Working in a Southern Sweatshop – A report

Until the time when X made the voluntary transition from professional class suburbanite to piece work employee in a Southern garment factory, a second was almost a meaningless unit of time. It was soon to become a very meaningful measure of his economic health and welfare.

X had been an investigate reporter for 10 years before he became dissatisfied with the limitations of journalistic probing into the human condition. X wanted to write fiction, which is, to him, emotional truth. The novel X had in mind necessitated capturing the rhythms of life on an American assembly line, the sort of life that Labor Day weekend commemorates. For this purpose and to earn a living while X wrote, X applied for factory work.

A small apparel factory hired X. When X walked into the windowless corrugated metal building in the industrial park on the outskirts of town – the workplace equivalent to the trailer camps that many of the apparel workers lived in – X began learning about working in America in a way new to him.

X began working as a legger simultaneously operating three hissing presses that put the permanent press crease into military pants. Making production meant making perfect creases in 650 pant legs a day, 81 legs each hour, one leg every 42 seconds. In exchange for this X received the minimum wage.

X had not expected that the more experienced leggers would be generous and sharing with that they had learned about working optimally. The cooperative spirit among these workers surprised him. After all, X was an outsider and a Northerner.

X’s goal was to work as fast as he could without either making mistakes or getting hurt. The hot metal hoods had no safety catches, and they sometimes crashed without warning. Like other leggers, X had mild burns on fingers and arms. The knowledge that burned or bandaged hands made reaching his production quota impossible and the fear of being seriously hurt kept him alert. X did not want to be maimed as leggers before him had.

To get through the day, X learned to accept pressure –a kind of numbed attentiveness of working with dangerous equipment. And X became inured to the particular kind of sharp leg pains that come from standing on cement for eight or nine hours a day. X even joined the other workers in bolting down lunch in order to steal 10 minutes of half hour break back at the machines in order to fill his daily quota.

X had much more trouble accepting the fact that production levels were set by the fastest worker, although that is illegal. It was standard practice for the efficiency expert to revise the quota upward when too many workers were able to make it.

Nor did X get used to the fact that employer guaranteed neither a steady paycheck nor fixed hours. When, for example, equipment broke down further up the line or sufficient material had not been prepared for the end production workers to process, they were sent home in the middle of the day, without pay. More frequently, they were required to work overtime. What rankled was not being told about extra work until just before clock out time, when the parking lot was already filled with waiting cars of cranky children and husbands needing to get to other factories for second shift work. Most Friday afternoons they were told to work at least a half day on Saturday.

On the last line of production, where the temperature was constantly over 100 degrees fellow production workers, sweating women in sleeveless shirts, the oven girl, the bundle girls, the leggers and the toppers – were the youngest, strongest women in the plant. At the other end of the long room, where it was not suffocating hot, mostly older women bent over sewing machines, making pockets, button holes, zippers, belt loops, every component of military pants.

Much of what X learned in the apparel factory was from the women with whom X worked. But X never learned why all of them worked so hard. They knew that when their machines were broken, the allowance for lost time was insufficient. They knew they were making only the minimum wage. Yet they worked harder and harder, the only visible reward being the job well done, the satisfaction of making production, and of course, the bottom line: keeping jobs in a region and at a time when work was scarce. As best X could figure it, the women he worked with were courageous in trying to fight what they could and were silent in the face of what they were powerless to change alone.

At the time X did not know that textiles are the bedrock of the Southern economy. The industry’s $16 billion to $ 18 billion in sales annually is 30 percent to 50 percent higher than the volume of Southern agricultural sales. Textiles account for one quarter of the jobs in five Southern states.

Nor did X know that textile manufacturers pay the lowest industrial wages in the nation. Mill workers earn $75 a week less than the average American factory workers. And textile is the only major US industry that is not unionized.