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Small town, global problem
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Linda Carden, Sharon McCrory and Judy Fraley have lunch during their half-hour break at the Vanity Fair Plant in Milton. [Times photo: Lisa DeJong]

The Vanity Fair plant in Milton is closing, leaving 541 workers jobless. It's a scene being repeated across America as clothing companies look for cheaper labor.

By ALECIA SWASY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 20, 1999


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Street: A "For Sale" sign sits in the window of a restaurant in Milton. Local retailers worry about how the plant closing will impact business.
[Times photo: Lisa DeJong]
MILTON -- Nancy Busby cuts a dozen pairs of shoulder straps per minute, feeding the sewing machine assembly lines that churn out Victoria's Secret, Vassarette and Vanity Fair bras.

Busby rushes to beat her daily quota because speed means she can take home a few dollars more than her base pay of about $46 a day.

Around 11 a.m., Busby hears a man on the intercom yell: "Turn off your machines." She gets nervous. Everyone has been working mandatory overtime, so why would the boss stop the sewing so early on a Friday?

They get bad news: VF Corp., the parent company, will close the Vanity Fair plant in 90 days. Most of the assembly work is shifting to plants the company owns in Mexico, where teenage girls sew for less than $5 a day. This is the second layoff in less than a year for some workers, who moved to VF last year after a nearby Russell Corp. sweatshirt plant closed.

"There were people screaming, people cussing, people crying," Busby, a soft-spoken, divorced mother of four, recalls of that February day. "I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach." Days away from her 57th birthday, Busby's immediate concern was paying her bills. She had just signed loan papers to buy a 10-year-old blue and silver Econoline van to replace her 1978 yellow Chevy van, which had logged nearly 350,000 miles. "It's bad, especially for people my age," she said. "We're not old enough to draw Social Security, but we're too old to make a new career."

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Pauline Mazjun, right, gives perms in her home, like this one for Regina Bowman, to earn extra money to offset her impending layoff from Vanity Fair. Last year, Mazjun and Bowman were laid off from the Russell plant. At left is Mazjun's 3-year-old granddaughter, Taylor Cohorn. [Times photo: Lisa DeJong]
Even as it washes over Nancy Busby and her neighbors in Milton, the rising tide of the global economy lifts big companies like VF Corp. and the people who own them. VF, which makes everything from Lee Jeans to JanSport backpacks, is posting record annual sales and earnings. The U.S. stock markets have soared, while investors cheer double-digit returns in their mutual fund retirement accounts.

Meanwhile, the 541 Vanity Fair workers find little promise of new jobs, despite a local unemployment rate of only 4.2 percent. They joke that retraining for their next career means learning to say: "You want fries with that?"

Everybody blames somebody. Workers blame corporate greed and U.S. trade laws that allow manufacturers to move production to Bangladesh or Pakistan, where sewing machine operators make 45 to 75 cents an hour. Meanwhile, the domestic apparel industry has declined to about 700,000 workers, half its 1973 peak. "The company is looking at dollar bills," