Economics Employment

‘Factory Man’ shows an important part of history

I remember driving through Mount Airy, N.C. one time, showing the town to some colleagues who were visiting from outside the area.

We were mainly trying to showcase the more “fun” parts of the town, such as the tourism attractions for Andy Griffith fans and the open-face granite quarry, but it was hard to avoid seeing some closed down factories. 

That’s the case in many of the small towns I’ve worked in and that are mentioned in Beth Macy’s book “Factory Man.” The book brings up several small towns in the rural South that were once bustling with manufacturing activity. Several of those included both Mount Airy, N.C. and Elkin, N.C. (both towns I’ve worked in), Galax, Va., Bassett, Va., and Martinsville, Va. (where I once had a job interview and another time visited from my mom’s hometown of Danville, Va.). All of these are small towns or communities relatively insulated from bigger cities and all that have their own identity. All of these were once bustling with manufacturing activity and still have some of the shut-down plants.

If you live in the old Furniture Belt or anywhere close to the High Point area, you should consider reading this book. Although it focuses on the Bassett empire specifically, it is a story that is part of history in much of the South.

The story of the Bassett family and the growth of their little empire is well reported in “Factory Man,” from the start of the business more than a century ago. It documents the different era in which blacks and women were treated differently. Then it walks the readers through how the owners dealt with changes, such as the anti-discrimination laws. It also sounds elitist to read about the business owner paying a personal chauffeur to drive him everywhere, even in small rural communities. Macy is an excellent reporter, detailing the good and the bad equally. She’s not there to be the Bassett’s personal PR assistant. 

It’s interesting to remember the way old Southern towns were: often one family ran just about everything in town: the company, the churches the banks, and the real estate. 

The Bassett family doesn’t hesitate to steal the furniture business from Michigan and other parts of the Midwest and bring it to the South. But they sure don’t like it when China is ready to steal it from them, and they fight back. Eventually, the family’s empire is threatened, as China and other parts of the East start to break the shackles of communism and start to go after their business. And the Chinese aren’t about to play fair, either. They are happy to record what is going on in American companies and steal their thoughts and ideas. 

When the Bassett family realizes they can’t compete on price, they start to take advantage of anti-dumping laws. They do have some success and manage to get the U.S. government to punish some companies for dumping, a practice in which a company exports a product at a lower price than in its own home market. But by then many jobs have been lost to the East. And by that time, now American retailers have become quite happy with these new prices, and therefore aren’t too pleased with Bassett. Also, even many manufacturers find that there are products they can make or buy cheaper overseas. 

But there is a twist, though: some manufacturing jobs have come back. Employment in manufacturing bottomed out in 2010, and has since bounced back from 11.5 million employees to about 12.8 million, according to a Wall Street Journal article. That’s nowhere near what it once was, but it’s higher than we once believed. And Bassett was successful in bringing back some jobs, including reopening a Vaughn-Bassett plant in Elkin, N.C.

There is an interesting dialogue between John Bassett and one his retailer customers, in which his customer tells him to read economist Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose.” Friedman, like most economists, tends to be pro-free trade and anti-tariffs, a concept that Bassett didn’t seem to care for, quite understandably. 

By most accounts, free trade does seem to make us wealthier and better off. But as Macy points out, it often does come as a cost. Martinsville had once had an unemployment rate of less than 1% in the 1960s, but it actually witnessed an unemployment rate of as high as 24% in 1990. When President Bill Clinton was boasting about a low national unemployment rate in the 90s, it was little comfort to Martinsville at the time.

“Factory Man” doesn’t just show the jobs reports and unemployment stats, but lists specific challenges people faced: people who couldn’t afford to go to the doctor, and one man who tried to steal copper wire casings to resell on the black market.

And it wasn’t just about the loss of money. When the manufacturers closed, Macy notes that networks and communities broke down. 

Macy correctly notes that the national media rarely draws attention to these small communities and to the effects of factory closings. National media that are based in Washington, D.C. live in an area that has the lowest concentration of manufacturing work. I think that many who work in the national media are often out of touch with much of the rest of the country. 

Many have simply moved on, living in their bubble and considering ourselves to live it the post industrial era. But many who worked in manufacturing for years weren’t able to simply be retrained for another position. Some can’t re-invent themselves as well as other do. 

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t move on. But we should take a moment to understand our fellow-citizens in smaller communities who are reminded daily about a bygone era. At the very least, it should allow us to understand their perspective a little better. It should help us remember part of the history of our country a little better.

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