With all the talk about Made in America and bringing jobs back to the US, it is easy to look at the textile and clothing industries through rose-colored glasses. I was reminded of this yesterday while visiting the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville, SC. Like many cities in the Carolinas, Greenville was built on the textile industry, and the city really suffered when fabric and clothing makers began closing due to foreign competition starting in the 1970s.
Today, however, the city seems to be doing alright. There is a downtown that is returning from the brink of emptiness, and they have an arts center, Heritage Green, that is simply amazing.
Are the textile jobs missed? Yes, I’m sure they are. Would it be possible to return textile jobs to Greenville? I have my doubts. Would people even be willing to work in a textile mill like the ones that closed? My guess is no.
Along with this weaving machine, the museum had audio to simulate the conditions inside a cotton mill. The background photo shows the rows and rows of machines, all noisily running to produce the cloth. People had to yell in order to be hear above the din.
And look closely at the vertical belt that connects the machine to the source of power. See the wisps of cotton? Cotton was everywhere in the mill, and workers inhaled a lot of it. Many became sick with “brown lung.” My father’s youngest sister died from it.
As time progressed, textile technology improved, something that did not stop when textile jobs first began moving to Mexico and Central America in the 1970s. My guess is that a textile worker who lost his job in 1985 would not recognize a modern textile plant, with so many of the jobs once done by humans now being done by computers and machines.
And that is the first major obstacle to returning textile production to the US. Technology has progressed to the point where we don’t have the trained workers in the US who could run a modern textile mill. We don’t have the machinery, except for these examples found in museums and in rare factories like the White Oak denim plant in Greensboro, NC. Some sewing factories have even had a hard time finding enough workers who can run an industrial sewing machine.
The museum has this great display on the “stretch-out”. The stretch-out began in the 1920s, when in an effort to increase profits, doffers, the workers who tended machines and removed ( or “doffed”) bobbins holding the cotton yarn from a spinning frame and replaced them with empty ones, were given more machines to tend. Slower workers were fired, and the ones remaining had to pick up the slack by tending more machines.
The museum let visitors time themselves at a doffing task, and then see if the time could be improved upon. If not, then I guess you would be history at that mill.
The president-elect has said that tariffs will be imposed on products imported into the USA as a punitive measure toward those who do not produce in the USA. I’ve said in the past that this is not such a bad idea, but the truth is, whether tariffs are imposed, or whether firms move to US production, people had better get used to paying more for their clothes and other textile products.
Unfortunately, even in the USA, we have garment workers who make less than the pitiful minimum wage. Jen recently posted this link to a Department of Labor investigation, and it is eye-opening. As much as we would like to think that Made in USA insures an ethically-made product, I’m afraid that is just not the reality.
And even if minimum wage is paid, this paragraph from The Fashion Law, tells the story:
The current federal minimum wage, the lowest amount a worker can legally be paid, is $7.25 an hour or about $15,080 per year, before taxes, for an average full time worker. To put that in perspective: The current poverty threshold for a household of one is $11,880.
The bottom line is that there are no easy answers, no easy solutions. The textile and clothing manufacturing industries have a very long histories of abuses and of circumventing law and human rights. And when things improve for workers, this industry has a long history of packing up and moving where workers are more desperate for jobs and thus will tolerate less pay and dangerous working conditions.
It gets worse. I recently posted a link to a company currently making camping clothing in the USA. As it turns out, that company has ties to a White supremacy group. Thanks to a reader who looked a bit closer at the company, I was alerted to the problem and quickly took down the link.
Do I want textile production to return to the US? Of course I do, but I could do without the abuses of the past, and of the industry as it exists today in Asia. This is just not a simple issue.
I’ll conclude with photos of company store tokens and coupons.
Remember that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song, “Sixteen Tons,” in which he sang, “I owe my soul to the company store”? It was a common practice for workers to need a cash advance on their meager wages, and the payback was in tokens that could only be spent in the company-owned store. With a system like this it was impossible to ever rise above the debt.