Former mill workers remember glory days of manufacturing

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 4, 2012

By Hugh Fisher, For the Salisbury Post

In the last century, the labor of North Carolinians in textile mills, furniture factories and elsewhere provided food, clothing, housing and education to hundreds of thousands of families.
It’s an era many remember fondly, especially in Kannapolis – quite possibly the quintessential Southern “company town.”
But today, the U.S. imports much of its goods from nations with fewer regulations and lower labor costs, especially China.
Here at home, the children and grandchildren of those laborers may work two jobs instead of one, or may not be able to find work at all.
Former textile worker David Holman said he believes those glory days of manufacturing may be gone for good.
He and wife Joyce reminisced over Sunday lunch at Rotary Hall in Kannapolis, just blocks from the site of the plant where David worked for 36 years until it closed in 2003.
For Joyce, who remembers hearing the mill whistle every morning, and seeing her father leave for work with his lunch box, it was an ideal life.
“The mill always took such good care of us,” she said. “They would paint your houses and make sure you had gravel in your driveway.”
But the mill is gone, and much of Kannapolis is empty.
And in Concord, the Philip Morris plant has been vacant since 2009 – about 1 million square feet of empty space.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, as of last month Freightliner had only filled about half the number of jobs announced in January. Some workers laid off in 2009 are still waiting to be called back.
And in Salisbury, General Electric Co. plans to close its Salisbury plant next year, with no word as to whether local workers can transfer or if their pay will be the same.
Changing landscape
Ed Hosack, executive director of Cooperative Christian Ministry, helps deal with the aftermath of unemployment and underemployment, as well as other crises.
Hosack, who has been with CCM for seven years, spent 19 years working for Fieldcrest-Cannon, later Pillowtex.
When the company closed in July 2003, Hosack was an operations manager.
In an interview for “Stitched in Time,” a 2012 documentary on the industry, Hosack said Kannapolis’ textile workers were “among the best in the world at what they did.”
In an uncut version of the interview on video website Vimeo, Hosack describes how workers helped make the operation better than their competitors.
But even skilled workers are struggling. Unemployment remains high, with a rate of 10.2 percent in Rowan and 9.2 percent in Cabarrus, according to the N.C. Employment Security Commission.
The number of manufacturing jobs in Cabarrus County decreased by over 61 percent from 2000 to 2010. Figures for Rowan County were not immediately available.
Meanwhile, according to a study by United Way of Central Carolinas, over 20 percent of residents in Cabarrus County have no health insurance, causing many to forego health care.
Still other residents are having trouble affording housing.
The solution seems clear: more jobs with livable wages, ones which don’t require extensive higher education that many former laborers may not have.
Labor laws?
How to create those jobs is a matter of debate.
A filmmaker who studied labor issues in Kannapolis says strong labor laws and unions would have helped.
Just after Pillowtex filed for bankruptcy, Alexandra Lescaze finished her five-year project, “Where Do You Stand? Stories From an American Mill.”
The documentary describes attempts to unionize Cannon Mills and efforts led by Charles Cannon and later management to block them.
A timeline on her website,, describes how Fieldcrest opposed unions by “targeting the African-American community with anti-union propaganda and recruiting black ministers to speak out against the union” in 1991.
In an e-mail interview, Lescaze said labor laws and unions created a strong middle class, but that those efforts are under attack.
“Inequality is rising. The anti-union bills that Republicans are now pushing in many states are only making it worse,” she said.
And her view of Kannapolis under Charles Cannon’s leadership is also different.
“People worked really hard, and were very poor,” Lescaze said. “It was not a modern version of civic life in this country.”
Another person who had lunch at Rotary Hall on Sunday disagreed.
Rep. Fred Steen, four-term representative of Rowan’s District 76 in the N.C. General Assembly, stopped by the Holmans’ table Sunday.
Steen, a Republican who ran for Congress in the District 8 primary, said reduced regulations and lower taxes will create jobs.
A former Cannon Mills employee, he said the mill was supportive of families.
“Back in the heyday … the Cannon family took care of everyone,” Steen said. “If they said they were going to do something, they did it.”
Steen also said unions and strong labor laws can do more harm than good, and praised North Carolina’s status as a right-to-work state.
“We fought the labor unions for many years,” Steen said. “I don’t see how it could have added anything to the workers.”
Bringing manufacturing back
At the same time, Steen said that factors that moved American manufacturing offshore may be changing. Labor costs in China are going up, Steen said, as well as fuel costs.
“If the consumers would just buy local, that would be the best thing they could do,” Steen said.
David Holman agrees, recalling how overseas competition and mega-retailers like Walmart drove profits down.
“(Walmart) used to advertise with pride they were selling American-made products,” David Holman said.
“It got to the point that they were such a big customer that they would tell us how much we were going to sell our towel for, and we had to make it at that price.”
Which is why, he said, he and Joyce avoid shopping at Walmart today.
Joyce Holman recalled the hustle and bustle of downtown Kannapolis when the factory was at its peak.
A 1941 silent film of life in Kannapolis, now posted on YouTube, shows busy streets, with crowded sidewalks full of men and women dressed up for work and play.
In those days, Joyce said, when the mill was at the center of town, “people had pride in their community.”
While economists, political leaders and businesspeople struggle to find answers that will create jobs, locals like the Holmans wonder whether those jobs will ever return, bringing prosperity with them once more.Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.