Mollie's Job: A Story of Life and Work on the Global Assembly Line

Mollie's Job: A Story of Life and Work on the Global Assembly Line

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by William M. Adler

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William Adler's absorbing and affecting narrative history traces the postwar migration of one factory job as it is passed from the cradle of American industry, Paterson, New Jersey, to rural Mississippi during the turmoil of the civil rights movement, to the burgeoning border city of Matamoros, Mexico.

This fascinating story follows the intersecting lives and fates


William Adler's absorbing and affecting narrative history traces the postwar migration of one factory job as it is passed from the cradle of American industry, Paterson, New Jersey, to rural Mississippi during the turmoil of the civil rights movement, to the burgeoning border city of Matamoros, Mexico.

This fascinating story follows the intersecting lives and fates of three women who held the same job, in each of three locales. The story of these women, their company, and their communities provides an ideal prism through which Adler explores the larger issues at the heart of the book: The decline of unions and the middle class, the growing gap between rich and poor, public policy that rewards companies for transferring U.S. jobs abroad, the ways in which "free trade" undermines stable businesses and communities, and how the global economy exploits workers on both sides of the border.

Combining the deft historian's touch with first-rate reporting, Mollie's Job is an unprecedented and revealing look at the flesh-and-blood consequences of the global economy.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Economic orthodoxy would have us believe that economic globalization and free trade have no downside. Yet journalist and author Adler (Land of Opportunity) reminds us that these sweeping economic changes do have a human cost. This book recounts the rise and fall of an electrical manufacturing company through the eyes of its founders, workers, and the politicians, union organizers, and corporate raiders who shape its fate. The story follows the transfer of production work from unionized New Jersey, where Mollie works, to union-free rural Mississippi and finally to a low-wage maquiladora plant with a government-controlled union across the U.S.-Mexican border. Adler details the shift from individually owned companies to corporate giants, discusses the impact of union-wage jobs on African American workers in the urban North and rural South, and catalogs the string of unfulfilled promises made by the company each time it moves production to a lower wage area. Mollie's Job is a timely account of individuals swept up by impersonal economic forces. Highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries.--Duncan Stewart, State Historical Society of Iowa Lib., Iowa City Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
James Green
In Mollie's Job free-lance journalist William Adler puts a human face ont he recent history of capital's worldwide search for cheap labor...Adler's idea, brilliantly executed, is to describe a job first help by an African-American woman named Mollie James at a manufacturing plant in Paterson, New Jersey, and then to trace that job as it moves to Mississippi to be performed by another black female, and, finally, as it crosses the border to a maquiladora site in Matamoros, Mexico, just over the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas.
American Prospect
Kirkus Reviews
A first-rate account of the complex social, political, and economic factors that turned an $8-an-hour Paterson, New Jersey, job into one that paid 65 cents an hour in Mexico. In 1955, Mollie James began her three-decade stint on the assembly line at Universal Manufacturing. Specializing in producing ballasts (gadgets that regulate the flow of electricity in fluorescent lights) the firm was founded in 1947 by Archie Sergy, the enterprising son of Lithuanian immigrants and one-time convict. Affable and well-liked by his employees, Archie personally showed Mollie around the plant on her first day. Motivated in part by an ugly labor dispute (Universal had a sweetheart deal with the Teamsters, but the less management-friendly International Union of Electrical Workers almost won the shop), the firm opened another plant in Simpson County, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. Building on a longstanding commitment to increase industrialization (Mississippi began the "Balance Agriculture with Industry" program in the 1930s), the state lured Universal by offering to transfer the cost of building a new plant to the taxpayers through a bond act. Former sharecroppers and field hands made for an eager, relatively inexpensive work force. The move south was a preview of what was to happen in the 1980s when a leveraged buyout put the firm in new, more cost-conscious, hands. This time, the Mexican government made plant relocation attractive by offering tax-free zones, cheap labor, and a willingness to clamp down on union organizers (by force, if necessary). So low were local wages that plant managers were advised to buy beans and flour to distribute among their employees. And yet factories werebeingmoved even within Mexico, following depressed wages to their lowest possible point. A cautionary tale of free markets run amuck. Adler (Land of Opportunity, 1995) has produced an intelligent work of industrial history.

From the Publisher
David Mulcahey Chicago Tribune Engrossing. [Adler's] skillful and humane reporting is in the best tradition of documentary journalism, making the human toll of contemporary capitalism palpable.

Samuel G. Freedman The Washington Post By writing the biography of a single job, Adler has made a vital contribution to the debate over globalization.

Michael King The Texas Observer You will simply be astonished by the whole of Mollie's Job. This is a book of impressive historical imagination.

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It is three o'clock on a warm Friday afternoon, and the second of the two washup bells has rung for the final time. Mollie James has been here, on the assembly line at Universal Manufacturing Company, since 1955. She was the first female union steward and among the first African American union stewards; hers was a self-assured presence any grievant would want on his side. She was the first woman to run a stamping machine, the first to laminate steel. And now, after thirty-four years on the line — nearly two-thirds of her life — she is the last to go. Her wide shoulders are hunched over the sink as she rinses her hands with industrial soap alongside the others. She is a big-boned woman of fifty-nine, with a handsome, animated face framed by oversize glasses.

