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Hung Out To Dry

Garment workers in central Indiana watch their only means of support go south.


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By Neal Pollack

Friday night at the Stables, the only game in Portland, Indiana: Wood beams, pool tables, and Budweiser in cans. Smoky air. Multicolored laser lights. A small boxed-in dance floor with a western-style sign hanging over it--The Corral.

Cathy's had ten Bud Lights already. She's smoked a joint or two outside in her pickup truck, where she's also slugged down half a bottle of Hot Damn cinnamon liqueur. Her eyes are narrowed and teary. She sneers. Cathy's had enough. Enough to drink. Enough of her life.

The DJ is spinning "Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)," "Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow," "Hold On Loosely." Some songs, Cathy gets up to dance. She dances hard. She figures she'd better.

Cathy stares into her beer glass. This is the first night her man has let her go out without him in three years. She doesn't have much time to go out anyway; she's got three kids, all under ten years old. Cathy knows this is the last time she'll go out for a while, maybe forever.

Cathy has just lost her job.

"I've got bronchitis," she says. "But I worked 180 percent. I was a cutter. And for what? Seven dollars an hour? Three or four repairs a week at 180 percent? Well, fuck 'em. I'm going back to school. I'm gettin' some retraining. I'm gonna be a carpenter. Drywall. Tile. I've always wanted to do that anyway. Now what? Now, tell me. What am I going to do?"

Jay Garment posted the notice October 22. In December the company would close its two blue-jean-making plants in Portland and move all operations to Jay-Mex, a subsidiary company in Mexico.

For 75 years Jay Garment workers had cut, stitched, pressed, and processed blue jeans. Jay Garment was always the place in Jay County, Indiana, where workers could turn if no one else was hiring. When women got laid off, there was usually a job at Jay. When their husbands got laid off, there was usually a job at Jay for them, too. Many of Jay Garment's employees were single mothers. The factory set its hours around their hours; work started early and ended around the time school let out. Workers got a week off around Christmas to match their children's school vacations. Jay offered good health and benefits packages, and if a worker was injured on the job the company would try to find a place for them somewhere else in the factory. Workers earned low pay, $6.75 an hour on average, and did hard manual work, but for Portland, Jay Garment was a good place to have a job. It was steady. It was part of the town. It was a way of life.

After work on October 22, most of the company's 165 union employees gathered at the Jay County courthouse, and they were angry. Some came in wearing sombreros. They wanted to know what they could do to save their jobs.

The local Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) chapter wasn't ready to accept the plant closing; Jay Garment was too important to Portland for the union to let it leave without a fight. A week later the same workers pooled together again in the courthouse. This time they clasped hands, sang "Solidarity Forever," and chanted "Jobs in Jay." They were joined by union representatives from regional headquarters in Chicago and by a congressional candidate. UNITE's Chicago headquarters had made a decision, and the local agreed. They were going to try to convince Jay Garment to stay in Portland.

By early November, the union had drafted a plan for Jay Garment's board of directors. They asked Jay to keep open its Portland plants and one in Clarksville, Tennessee, and to work with the union in finding new jeans-making contracts. Calvin Klein, which does business with other UNITE shops, had recently decided to process all its jeans at factories in the United States. The union wanted Jay Garment to go after a cut of the Calvin Klein market.

Meanwhile, a small group of Jay Garment workers, eight women who called themselves the Save Our Jobs Committee, began circulating petitions in Portland and around Jay County. Led by Roberta Morrison, the local UNITE president, they went door-to-door and business to business. Portland has 7,000 residents. Jay County has 20,000. They got 6,000 signatures. UNITE began to run newspaper ads in the Commercial Review, Portland's local daily. Pictures of Jay Garment employees at work were accompanied by captions such as, "The workers at Jay Garment are your friends and your neighbors. They are people like Carl Hinshaw. Carl has worked at Jay Garment for almost 40 years. Help save Carl's job from going to Mexico."

Before a meeting with Jay's board of directors in early November, the UNITE local drafted an "open letter" to company chairman John Young. It ran as an advertisement in the Commercial Review.

"The Jay Garment Company as you know has been an important part of the community in Jay County since 1921. During those years thousands of workers and their families have depended upon these jobs.

"Your decision to move over 200 jobs from Portland, Indiana, and Clarksville, Tennessee, to Mexico is wrong.

