A First-Hand Account Of The Continuing Impact Of Globalization And Loss Of Manufacturing On U.S. Communities
When I first met Wanda Perdue in the spring of 2012, she was studying at a community college tutoring center in rural Virginia. She had missed the technology boom entirely. When everyone else was learning about Word and Excel, Wanda was tacking trim pieces onto dining room tables and gluing molding onto dresser drawers. When Stanley Furniture laid her off in 2010 along with 530 of her coworkers -- moving most of its production offshore to China, Vietnam and Indonesia -- Wanda barely knew how to turn on a computer.
When I met her, she was finishing an associate's degree in office administration. She'd struggled mightily in the beginning, especially with college math, but soon she would be graduating with a 3.3 grade-point average. Wanda was a young 58 then -- trim with pretty copper hair, Southern manners and a work ethic honed by decades of standing through sweltering, eight-hour shifts, just as her parents before her had done at a competing furniture-maker in nearby Bassett, Va.
"What I want [a prospective employer] to know is, if you need a job done, she's going to find a way to do it come hell or high water," said Kay Pagans, one of Wanda's professors.
And yet, over the next two years, every time I phoned Wanda for an update on her job search, the story was the same: The only work she could find was part-time, without benefits, at Walmart, where she ran the cash register and stocked shelves in the health and beauty aisle. On the phone in August, Wanda sounded more desperate than ever. Walmart had recently announced they were cutting her hours in anticipation of Obamacare, part of its new labor-savings strategy. The world had gotten flat, as columnist Thomas Friedman likes to say. But Wanda's side of the story rarely got reported: the 5 million factory workers who'd lost their jobs to offshoring had been utterly flattened, too.
According to the prevailing media narrative, the recession ended in 2009, and manufacturing has been slowly bouncing back. Only it hasn't really. The official unemployment rate may have declined, but the full employment picture was not quite the smiley face that economists and business reporters were leading everyone to believe. The number of people toiling at temp work and part-time jobs, and those who have simply stopped looking for work -- the so-called U6 rate -- is almost double the official rate.
As The Atlantic's Derek Thompson conceded not long after Wanda lost her full-time job, the unemployment stories were waning because the political will to fix the labor market had faded. "It's hard to blame the media too much for resisting to write feverishly about nonexistent efforts to fix a static unemployment problem," he wrote.
I'm not so sure. Even when the media was still reporting full steam on unemployment, a 2009 Pew Center survey showed the recession was largely being covered from the top down, told primarily through big business with stories datelined in Washington and New York. As if that's where all the unemployed people live. The ratio of stories featuring ordinary people and displaced workers? Just 2 percent.
Thompson may blame the problem on the lack of political will, but I have another theory to add to the mix. With a few exceptions, the national media tends to cover the people it already knows, most of them found in the same ZIP codes and Facebook/Twitter realms where they live and work. National reporters rarely venture anywhere near the hollowed-out little towns where people suffering the after effects of globalization would practically grab a visiting journalist by the collar, ready for a witness to the carnage. Reporters out of Washington and New York rarely turn up in quirky Appalachian towns like Galax, Va., where all but one furniture factory has closed, or in the once-prosperous city of Martinsville, Va., which lost almost half its workforce to the offshoring of textile and furniture jobs.
I haven't seen any of the major news outlets reporting from tiny Fieldale, where another former Stanley worker approached me last summer and spilled his story before I could ask a single question. Now 59, Samuel Watkins' employment benefits had run out eight months earlier, and he'd plundered his 401K. He'd cobbled together work mowing lawns and weeding gardens for $8.50 an hour. He had no health insurance and had recently maxed out his credit card to have an infected tooth pulled. He hauled his tools and lawnmower gas around in the back of a dented 1999 Ford Explorer.
Samuel had no idea I was a journalist writing a book about the aftermath of globalization when we bumped into each other in July 2013, the same week that Hope Yen of the Associated Press wrote up new data showing that four in five American adults will face poverty during their lifetimes. It was one of the first national stories I'd read that directly connected poverty to the increasingly globalized economy and the decimation of factory jobs.
When Samuel struggled to explain to his Virginia Employment Commission caseworker how demoralized he felt asking the government for help, she told him, "Get a grip. You're not going to be making $13.90 again." Unfortunately, she was right.