At the end of every other shift for more than three decades, Mollie and her co-workers beat a quick path to the plant parking lot. On this day there is less sense of hurry. There are still children to feed, clothes to wash, bills to pay, errands to run, other jobs to race to. But as she and the others leave the washroom, no one seems pressed to leave. All about the plant entrance, and out in the lot, people stand in smallclusters, like mourners at their own wake, talking, laughing, hugging, crying. Almost always Mollie James is outgoing and outspoken, her voice loud, assertive; her smile nicely lighted. She is a strong woman, her strength forged from a life of hard work and sacrifice and faith in God. She is not one to betray her emotions, but this day is different. Her bearing has turned to reserve, her normally quick eyes dull and watery. Her working life is over, and that is all she has ever known.

During nearly two decades of ownership by the company's founder, a Paterson native named Archie Sergy, and two decades more by absentee corporations that more or less allowed the Paterson plant to operate as if it were still a locally owned business, Universal had always turned a tidy profit. Its signature product, ballasts for fluorescent lights (the ballast regulates the flow of current into the lamp), attracted attention only when the ballast failed — causing the light fixture to hum or flicker. In the middle 1980s, however, the company was swept up in the gale winds of Wall Street's merger mania. Twice within eight months Universal was sold, both times to companies headed by disciples of Michael Milken, the Street's reigning evil genius.

It was not until after its latest sale, in 1986, to an electrical-components conglomerate called MagneTek, Inc., that workers began taking plant-closing rumors seriously. There had been several rounds of layoffs since, and even though the company had promised employees as recently as six months ago that the plant would not close altogether, few believed it. It was around then, in fact, that Mollie James had noticed the hole in the floor, that movers had begun pulling up the plant's massive machinery, much of which was bolted to the cement floor when the factory opened in 1950. Paterson then was thriving, reveling in the postwar boom. By this early summer day four decades later, vast stretches of the floor are uninhabited, bereft of all signs of the plant's and the city's former glory.

There were no valediction speeches from company or union officials, no farewell luncheon, no pomp of any sort. A week earlier the workers themselves held a dinner at Lunello's, an Italian eatery on Union Boulevard. They kicked in fifteen dollars apiece and celebrated their long years together at Universal.

Many of these people are more than co-workers; they are friends on whom Mollie has come to depend as she would members of her extended family. They ate together at work, attended weddings, baptisms, parties, funerals, together. On this afternoon, though Mollie knows many of her co-workers better than she knows some of her relatives — knows their mannerisms, ways of speech, strengths, flaws — on this afternoon their voices blend, their faces blur. The decades together on the line have done that: bound together the most varied of people. Black and white Americans. Dominicans. Russians. Italians. Indians. Puerto Ricans. Peruvians. They came to work for Universal — and stayed — because of the good wages and benefits their union had negotiated. Mollie earned $7.91 an hour; not so much in itself, but with all the overtime she put in, it came to about $30,000 a year. She also received company-paid health insurance, and the peace of mind that came from a secure job — a job she could raise a family on, buy a house, a car, borrow money against, count on for the future.

When there is no one left to say good-bye to, Mollie slumps behind the wheel of her rusting 1977 Dodge Charger and follows the procession out of the lot. From the corner of Fifth Avenue and East Sixth Street, she heads toward the hill up Lyon Street, south on East Sixteenth Street, east on Eleventh Avenue. It is not far, three miles or so, from the plant in the industrial Bunker Hill neighborhood to the three-story, three-family house she owns on the near East Side. Upon pulling into her customary space in the driveway, in front of the right door of the detached two-car garage, Mollie sits in the car a good long while, letting the heat of the summer afternoon settle her. By the time she fits the key into the lock of the back door and begins climbing the three flights of stairs to her bedroom, she has stopped crying.

MATAMOROS, TAMAULIPAS, MEXICO, JUNE 10, 1988. It is a year before Mollie James would lose her job. On this blindingly blue, hot and humid Friday morning in Matamoros, the booming border city across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, Hector J. Romeu Jr. is one frantic man, as harried as Chaplin's Little Tramp. Romeu, like the border region itself, straddles both worlds; he was born in Cuba and schooled in Texas, married a Mexican American, works in Matamoros, and lives in Brownsville. The thirty-four-year-old handles sales and public relations for the Finsa Group, a principal developer of industrial parks along the Mexican border. Its flagship park, less than a ten-minute drive from the International Bridge, occupies five hundred acres on what used to be farmland on the west side of Matamoros. Romeu has been chasing his tail for weeks, tending to the innumerable details of staging today's gala ribbon cutting: It's the grand opening of the first MagneTek plant here.

