Nalini Joseph: Textiles offered a culture of hard work – Salisbury Post
In July 2003, over 4,000 Cannon Mills employees were suddenly out of work. Why and how did this happen?
I sat down on a sunny April afternoon with Jason Walser, community leader and executive director of the White Foundation and Julian Robertson, to better understand the textile industry in North Carolina. Walser shared his thoughts and opinions on the textile culture that prevailed in Rowan County in the mid-1900s.
Textile factories were good employers; they were loyal to their workers and factory workers in turn were loyal to their employers. The Mills produced a middle class of people who did not need a high level of education or skills to achieve the American Dream. They were hard workers with a great work ethic: to run the economy by spending money on cars, homes, and vacations. We created something here in Rowan County that others wanted, and the factory worker invested in the local economy by supporting establishments such as local restaurants, shops and churches.
The tide started to turn in the 1970s when environmental and labor laws forced the industry to consider the competitive advantage in terms of production costs in countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and the United States. Thailand. The cost of raw materials and labor in other parts of the world made importing 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. This meant our purchases were leaving the county.
How has this radical change in our economy changed the culture of our riding? Walser spoke about the resilience of our community and its ability to problem solve, current jobs such as distribution that match jobs in the textile industry. But we also end up with a depleted workforce because workers are now forced to work two jobs to make ends meet. There are fewer options for upward mobility among a category of people with minimal education and skills. In a world of technological advancement, our textile workers in 2021 are expected to use expensive and highly automated machines. German and Japanese made machines are maintained and repaired by engineers. In our current service economy, we have industries like Freightliner, Power Curbers, and Cheerwine that require an employee to have a higher level of education and training. Due to the automation boom in the second half of the 20th century, companies have drastically downsized.
I recently had a conversation with Melissa Neader, an Iredell County Commissioner who owns a few McDonald’s in the Statesville area. I asked him how to use the concept Chick-fil-A is using to serve more customers in their drive-thru by having young employees taking orders outside or acting as runners between the kitchen and vehicles. Neader described the public reaction she faced when she implemented the idea about two years ago. There was a lot of noise about his workers having to withstand the outside elements: heat, cold or rain. Although the employees had appropriate clothing, hydration, or umbrellas, the negative publicity was so great that Neader has decided to eliminate this system of service to its customers. I wondered out loud if some of the complainants were parents who pushed their kids to play hard on the soccer or football field for hours in the rain, snow or 90 degree weather? I also asked myself this question: what are our children learning today about work ethics and physical and mental endurance?
Less than 100 years ago, our children helped their parents in the fields, on the farm and around the house with household chores. Many of these Rowan County children grew up working hard in the textile factories. The factory workers did not quit their jobs because they had no heating or air conditioning. I hope this writing today leaves you with some appreciation for textile culture: a culture of perseverance and 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 him at [email protected]