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Under the Hammer

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Message David Cox


Through serendipity I received the other day in the mail a four page color brochure. 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 it 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.

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 Orwellianism 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 like the army changing their 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. 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, open topped wire baskets half the size of a tractor-trailer lumbering behind a straining tractor. Occasionally a gust of wind or an over loaded wagon would drop a dry drift on the roadside and just like its snowy frozen counterpart it begins white and pristine then it becomes dirty with traffic and melts in to 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 Thread mill complex, a picturesque three story brick structure adorned with Greek columns and ginger bread trim that for three quarters of a century provided the nation with numberless varieties of thread and twine. Her trimmings spoke 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 she has become a rusting curiosity fallen from her high station as the community apogee.  She has become but a toy for children to play on.

Like any factory job, the work 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 to organize in the 1930’s deaths were not uncommon. The mill 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 paid region of the country. The farmers feared the mill closing would make selling their crop 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. The sewing mill in Montgomery AL before its demise was an armed camp with steel louvers over all it’s windows. Armed guards at the barbed wire topped fence gates and separate guards at the parking lots defending their own fenced perimeters from anyone dispensing information of a union organizing persuasion.

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 now the owners thought can we bring an end to this? Armed guards and barbed wire fences but 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. That NFL Jersey or NBA or MLB that you pay $175.00 for cost them $5 to $10 bucks to manufacture while to produce it in this country might cost double that. But with no sewing mills it’s a little silly to have textile mills now isn’t it?

So call Go Industry and see if we can convert the mill to condos! But as I travel the south I see the empty factory hulks and strain to read their faded paint to what it once was that they produced. The small towns fade away.  Some like the ones around the Thread mill are close enough to a city to become bedroom communities. To prosper never knowing how it was they came into being in the first place or what that big building was, Thread mill that’s a funny name for a 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 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 I came into contact with 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 better have your story straight and your ducks in a row. He was a laconical man and not prone to idle conversation.  It wasn’t until I went to the factory that I met Elmer off the job. He was very friendly and knowledgeable and highly thought of by his co-workers.

They told us at the conference to buy enough inventory to last awhile 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 where 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 then I heard he was laid off. In conversation I asked, "How’s Elmer getting along?"

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I was born and raised in Chicago in a liberal Democratic home my Grandfather was a labor union organizer my Father a Democratic district committeeman my Mother was an election judge. My earliest memories were of passing out Kennedy yard signs from (more...)
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