Book Review

Working History

Mollie’s Job: A Story of Life and Work On the Global Assembly Line

Readers of the Observer’s June 9 excerpt of Bill Adler’s Mollie’s Job (Chapter Thirteen: “On the Border, By the Sea”) will be familiar with the book’s attention to the extraordinary details of “free trade” in action, as Adler follows the final stages of the descent of a single assembly-line job from Paterson, New Jersey, to Blytheville, Arkansas, to Matamoros, Mexico. That particular job once “belonged” to Mollie James of Paterson, although by 1987, after nearly forty years on the job, the ground is shifting radically under Mollie’s feet:

[The] Paterson plant was breathing but skeletal – 135 workers had already been laid off, with the promise of more to go soon. By virtue of her seniority, Mollie James was still on the payroll, but just then she was out of town; the company had sent her to Blytheville for a week. Like a death-row inmate building her own casket, Mollie was training the workers there to do her job.

That stark metaphor is uncharacteristic of Adler’s work. An occasional contributor to these pages (we know him fondly as our Big Bend Bureau Chief, although he has written his way from New York to California), Adler is a meticulous, quiet writer, generally content to follow the facts and let the story tell itself. But by the time the reader arrives at this somber moment in Chapter Thirteen, Adler has more than earned his momentary gesture. We have traveled with Adler and Mollie James and her honest labor from Virginia, to New Jersey, and now to Arkansas, and we are all entitled to an accumulated realization of her loss.

That is by way of suggesting that if you enjoyed and learned from Chapter Thirteen, you will simply be astonished by the whole of Mollie’s Job. This is a book of impressive historical imagination, akin to Adler’s 1995 Land of Opportunity, although with even greater range and implication. Land of Opportunity was a remarkable journey in the wake of the Chambers brothers, an entrepreneurial group of siblings who traveled from the abject poverty of the Arkansas Delta to seek their fortune in Detroit. They found that fortune in spectacular and meteoric fashion, in the crack trade – where in a few years the brothers had amassed and squandered millions, on their inevitable way to federal prison. But Adler’s interest was not in sensational criminality: “Indeed,” he wrote, “their story should frighten not because it shows what made them different, but rather what made them so common.” Adler pursued the Chambers’ story as a way to examine the broader capitalist culture of the Eighties: “The decade’s cult of money, its tone of rising expectations, insisted that the dispossessed aspire to the goals of the dominant culture yet denied them the means to obtain those goals legally.”

And it was while researching the South-to-North migration of Land of Opportunity that Adler began piecing together the North-to-South migration of Mollie’s Job. What he found was another story that opens a whole modern era to re-examination and deeper understanding, although this book reaches back even further, to the beginnings of U.S. manufacturing in the eighteenth century (Alexander Hamilton’s Paterson-based Society for the Establishing of Useful Manufactures). As its central thread, the book follows a single job – assembling current-regulating ballasts for fluorescent lighting fixtures in Paterson’s Universal Manufacturing Company – “as it passed from the urban North to the rural South … to Mexico over the course of the past half-century and the dawn of the new one.” But in tracing that central story Adler also provides attentive biographical portraits of Mollie James and Balbina Duque (the young Mexican woman who at the book’s close holds Mollie’s job), as well as many other intriguing men and women who figure inextricably in Mollie and Balbina’s story: company founders, working colleagues, union reps, labor gangsters, bankers, investors, politicians, and so on. It’s an an expanding web of fascinating historical narrative: “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.”

Yet Adler’s introductory summary, accurate as it is, fails to give a full sense of the range and engagement of his work, from top to bottom. From chapter to chapter, Mollie’s Job reads like a gripping historical novel, with a fully realized sense of people embedded in their time and place that one associates with Dickens or Zola. Here is but one moment with Universal’s founder Archie Sergy, part hero, part hustler, as the Paterson company he started (with a few “borrowed” pieces of equipment) begins to take off in the post-War years:

Even as he added production lines, hundreds of employees, and a third, graveyard shift to keep up with the roaring demand, Archie operated as if he were running a corner store in the old neighborhood: He knew and greeted everyone by name, often by their street names – “Hey Munny! Hey Moishe!” Or it was like old times at the caddy shack: Archie dispensing favors like a benevolent overlord. Once he announced bids on a job to paint the plant, and when an old friend’s offer sheet came in only third lowest, he gave him the job anyway. Countless were the employees who came to him with a personal problem – an unpayable debt, an abusive husband, a sick child. And almost always, he intervened, either with a loan or donation or a timely referral or a phone call.

