White Furniture Company was the “oldest maker of fine furniture.” This phrase was reiterated over and over again by longtime Mebane, North Carolina residents. This company employed 1 out of 20 Mebane residents and was a driving economic force in the town. White’s “regulated many of the rhythms of the town-opening and closing time, lunchtime, weekend and holidays.” For this reason, when White Furniture Company closed the whole town was effected. Many individuals, some who had been with the factory for most of their lives were out of a job. Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory by Bill Bamberger and Cathy N. Davidson explores these individuals lives before and after the closing of the factory along with powerful images that paint a vivid picture of exactly what these workers went through when White Furniture closed its doors. White Furniture was founded in 1881 by two brother, Dave and Will White. This company helped the town of less than 300 inhabitants grow into a thriving town of over 1000 people. In 1985 however, 104 years after the factory opened shareholders were asked to vote on whether to sell the business to Hickory for 5.1 million or to “maintain business as usual.” Though the White family was split on whether or not to sell, the company was bought out by Hickory. The new owner made promises that, “even after the buyout, Steve White’s son, Sam, would be kept on as the company’s president.”
However, these promises turned out to be empty because, “as soon as the papers were signed, sealed and delivered, everything changed….Under the new ownership, virtually all the rest of the White management team was fired-including Sam White and Charlie Millender, who were asked to resign within a year of the sale.” One would assume with this type of treatment of upper management and th family that originated the company that employees would be give much harsher treatment, but surprisingly, they were not. In fact, it can be argued they worked in much better conditions than before. “For seven years after the buyout, Hickory made improvements to the machinery in the Mebane plant. The workers who stayed on invariably report that, under Hickory, their wages and benefits both increased….New equipment was installed. Finally, once decision was made to close the plant, the terms offered White workers were more generous that that required by law or even by accepted business standards.” However, even with these improvements (before the closing), the new method, or policy of quantity over quality was apparent to employees and buyers alike, and they were furious! Closing introduces the reader to six past employees of the White Furniture Company. The first two are Margaret and Steve White.
Margaret applied toe White’s in 1957. Her brother and father worked their as well and there was a sort of family loyalty to the factory. She stated at White’s just after high school and stayed for 37 years. She worked her way up the corporate ladder and was one of only two people that were asked to stay on as management after the Hickory buyout. Margaret was a caregiver at heart. She looked after her ailing parents, her friend Mary White (then wife of Steve White) and years later, Steve White-who while ill asked Margaret to marry him. He suffered a stroke shortly after their marriage and lost the ability to speak. Margaret speaks for Steve and is fiercely protective of him and any perceived criticism of him. Although Margaret is the only telling stories of the past, the history of the company and the impact the closing had on employees, the author’s detailed account of Steve’s facial expressions paints a very clear picture of happiness, pain and loss. When speaking of employee and management relationships, Margaret asserted, “Men were free to come and go as they wished, if they wanted to speak with management. There was an open-door policy.” She spoke of how much the managers cared for their employees, stating that sometimes mangers would accompany employees to court appearances and advance workers pay when needed.
The next individual introduced is James. He worked at White’s for 41 years and although he agrees with most of what Margaret said, he sheds light on the poor wages given by the company. He states he only stayed with the company because he liked his job and the people he worked with, but the wages were next to nothing. James stated at $1.10 an hour and in 6 years, his pay had only been enhanced to $1.23 an hour. James recalls a story of when he asked his supervisor for a raise stating that he was tired of being paid such low wages for his hard work. His supervisor, Phonse Bean responded with, “Really, by you doing so many jobs, it cuts you high-level pay down to lower pay, to medium grade. Actually, the way I got it figured, you’re fifteen cents overpaid now an hour. But I’m going to give you a nickel raise-because I think you’re worth it.” After years and years with White’s, James retired at 65 in 1992 and traveled to Europe with his wife. Most of the employees assumed he would come back, but he assured them he was indefinitely retired. When the employees insisted the company wouldn’t run without him their eerie prediction came true when White’s closed just a year later in 1993.
Don McCall, supervisor of the standing department was hired in 1990 by his friend, Robin Hart who also happened to be president of Hickory White. Initially, many employees regarded Don as a villan who pushed for quantity over quality. But later some of them described Don as a sensitive man aware of the feelings of his workers and his boss. Don was also the man who had to tell employees that the company would be closing. “Some longtime White employees would be surprised to learn how deeply the closing of the White Furniture Company affected Don McCall’s life and his sense of himself. From some perspectives, he was part of the problem, part of the lean, youthful new management team brought in by Hickory to tell White’s veteran workers how they should do things.” Although Don’s work history (layoffs and temporary hires were more common to him) was vastly different than those who had worked for White’ since the 40s or 50s, he was still deeply hurt when he would see employees leaving during the final days the company was open. Eventually, Don moved to Brevard, North Carolina, his birthplace and now, by choice, works below his skill level. Even though he acknowledges that he was a great leader, he says he will never fire another person again.
The reader is then introduced to Annette. She was one of the last people hired by Hickory White in 1990. Annette is an African-American woman who was one of two women in the rough mill. “The work [in the rough mill] was both physically grueling and mentally demanding. And it was the best paying job she ever held.” Annette went to school one city over when schools were integrated in 1968, but she didn’t like it and had dropped out by 10th grade. Out of all the people introduced in this book, I believe Annette had a much harder time initially proving herself than anyone else. She was black woman in a male dominated industry. She had to continually prove herself to her male co-workers and was at one point even sexually harassed at work, but she immediately took care of that by reporting the incident to a supervisor who made sure it never happened again. Annette was a hard-working, strong and determined woman. Even when she was put through initiation rituals and refused rides by her co-workers, Annette never lost determination.
“When they refused to give her rides to work, she got herself a bike a rode two miles to White’s in snow, in rain, in summer heat.” More recently Annette has said that most, if not all the industrial jobs are on a temporary basis. There are no benefits, the wages are low and she is often passed up for younger, more skilled employees. The only job security Annette now has is in the fast food industry for minimum wage. Finally, we are introduced to Robert Riley, supervisor of the shipping department at the now defunct White Furniture Company. Robert makes less money presently working two jobs (Walmart and driving a point-to-point van at the University of North Carolina) that he did at White’s. Robert started working at White’s Hillsborough Plant when segregation still existed. The lunchroom, bathrooms and drinking fountains still had colored and whites only signs on them. Despite this, Robert was the first African-American supervisor at White’s. As with all the other employees in this book, Robert had great relations with his co-workers and the owners. And when the company was sold he too resented the quantity over quality policy.
Robert was demoted to a non-supervisory position and states he was relieved because he had to spend less time at the factory and more time driving a truck which gave him an escape from the new factory atmosphere he described as a “pressure cooker of animosity.” “As it turned out, Robert helped dismantle the Mebane plant, too. He worked until April 15, 1993, as part of the skeleton crew responsible for closing down that facility. He was one of the very last workers to leave.” Robert said he arrived at White’s without anything and left without anything, but he was able to raise his two children and pay off his house, however, it is the memories he will miss the most. This book was beautifully written and captured in images. However, as I was reading I found myself wondering whether the crime rate in the city had any correlation to the opening and closing of White Furniture Company.
For personal curiosity I would have liked the crime rate and crime type in Mebane explored to see if any direct correlation could be made between the factory being successful with lower crime rates to the factory closing and possibly having an increase in crime. Overall, The Closing hits close to home and helps readers in our class especially better understand what workers in Detroit and Flint factories must have gone through when one of their biggest industries and employers shuts its doors. This book showed first hand accounts of the transformation of American economy from an industrial base to one based in service and technology.