The Finsa Group's two years of gut-grinding work — from recruiting MagneTek to shepherding it through site selection and ground breaking to the manufacture of the first ballasts — all of that pays off today. Romeu has been rewarded with a splendid morning, and the MagneTek honchos, in from corporate headquarters in Los Angeles, are delighted with their gleaming plant and the enthusiastic welcome Romeu has orchestrated. There are city and state officials on hand to meet and greet the American executives, as well as government-approved union leaders, and a reporter and photographer from El Bravo, the Matamoros daily with long and deep ties to Romeu's employer, the powerful Arguelles family. And Romeu has even thought to outfit the visiting execs in natty going-native panama hats emblazoned with MagneTek's royal blue capital-M "power" logo.

Plant manager Charles E. Peeples, an affable Arkansas expatriate, leads the officials on a tour of the plant. They goose-step past equipment ripped from the shopworn floor in Paterson, machinery operated by a young, almost entirely female workforce. These women, primarily in their teens and twenties, have come north to Matamoros in search of work and a better future than the bleakness promised in the jobless farming towns of the interior.

It is the future to which Anthony J. Pucillo, the company's executive vice president, directs his remarks during the opening ceremonies. Pucillo applauds the way labor and management worked together to open the plant — the first ballasts came off the line here two months earlier, in April. "In order to be able to successfully compete in world markets and create jobs," Pucillo says, "one has to rely on this kind of team. Here in Matamoros, people have a vision for the future; if we can make quality products at competitive prices, the company grows. If MagneTek grows, we all grow."

If Pucillo's vision was not original, it remained compelling: that labor would prosper alongside capital. It was the very notion that had pulled a teen-age Mollie James out of her native rural central Virginia four decades earlier, and it was the reason another hopeful teen-ager would soon be drawn from her home in the placid high desert of central Mexico.

CIUDAD DEL MAíZ, SAN LUIS POTOSí, MEXICO, APRIL 1991. On a cool spring night, a fresh-faced twenty-year-old named Balbina Duque Granados boards a bus near her picturesque but impoverished mountain village four hundred miles southwest of Matamoros, where she is bound for. With its comparatively low wages, endless supply of labor, lack of regulation, and proximity to the United States, Matamoros is a magnet for maquiladoras, the foreign-owned assembly plants that wed first-world engineering with third-world working conditions. The maquilas, in turn, are a beacon to tens of thousands of poor, young women such as Balbina (the industry prefers women, the younger, for their nimble fingers and compliant minds, the better), for whom a factory job trumps any other employment options.

But with the surplus labor force, there is no certainty of a job in the maquilas. After enduring a succession of odd and degrading jobs and weeks of travails in the maquila union's Dickensian central hiring hall, Balbina finally lands a maquila job. Her probationary pay is slightly less than twenty-six dollars a week, or about sixty-five cents an hour. It is difficult work, repetitive and tiring and mind-numbing, but it is a job she is thrilled to have — her "answered prayer." And although Balbina doesn't know it, it is not just any job. It is Mollie's job.


THIS IS THE chronicle of that single job as it passed from the urban North to the rural South (Universal opened an ancillary plant in Mississippi in 1963) to Mexico over the course of the past half-century and the dawn of the new one. The job in which Mollie James once took great pride, the job that fostered and valued her loyalty, enabled her to rise above humble beginnings, provide for her family — that job does not now pay Balbina Duque a wage sufficient to live on. Embedded in that core fact, and in the story of the intersecting lives and fates of Mollie and Balbina, is a larger story about fundamental changes in the economy — a story about the demise of unions and the middle class and the concurrent rise of the plutocracy; about the disposability of workers and the portability of work; about how government and Wall Street reward U.S.-based companies for closing domestic plants and scouring the globe for the lowest wages in places where human rights and labor rights are ignored; and about the ways in which "free trade" harms democracy, undermines stable businesses and communities, exploits workers on both sides of the border, both ends of the global assembly line.

"The movers came at night, like thieves, sometimes just taking one piece at a time," Mollie recalls when asked how she learned what Universal's new ownership had ordained for her future. "We'd come in in the mornings and there'd be another hole in the floor."

Copyright © 2000 by William M. Adler

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
William Greider author of One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism Bill Adler has found the tender, cruel, intriguing truth about the global economy, told in the human terms of people whose jobs fled elsewhere and the people who got their work. Read it and you will understand the anger and hurt on both ends of the global system.

William Julius Wilson Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University, and author of When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor William M. Adler's riveting narrative history of the relocations of one factory job reveals the perils of industrial workers in a global economy. In this engaging book, a human story about industrial mobility is brilliantly integrated into a broader discussion of the economic and political forces contributing to growing economic inequality in the United States. Mollie's Job is a fascinating portrayal of the impact of the changes in business operations and public policies on ordinary workers.

John J. Sweeney AFL-CIO president With Mollie's Job, Adler brings the Goliath of globalization down to eye level and offers his readers a stone. This is an important and timely book that offers a unique window into workers' lives affected by the march of global capital.

Jim Hightower author of If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates Wonderful storytelling, made all the more compelling by the fact that it's a true story. Who would have thought that a book about the global economy could be a page-turner? You can't help but be moved by this remarkable journey into the cold heart of globalization.

Meet the Author

William M. Adler is a freelance writer who has written for numerous publications, including Esquire and Rolling Stone. He is also the author of Land of Opportunity. He lives in Texas.

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