Most fans of musical theater have a soft spot for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. This property, a favorite of the composing duo themselves, is based on a story by Ferenc Molnar, and takes place between 1873 and 1888 in a small New England fishing village. The heroine, Julie Jordan, works in one of the local textile mills, during an era in which this industry was thriving in that particular part of the country.
By the 1920’s, though, the Yankee worker was perceived as too expensive and too unionized, so the mills started moving south, to the land of cheap labor, and cheaper hydroelectric power.
Thus, when Carousel opened in 1945, even though there were still mills remaining in New England, that hummed virtually non-stop during the war years, it was clear that the desertion was occurring in earnest. The playgoers could enjoy the tragic love story and wonderful music, but the old-timers no doubt felt a large pang of nostalgia, as well. A way of life was coming to an end, and the mill towns were dying.
Martinsville, Virginia may have never been celebrated in musical theater, but it had been known as the sweatshirt and sweatpants capital of the world. Here, in the very town where so many of the Yankee mills moved, long term workers, paid by the piece, claim to have sewn over 21 million pairs of sweat pants during their course of employment.
Sad to say, their employment has run its course, with most of the workers being laid off by the end of 2001. The sewing is now being done in Mexico, Honduras, and Pakistan.
Perhaps there is some mystical balance we can strike between our desire for cheap consumer goods and high wages, but no one has published that formula just yet. How much of our manufacturing industry can this country afford to lose? 10 percent, 50 percent, 80 percent?
And what of the promise of the vaunted “new economy”? Cynics might point out that Maynard, Massachusetts, a classic dead mill town, became a big center for a high-tech company you may have heard of–Digital Equipment (DEC). DEC, of course, itself disappeared, its technology outmoded and overpriced.
I’m not at all sure that high-tech is the answer. I know of a very capable young lady from New England, whose resume includes the following companies, all well respected in their day:
Compugraphic–killed off by desktop publishing
DEC–too late to the PC
Wang–proprietary, as in non-IBM, to the bitter end
Sure, she kept landing on her feet, but the net number of jobs kept decreasing. Moreover, those who take the global view would be well served to zoom in a tad. As plants close, the tax base erodes, schools close, and people are dislocated. The academic and government hacks who speak in large terms should be reminded that life is not a video game, and these are real flesh and blood humans, whose lives are messed up.
At a time when there seems to be an abundance of popular sympathy for so many victim groups, ranging from multiple felons and rapacious politicians, to illegal aliens and amoral celebs, one wonders who will speak up for the workers left behind.
Before you dismiss these concerns as being beneath you, with your ultra-marketable skills, never forget that whomever you are, and whatever it is you do, there will always be someone smarter, faster, younger, cheaper, and more efficient than you, looking for a way to move in.