A From the cover of Mollie’s Job Bill Bramberger 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 Southtion, 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 nave. ‘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 itother 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-fly ing 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 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 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-degood U.S. jobs abroad, always in search of larger profit margins. One, of course, was 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. JULY 21, 2000 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27
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