In small towns like Samuel's, the local press does what it can, covering job fairs and the opening of temp agencies, dollar stores and call centers. The opening of Martinsville's call center StarTek, for instance, was touted as the savior of the dying town -- only to close up operations seven years later and join the cheap-labor waltz to the Philippines. For one former StarTek worker I met, it was her sixth layoff in 18 years.
But that long view rarely gets explored in depth by small newspapers, where publishers and business leaders also tend to be entwined "like roots around a pipe," as one civic leader told me. One analysis piece I wrote about Martinsville resulted in a worker I'd interviewed being forbidden from speaking to me again -- or even responding to an e-mail or private Facebook message -- for my book.
The slow burn of a globalizing economy, recession or not, is hard for most reporters to get their heads around. "No one's really covered the day in and day out of the effects of free trade on the American public," said Richard McCormack, the founding publisher of Manufacturing & Technology News and the editor of "ReMaking America," a book published recently by the Alliance for American Manufacturing. "So much of the media is sponsored basically by advertising -- Walmart and Macy's, and if you're the Wall Street Journal, it's J.P. Morgan or Chase."
Secondly, McCormack pointed out, sorting through the thousand-plus documents produced by a single U.S. International Trade Commission case is "really hard for journalists to put their arms around. It's not cut and dry, it's not black and white. And the importers and foreign producers have spent millions on lobbyists, lawyers and P.R. people until domestic manufacturers get completely overwhelmed. It's a goddamn David and Goliath," he said.
Since newsroom beats by tradition are organized geographically as well as by theme, it doesn't often happen that a local reporter will follow the closing of a local factory to its replacement location in, say, Indonesia. While small media outlets and regional papers like the one I write for cover every factory closing and every new unemployment stat, we rarely claim the authority, the scope or the resources to pay attention to what's happening at the World Trade Organization or the Department of Commerce.
That's left to journalists at bigger news outlets, but these are reporters who usually haven't bothered traversing the dying factory towns. From where they sit, the trend is barely perceptible.
The full picture of globalization, then, rarely makes its way into the news. No one is minding the back room of this new global store.
In fact, it took a freelance photographer, Jared Soares, driving to Martinsville three times a week for more than a year before I finally grasped the big picture myself, through his images: a textile plant conveyor belt converted for use in a food bank; a disabled minister named Leonard, biding time in his kitchen in the middle of the afternoon; a Trade Adjustment Assistance training session, where the PowerPoint resembled a seventh-grade filmstrip from 1973, and laid-off workers were scolded not to blow all their unemployment benefits at Myrtle Beach. ("The beach?" one woman muttered. "I'm about to lose my house.")
If the laid-off factory workers wanted their stories told, Jared and I were going to have to help. His project, culminating in a forthcoming photography book, is the result, along with my book, "Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local -- and Helped Save an American Town," which will be published by Little, Brown and Company next June.
With any luck at all, Wanda will land a full-time job before she hits retirement age. She called in August to tell me she was about to have her first interview in many months, as a data entry operator for a local company. Wanda had her interviewing outfit all picked out, she enthused. She was nervous because three people were going to be interviewing her at once. "But I can handle it," she added.
Turns out the business is just five minutes up a hill from her house, as the crow flies. "If it comes a real deep snow and I had to get there, I could walk," she said.
A few weeks later, she called back. She thought the interview had gone well, but she did not get the job. "They said they'd keep my resume on file," she added.
When I caught up with Samuel recently, his luck had improved. He'd been hired as a full-time temp worker for one of the last furniture-related companies in the region, a kitchen cabinet supplier, making $11 an hour. He has health insurance again, and is working hard to catch up on his electric bill, now three months in arrears.
His wife, a 61-year-old former furniture worker, is in the process of applying for federal disability benefits -- another rarely reported but escalating trend in towns hit hard by globalization.
Even the economists and some Washington journalists are beginning to notice what Samuel Watkins could have told them four years ago. "If my company stays in business, there's a chance I can become an actual employee," Samuel said, hopefully. "Honey, it's like everything else. There's nothing promised to you any more. All you do is work till they say it's no more."
-- Beth Macy is a reporter at The Roanoke Times in Virginia, and author of the forthcoming book "Factory Man." She can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first published in "Acts of Witness," the magazine of the Ochberg Society for Trauma Journalism, http://www.ochbergsociety.org.
Please consider subscribing to Manufacturing & Technology News. You will have access to all back issues dating to 1998, plus receive the current issue electronically and via regular mail. It is all original reporting on the most important stories facing U.S. industry. No advertising. The cost of a new subscription is $495 per year.