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Nalini Joseph: Textiles offered a culture of hard work

By Nalini Joseph

In July of 2003, more than 4,000 Cannon Mills employees were suddenly jobless. Why and how did this happen?

I sat down one sunny April afternoon with Jason Walser, community leader and executive director of the Blanche and Julian Robertson Foundation, to understand more about the textile industry in North Carolina. Walser shared his thoughts and opinions about the textile culture that was prevalent in Rowan County in the mid-1900s.

The textile mills were good employers; they were loyal to their workers and mill workers in turn were loyal to their employers. The mills produced a middle class of people that did not require a high level of education or skill in order to attain the American dream. They were hard workers with great work ethic: churning the economy by spending money on cars, homes and vacations. We created something here in Rowan County that others desired, and the mill worker invested in the local economy by supporting establishments like local restaurants, stores, and churches.

The tide began turning in the 1970’s when environmental and labor laws forced the industry to consider the cost competitive advantage of producing in countries such as Bangladesh, Vietnam and Thailand. The cost of raw materials and labor in other parts of the world made the importing of textiles attractive. Now Cannon Mills — which employed 7,000 people — had to compete with Walmart, which did not sell Cannon Mills products and was not headquartered in Rowan County. That  meant our shopping dollars were leaving the county.    

How did this dramatic shift in our economy change the culture of our county? Walser spoke of our community’s resilience and ability to problem solve, about current jobs such as those in distribution that match textile industry jobs. But we also are left with a workforce that is stretched thin because workers are now forced to work two jobs in order to make ends meet. There are fewer options for upward mobility within a class of people who have minimal education and skill. In a world of technological advances, our textile workers in 2021 are expected to operate machines that are expensive and highly automated. German and Japanese made machines are maintained and fixed by engineers. In our current service economy, we have industries such as Freightliner, Power Curbers and Cheerwine that require an employee to have a higher level of education and training. Because of the automation boom in the latter half of the 20th century, companies have drastically reduced their employee pool.

I recently had a conversation with Melissa Neader, a county commissioner in Iredell County who owns a few McDonald’s in the Statesville area. I asked her about employing the concept that Chick-fil-A uses to service more customers in their drive-thru by having youngster employees that take orders outside, or act as runners between kitchen and vehicles. Neader described the public backlash she faced when she implemented this idea about two years ago. There was much noise made about her workers having to weather the outdoor elements: the heat, cold or rain. Although employees had appropriate clothing, hydration or umbrellas, the negative publicity was so great that  Neader decided to eliminate this system of serving her customers. I wondered out loud if some of the complainers were parents who pushed their children to play hard on the soccer or football field for hours in the rain, snow, or 90-degree weather? I was also left with this question: what are our children learning today about work ethic and about physical and mental endurance?

Less than 100 years ago, our children helped their parents in the fields, on the farm, and in the home with domestic chores. Many of these children in Rowan County grew up to work hard in the textile mills. Mill workers didn’t quit their job because they didn’t have heat or air conditioning. I hope that this writing today leaves you with some appreciation for the textile culture: a culture of perseverance and sheer hard work that existed in our county a few generations ago.

Many thanks to Jason Walser for his brilliant insight into this slice of Rowan County and North Carolina history.   

Nalini Joseph is a resident of Salisbury. Email her at nalinijones1@hotmail.com. 

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