protection, the Civil Rights Movement had left the owners fearful of what might happen next. The locals were, for the most part, thoroughly indoctrinated in anti-union rhetoric and were docile and dutifully humble.

But how, the owners wondered, can we bring an end to this? The armed guards and barbed wire fences, and the solution came with opening sewing mills overseas. With 15 cent an hour wages and a few armed goons you could more than offset the cost of transportation. So, one by one the sewing mills shut down to become shopping malls, office parks, weed farms, and empty monuments to greed.

The business leaders pressured congress to lower those ugly tariffs that were limiting growth. "We must have free trade to aid our friends and bring them up to our standards," they cried. But it was a lie, just a way to make a bigger buck and lower their costs, to exploit the poor and pollute without government regulation or interference. That NFL jersey, or NBA, or MLB that you pay $175.00 for costs them $5 to $10 to manufacture, while to produce it in this country might cost double that. And with no sewing mills it’s a little silly to have textile mills, now isn’t it? So let’s call Go Industry and see if we can convert the mill to condos!

As I travel the South I see the empty factory hulks and strain to read their faded paint to determine what it once was that they produced. The small towns fade away, some like the ones around the Threadmill are close enough to a city to become bedroom communities. They prosper never knowing how it was they came into being in the first place or what that big building was. Threadmill? That’s a funny name for a shopping mall.

I have become all too familiar with the auctions. Hercules Engines was auctioned off in the 1990’s. Clinton engines are gone; Onan closed their plant in Huntsville, AL, choosing to contract out their production. Wisconsin Engines, the finest made air-cooled engine in the world, hangs on by a thread and likewise her sister company, Continental. I worked around the Wisconsin and Continental people for 25 years. One man I know started as a teenager sweeping floors and ended up as their top OEM salesman.

The Wisconsin plant in Milwaukee was right across the street from Briggs & Stratton and down the road from Kohler manufacturing. Part of my job was dealing with the warranty department and that’s where I met Elmer. Elmer’s job was to evaluate my warranty claims and at first I didn’t like Elmer very much, but as time went on I came to respect him. He pulled no punches, he cut no deals. If you had a legitimate warranty it would get paid, but you’d better have your story straight and your ducks in a row. He was a laconic man, not prone to idle conversation, and eventually I got to know Elmer off the job. He was very friendly and knowledgeable and highly thought of by his co-workers.

I atteneded a conference where we were told to buy enough inventory to last for a while because there was a strike coming. Of course they’d told us that before, trying to goose sales, but this time they meant it. After several months the company announced they were moving the plant to Tennessee. Then they were bought out by Teledyne, then sold, then bought, then sold. Most of the regulars had made the move to Tennessee, some just long enough to retire and some made Tennessee their home. Elmer had been transferred to the manufacturing end, and then I heard he was laid off. In conversation with the factory rep I asked, "How’s Elmer getting along?" The phone line grew quiet, then after a pause, "Didn’t you hear? Elmer killed himself."

It was the only place he had ever worked, and in his fifties it was hard, if not impossible, for him to start over again as anything but a Wal-Mart greeter. You can auction off the equipment to the highest bidder and then you can convert the building to some purpose du jour. But what of the people? The building only housed the equipment, and the equipment only processed the materials, but the engines and the equipment and the tires and the cars were built and run by people. The people who stayed late or came in early or worked the weekend because they cared about the company and about doing a good job.

So, as I read the brochure about all the dryer machines and balers and line blenders, I think about the people that stood at those machines for year upon year trying to feed their children. And I think about Elmer; how many Elmers worked in this plant only to be swept out the door like the dirt on the floor as their reward for caring. Even more I think about a government that wants to jam a rectal thermometer the size of an oak tree up my ass while they tell me it’s good for me! While they export jobs and opportunity in the name of the holy campaign contribution.

Angry? Damn right I’m angry! Angry enough to think it’s not our industrial base we should be tearing down but our government, that would so carelessly put us under the hammer!

http://www.goindustry.com

http://theservantsofpilate.com



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