In Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town, journalist Macy traces the effects of globalization on American manufacturing via the story of one Virginia family.
How did you come to write this book?
What sparked this book were photographs in the New York Times Lens Blog by Jared Soares. He spotlighted this community that’s been decimated by globalization. His photographs were very moving, [like] the picture of a food bank where the director said he could tell what people used to do by their ailments. Every time a factory closed, our paper [the Roanoke Times] would write about it, but not until Jared started doing the after-effects work did it hit me that this is the real story. My neighbor, who owns a furniture store, grew up in this area, and he said, “There’s still one person [John Bassett III] left making furniture. He’s just a character. He took on China.” Bassett did these really inspiring things to keep people employed. You can go through the two towns, Bassett, [Va.] (where he’s from) and Galax (where his factory is now), and Galax is alive and vibrant, and Bassett, there’s really nothing but the corporate office where people still design the furniture and coordinate logistics. It used to be this booming town with over 3,000 people. Now it’s about 1,300.
The Bassetts were willing to hire blacks in the 1920s. You discuss how race was intertwined with the town of Bassett.
When John Bassett Sr. said, “[The] Negroes made me,” I thought, that’s it. He even admitted it. Then to have those old black workers say exactly the same thing without knowing he had said that, word for word. They said, “We made them rich, we made them who they are.” This issue is very much alive here.
You note the furniture-making industry has now moved to Indonesia because they have the cheapest labor. What were your impressions when you visited?
I recently checked back with the head of the Stanley Furniture Company in Indonesia because previously he thought it was going to last 10 years, and now he thinks it’s more like three or four years. Interviewing the factory workers and managers there, I asked if they gave any thought to the people whose jobs they’ve replaced. And they just looked at me and giggled. Then they said very seriously: “But we do worry about the people who are going to replace us.” The people I interviewed were mostly women who described how [these jobs] helped improve their lives. They can send their kids to school now and buy their uniforms and books.
You say manufacturing is returning to the U.S. How permanent do you think that trend is?
We’ve lost six million factory jobs since 2000, but only 500,000 have returned. When [jobs] do come back, they tend to be higher tech, more machinery, a bit better paying, but you better have some skills. There’s a new factory in Roanoke County that makes aluminum cans for food, and those jobs pay $25 an hour, but you have to have training. Somebody displaced from a furniture factory is not going to qualify for that.