"You are not good citizens when you make a decision to walk away from your workers, their families, the nearby communities and your country.

"For years, the workers at Jay Garment and the union have responded to the problems that the company has faced. In 1990, when the company complained of financial losses, each and every worker swallowed hard and accepted a freeze in their wages to save this company.

"In the years prior to 1990, the workers accepted bonuses, one-year labor agreements and went without wage increases to help the company survive.

"In 1991 the company complained of more hard times and once again the workers came forward and made a huge sacrifice. The workers agreed to make changes in their pension plan and saved the company more than a million dollars...

"Time and time again, the union members at Jay Garment have responded to the trouble the company has faced. Very simply, our members have bent over backwards out of loyalty and sheer dedication to this company.

"But in 1996, the company announced a 60-day notice and plans to close their plants and the jobs of over 200 workers.

"After all that we have been through over the years and all we have given of ourselves to help this company we believe that you owe it to us to work with us and figure a way to save these jobs."

Jay Garment workers held summit meetings and rallies. They marched in Jay County's annual parade to show their solidarity. In early December, they broke through.

The company announced that a scheduled December 22 shutdown date had been delayed until mid-January. Negotiations with Calvin Klein were proceeding. On December 18, Jay Garment officials met with Calvin Klein representatives in New York City and announced that a Calvin Klein inspector would be coming to Portland to inspect the factory. The Commercial Review named Jay Garment its "story of the year" for 1996. It looked like the pressure had worked. It looked like the union might win.

The workers, at least the younger ones, dance and dance in the Corral. They drink and drink. This is the first chance they've had to let it all go. Since the bad news. All the tension. All the frustration. Let it all go.

Cathy stares glumly into her beer glass. Her voice chokes.

"This is my family. My whole life. These people in here tonight. And even they don't care about me that much."

Cheryl is Cathy's best friend. (I've changed their names.) She also just lost her job. They're both nearly 30 years old and have worked side by side at cutting machines under the factory's fluorescent lights their whole adult lives. Five days a week, from 7 AM to 3:30 PM.

Cheryl leans over Cathy's shoulder and kisses her on the cheek. "Everything's going to be OK," she whispers.

"She works hard," Cheryl says to me. "She works so hard. She puts all of us to shame. She works so hard she makes me look like a lazy bitch."

"It don't matter," Cathy says. "It don't matter anymore."

"It matters," Cheryl says. "Work always matters."

"My job's going to a bunch of goddamn tomato pickers," Cathy says.

The other women at Jay Garment have been trying to tell Cathy. Don't blame the Mexican workers for this. It's not their fault. Blame the bosses. Blame the government. But not other workers.

Cathy stands up on a bench and points to her butt. "They can all beso my ass!" she shouts. The workers dance and dance. It's a desperate party; everyone is getting down in the Corral. But Cathy doesn't feel like it anymore.

I head for the Corral, leaving my notebook on the table. A few songs later, I look over from the dance floor. Cathy's scribbling into the notebook. "Hey, we're ordinary people," she writes. "We have lives. We have family's. We struggle. It's hard. In a way I'm thankful I get the chance to better myself. Jay Garment was the only one that would hire me. Because of my education. My hands are bad. My life is in a shamble. This is my way out. And my only hope that is young or old. We will do it and better ourselves. I will. God guide me! He will. Because I still have faith! Cathy."

Jay County is located in west-central Indiana. Portland is 45 minutes from Muncie, 45 minutes from Fort Wayne, 20 minutes from the Ohio border, and less than a day's drive from Chicago, Louisville, and Cincinnati. The county includes a substantial Amish community. There's no heavy industry in Jay and surrounding counties; the jobs, the real jobs, come from small factories, some locally owned, others belonging to companies like Tyson's. Portland is almost the definition of small-town America, and like so many small towns, it's been hit by NAFTA hard.

In the three years since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, a $1.7 billion U.S. trade surplus with Mexico has turned into a $16 billion trade deficit. The most conservative think tanks estimate that NAFTA has cost Americans at least 625,000 industrial jobs. Other estimates have that number at well over a million. Mark Crouch, a professor of labor studies at Indiana University-Fort Wayne, estimated in 1993 that 45,000 jobs in a ten-county Indiana area that included Jay were at risk if NAFTA was passed. His predictions, to a large extent, have come true. General Electric has transferred hundreds of jobs from its Fort Wayne shops to Mexico. Last year, Chicago-based Borg-Warner announced that it would be laying off 800 workers from its auto-parts plant in Muncie. More recently, Thomson/RCA laid off 1,500 workers from its Bloomington television plant, even as information leaked out that Thomson now employs 8,000 people at a factory in Juarez, Mexico.

