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Levi Strauss and the Price We Pay

The Cost of Apparel Has Declined for a Quarter Century, Helping Make Americans the Best-Clothed People in History. All Is Right in the Word, Unless You Ask How It Happened.

December 01, 2002|FRED DICKEY | Fred Dickey last wrote for the magazine about prison rape.

Brenda Pope sits at the kitchen table and stares sadly at her work-hardened hands. Inside one wrist is the purple welt of a surgical scar that runs halfway to her elbow. Twenty years at a sewing machine gave her the carpal tunnel injury. That scar and $15,000 in severance is what she has to show for those years. Near the edge of Blue Ridge, Ga., the Levi Strauss plant where she once worked now sits empty, a glass-and-brick shell overlooking acres of empty parking lot. Bored security guards stroll the grounds to protect what no one any longer values. A factory dies an honorable death when it falls apart from hard work and time. This one was cut down in full productivity.

For a half-century, this apparel sewing plant was a wellspring that pumped life into the town. The workday was switched on by the gathering of 400 workers, mainly women, chattering as they punched the clock. Hour after hour, they created a cadence from clacking sewing machines, generating wealth for their bosses and modest wages for themselves.

The plant was shut in June, one of six Levi plant closures that left the San Francisco apparel giant with just a tiny U.S. manufacturing presence--a plant in San Antonio, Texas, devoted to quick turn-around products that have deadlines overseas plants can't meet. At the end, the Blue Ridge workers stood in small knots, tossed about by a maelstrom of emotions. Some were in shock. Some muttered that they would never again wear Levi clothing. Most worried about the future. Brenda Pope was one of those.

Blue Ridge is a town of nearly 2,000 in north Georgia, just south of the Tennessee and North Carolina lines. Blue-green hills rise sharply a few miles south of town and provide a gateway to the Appalachians, gaining loveliness as they gain height. Residents are mostly Scots-Irish, descendants of the hard-edged people who broke the Cherokees, and then broke the soil. Today, many here, like Pope, are working poor.

Measured against what most of us feel we need, the 44-year-old single mother asked little. She wanted to live among familiar pines and trustworthy people, create value with her hands and raise her child in the old ways. She did not think she needed a college degree to do these things. She was right, until she made the mistake of pricing herself out of the labor market--a feat accomplished by earning $14 per hour putting zippers in Levi's famous blue jeans.

When Levi moved Pope's job out of the country, she became one of hundreds of thousands of American workers who have lost jobs during the past six decades as the garment industry seeks lower wages in underdeveloped countries. In that context, the decision to close the Blue Ridge plant was hardly unusual. Levi had clung to its last U.S. manufacturing plants long after most of its competitors had fled.

Yet when a company like Levi, with a reputation for good management and strong relations with employees, finally turns out the lights in the United States, it might be an occasion to measure the human toll, here and abroad, of the flight of garment industry jobs--and to remember that it's happening so that American consumers, who buy more clothing than any people in history, can get a shirt for $20 instead of $25.

In 1950, 1.2 million Americans were employed in apparel manufacturing. By 2001, that figure had fallen to 566,000. In the same time span, the U.S. population almost doubled. Jobs went out of the country, and finished products came in. In 1989, the U.S. imported $24.5 billion in apparel; in 2001, $63.8 billion. In the last quarter of 2001, 83% of all apparel sold in this country was imported.

The migration of these jobs is seen as the natural result of globalization, the economic process that melds the technology and finance of the developed world with the vast labor pool of the underdeveloped. This trend is especially attractive to the apparel industry because, basically, all it needs are sewing machines and low-paid workers.

Globalization has crept up so stealthily that it wasn't generally recognized until full grown. It accelerated around the end of World War II, when the industrialized world was reshuffling, says Charles Derber of Boston College, author of "Corporation Nation," a book that views corporate power through a populist filter. As American corporations witnessed the economic rise of Japan and other foreign competition, they started looking for an edge, and they found it in cheap labor abroad. "They realized that more money could be made by using those billions of workers as producers as well as consumers," Derber says.

Many corporate executives view this sea of cheap labor as an attractive profit center, or, if they find it predatory and distasteful, as a competitive necessity. Economists say globalization will be the platform for Third World countries to build their own free-market economies, and that low wages are part of the growth process.

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