By Eric Ginsburg
At this point, we should know better.
Despite North Carolina’s longstanding attempts to woo businesses here, those jobs
we so covet always seem to disappear. It’s long been state policy to align closely with industry, to bend over backwards to kiss the shoes of capitalists who “create jobs.” We somehow believe will actually let us kick the football. Our predecessors could possibly be excused for being enamored with the idea that manufacturing could save us. If we keep our wages low and our workforces docile, they thought, we could draw heavy industry away from the North where costs are high. And they were right, at least in the short term. But inevitably the snake-oil salesmen picked up again, moving yet farther south, on their perpetual race to the bottom.
It’s harder to forgive today’s false prophets, the ones who extol the same tired language of bringing back “good jobs.” It’s like we, collectively, have a rotten ex who’s moved on but who, we convince ourselves, would be totally different this time around. It will be better this time, we deceive ourselves, citing no evidence and reciting the word “jobs” like a mantra.
By the end of the year, Greensboro’s White Oak textile plant will close. The machines will fall silent, no longer rocking the wooden floors as they crank out denim. The facility’s operator, Cone Denim, will no doubt move production to one of its existing factories in Mexico or China, following the same pattern of the Piedmont’s industry titans over the last several decades.
Some of us were foolish enough to think something might’ve changed, that a market for American-made products could prop up the selvedge denim mill. Not so. Labor didn’t save us, either. Plenty of people who long ago saw the owning class and the larger economic system for what it is placed their hopes in organized labor. But the national unions only made what could be called a half-hearted effort to organize North Carolina textile (or the South at large), despite unceasing dedication from workers from Gastonia to Greensboro.
Some of those workers gave their lives to that struggle, pushing up against not only the operators of the area’s mills but also the Klan. Five were gunned down in 1979 — the Greensboro Massacre — and locals were all too happy to shield their eyes, disavowing these communist labor organizers as outside trouble.
But had the labor movement somehow succeeded in organizing North Carolina’s textile industry, what then? If White Oak had been solidly union territory, who among us believes that would’ve prevented Platinum Equity — the private, Beverly Hills-based firm that owns Greensboro’s International Textile Group and by extension Cone Denim — from shutting it down and moving abroad? That’s not to say that things might not have been considerably different with robust unions at Revolution, or Proximity, or White Oak, or others. And it isn’t to say that all operators are exactly the same. But how stupid are we to try the same thing over and over again, lying to ourselves that this time we’re the final station rather than a stop along the way?
White Oak is closing. The cigarette industry that propped up Winston-Salem is gone.
Furniture is on its way. Dell unplugged and left. We’ve been asked to believe that enticing an auto manufacturer to a nearby megasite will once again save us. And maybe, to some extent, it would be a reprieve. But it isn’t too difficult to imagine that one day we’ll be having this same conversation, just with the names switched around. We’re falling for the same dull pick-up line.
It’s just too predictable. If a manufacturer arrives, some of us bow down. Then some of us try to agitate to improve conditions, to install a union. Maybe the union loses, like at Boeing in South Carolina, or maybe the ending changes. Neither scenario does much to change the permanence of the facility, just like the story we’ve already seen play out in Detroit. Concessions can be won, gains can be made, but the power ultimately remains in the same hands.
What if instead, we marshaled our resources in a different way? Instead of expending every effort to attract, worship, and ultimately mourn these “good jobs,” what if we built our own, together? What if economic development looked like helping former workers from White Oak reopen the plant and collectively own and operate it?
I’m not talking about state-owned industry. I’m suggesting that the equation is different when a business is not just locally owned, but collectivized. That if we, where possible, aim for self-sufficiency rather than endless dependency, the ending might be altered.
Worker-owned businesses are not a silver bullet. There is no such thing. It is certainly possible that a worker-run White Oak plant would’ve run aground, ultimately leaving us in the same position. But it’s not ridiculous to think that the decision to fire almost 200 people would’ve gone down much differently. Maybe it’s a pipe dream, a naïve concept especially in this period of late capitalism. But it’s a hell of a lot better than the fallacy we’re being asked to believe in spite of our experience.
Eric Ginsburg isn’t a socialist, but he’s naturally skeptical of authority and refuses to accept prevailing wisdom. That’s probably why he became a journalist. Find out more about him at eric-ginsburg.com.