Though Jay Garment was on Crouch's list of companies in trouble, it was supposed to be different. It looked like one small battle that the unions could win in the war against NAFTA. Portland was supposed to prove that jobs could be saved.

Throughout January the negotiations with Calvin Klein continued. An inspector came to the plant and approved of what he saw. The company extended the plant closing deadline again, this time until March 31. Meanwhile, Jay Garment made do with whatever orders it had left. Workers finished and reinspected jeans and pants made in Mexico, but soon Jay Garment was going to get a big contract and UNITE was going to throw a huge victory party.

Then the blue jeans market went soft. As February ended and March began, Jay Garment employees heard rumors, if not specifics, that Calvin Klein wasn't coming to Portland after all. The union had no news for them, and that didn't mean good news.

Meanwhile, UNITE tried desperately to find other work for Jay employees. Joe Costigan, UNITE's Chicago-region communications director, asked Indiana state officials for a contract so that Jay Garment could make institutional clothing. He was told that in Indiana, all state uniforms are manufactured by a company called Prison Enterprise Network (PEN) Products. In other words, Costigan discovered, by law all state clothing must be made by prisoners. Finally the union ran out of time and out of ideas. On March 31, Jay Garment announced that the plant was closing for good. Most workers would be laid off April 16, while 40 or 50 would remain until mid-May to finish back orders. After that, Jay Garment would be gone from Portland forever.

It's long after midnight at the Stables. Cheryl writes in my notebook. "Right now, I'm not worried about my job. I know I am smart enough and have a positive enough attitude that I will be all right. I am worried about Cathy. She works so hard. At the factory--at home--she takes care to see that we have work--takes care of three kids--and John & God watches people like her. She has been my BEST friend for years. I love her and I pray for her at night--right along with my son. They mean so much."

Tomorrow morning, April 5, UNITE will hold a rally at the new Jay County library. Union representatives from all over Indiana will be there to support the laid-off Jay Garment workers and to decry NAFTA. They will urge their congressmen to vote for the recently proposed NAFTA Accountability Act. They will protest the planned extension of NAFTA to other Latin American countries. They will express outrage at the conditions of Mexican workers who make 50 cents an hour and live in cardboard shanties at the edges of garbage dumps on company property. They will sing "Solidarity Forever" and march on the Jay County courthouse, where state representatives will be holding a town hall meeting with the local chamber of commerce. There the union will again state its concerns about what NAFTA's doing to American workers. The rally and march will be spirited and will be deemed a success.

Cheryl will be at the rally. Cathy will not.

And time will show that the rally accomplished nothing. For on April 25 the Jay Garment board of directors will meet in Portland and decide to move the company's business offices to Dallas, closer to its border operations. The board also will decide not to offer its laid-off Indiana workers any severance pay, saying the company's money will go instead toward establishing "joint ventures" with Mexican factories. In a letter to the board, John Young apologizes for not being able to keep the Portland plants open. But he writes, "The demand for domestically produced apparel has virtually disappeared as NAFTA has been phased into effect."

Cathy has one last beer. She doesn't know what she'll be doing next. The union has applied for trade adjustment assistance from the federal government to help laid-off Jay Garment workers. This will mean extra unemployment compensation and money toward job retraining or college. But for most Jay employees, retraining seems very far away right now.

"I could be a carpenter," Cathy says. "I want to lay down cement. Drywall. I could do it. Sand it, put it up, paint it. Then I want to be an interior decorator. Maybe I could be a newscaster. I always wanted to be a newscaster. Aptitude test. I know what that is. I gotta get the requisite skills."

"It's gonna be OK," Cheryl says. "Everything's gonna be OK. I'm gonna take care of her."

Cheryl's had a lot to drink, but not as much as Cathy. As they stagger out of the Stables Cheryl takes the keys. Cathy leans on her and they stumble down the street into the rain.

"Don't forget about us," Cheryl says. "We're real."

They get into Cathy's black Toyota pickup. The engine starts, and Cathy rests her head on Cheryl's shoulder as the truck moves off into the rainy distance.

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