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Introduction: End of the Line
PATERSON, NEW JERSEY, JUNE 30, 1989. Mollie James sensed it the morning she came to work and noticed the hole in the floor. It wasn't a hole, really, in the sense of an opening; it was more of a void: a great yawning space of discolored concrete where just the afternoon before had sat a steel-stamping machine, a hulking piece of American industrial might. Before long, more holes appeared, each tracing the outline of the base of another machine, like chalk around a sidewalk corpse.
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 small clusters, 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