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Author of ‘Factory Man’ tells a resonant tale

SoVaNow.com / October 16, 2017
As Beth Macy, author of “Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town,” spoke at the South Boston Library Thursday night, it was hard not to think about the empty factory buildings that hint of a vibrant manufacturing history in Southside Virginia’s past.

Tultex, J.P. Stevens, Burlington Industries, Halifax Damask Mills, Russell Stover Candies, and Daystrom Furniture — all were businesses once vital to the economies of Halifax and Mecklenburg counties. They employed thousands of workers, and generations upon generations passed through their doors. Huge empty warehouse buildings, crumbled foundations and a lone smokestack at Halifax Damask Mills are all that remain.

Beth Macy’s first book recounts the story of John Bassett III, a third generation factory owner who fought to keep his Galax furniture factory open in the face of low-cost competition in the free-trade, globalized economy. Bassett helped file one of the largest anti-dumping cases against China that the International Trade Commission has seen.

In “Factory Man,” Macy uses Bassett’s story to address the bigger issues of U.S. competitiveness and the angst over lost manufacturing jobs that has been at the heart of the debate over trade ever since Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

After China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, cheap Chinese-made goods flooded the U.S. market. “Between 2002 and 2012,” wrote Macy, “63,300 American factories closed their doors and five million American factory jobs went away.”

Betty Wells, now-retired manager of the social services office in Halifax, said that after Burlington began to shut down its local factories in the early 2000s, her welfare and food stamp caseloads grew by around 21 percent.

Macy recalls talking to many Galax residents affected by Bassett’s end, “displaced factory workers in their fifties and sixties had the toughest time recovering from the closings … Some mow grass, clean homes, wash cars, and make crafts and foodstuffs — anything to manage until their Social Security kicks in.”

The Federal Trade Act program offers a variety of re-employment services and income support to assist individuals who have become either unemployed as a result of increased imports from, or shifts in production to, foreign countries. Macy thinks the program is inadequate for several reasons: “It is a ‘60s-era program that does not address the 21st century workplace. Training is often provided for jobs that do not exist.

For Southside there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that this area was hit particularly hard with multiple factory closings within a short period of time. The good news is that Southside has made significant progress in recruiting new businesses, industry, and jobs. The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC), which operates in a renovated former tobacco warehouse and processing plant, has positioned itself for 21st century jobs with classrooms, laboratories, and a center for nursing excellence among other vocational and academic programs, including digital arts, product design, and advanced manufacturing.

As a child of a displaced factory work in Ohio, Macy understands the issues created by globalization. “The real value in manufacturing is creating a community where cash flows,” says Macy. “If the American people only realized what’s taken place, they wouldn’t ever buy

Economists think saving manufacturing is like sticking a finger in the dike. [Economists believe that] we shouldn’t be making furniture in America. It’s dirty and sweaty and doesn’t pay that well,” explained Macy.

After the U.S. levied punitive anti-dumping duties against China, furniture production did not come home to Virginia as Bassett had hoped — it moved to Vietnam and then Indonesia where labor costs were 50 percent lower than Vietnam’s.

SVHEC offers a Work Ready Foundations training program to prepare individuals for success in entry-level manufacturing and technical positions. In addition, the Virginia Manufacturers Association and ECPI University recently announced the industry-based Manufacturing Skills Institute, an education and workforce training program to address regional employer needs, and offer individuals targeted programs in existing and emerging technology and advanced manufacturing.

Macy’s next book, which she is currently writing, is a sequel of sorts to her best-selling tale of shuttered factories in Southside and southwest Virginia in “Factory Man.” The topic: the growing epidemic of opioid abuse.

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