Here is a climactic moment in the life of Louis Carter, a black employee in the Universal plant in Mississippi. By 1973, union steward Carter has seen the company employees (in the context of the larger Southern civil rights movement) bust segregation, yet the union leadership had remained white and reactionary. Now he has just been elected the first black president of the local union:

As Louis headed north toward home on Highway 49, he noticed a couple of “maintenance buddies” alongside him in a pickup truck. ‘I was looking at them,’ he recounts, ‘and all of a sudden this old shotgun pops out the passenger side. I jam on the brakes and the shot goes right across the windshield.’ Asked many years later if he reported the crime to the police, Louis dismisses the question as hopelessly naïve. ‘The law around here was about as useless as tits on a bull.’ But Louis was not without his protectors, black and white, and they organized a postwork midnight caravan of at least five cars to escort him safely to his and Dorothy’s isolated country home, ‘way back in the woods,’ some twenty miles outside Mendenhall.

And here is a foreboding moment with Bill Farley, the Michael Milken associate who buys the company which buys the company which in 1986 buys what was once Archie Sergy’s Universal:

Farley would hold tight to [Northwest Industries, Union Underwear, Acme Boot, etc.]; he was dependent on their generating enough cash to meet his loan obligations.… For Northwest’s three other, smaller operating companies, including Universal (Northwest had already moved to divest itself of Lone Star Steel) Farley had other plans. Their utility to Farley was not as manufacturing enterprises. What mattered to Farley about Universal was not its product line or its commitment to customer service or its employees or the communities in which it operated. What mattered was its sale value. ‘I never planned on owning it long-term,’ he says. In the parlance of the high-flying financial universe Bill Farley and Mike Milken lived in, Universal Manufacturing Company existed only on paper, as an ‘asset’ to ‘spin off’ to raise cash to pay down debt.

Those three passages give some sense of the range and complexity of the story and of Adler’s reporting, as well as his thoroughly unsentimental sense of the complications and contradictions of history: how the New Jersey factories were founded in a sense of great possibility and also great oppression, triggering explosive unionizing (in several senses) over many years; how the unions themselves vibrated between activist idealism and dismal corruption (so that at each stop on the company’s southward march, and even into Mexico, Universal employees often found themselves caught between legitimate union organizers and corrupt leadership interested only in protecting their perks or their white-skin privilege); how national and international politics filter down to the shop floor, so that the U.S. Commerce Department continues to spend taxpayer dollars to directly sponsor programs making it easier (indeed, tax-deductible) for domestic corporations to move good U.S. jobs abroad, always in search of larger profit margins. One, of course, was Mollie’s job – at last sight (1997) paying the unlivable wage of about ninety-two cents an hour to a young single mother living in desperate poverty just outside the fenced enclosure of the new “MagneTek” maquiladora. (“No alcance,” the workers tell Adler. “It doesn’t reach. Over and over one heard this.” MagneTek is Universal’s corporate successor, now manufacturing ballasts across the border, and already looking longingly across the globe, to places where its labor costs can be even lower.

Mollie’s Job is an extraordinary work of historical research, dogged and sensitive reporting, and contemporary imagination. It appears the book may be in some danger of getting lost in the summer blockbuster shuffle – publishers, like other factories, merge and disappear, in the search for profit at the expense of other values – and it would be a great shame if Mollie’s Job became one more casualty of the increasing corporate concentration the book chronicles. Buy it, read it, and enjoy it. It will arm your understanding against a sea of troubles.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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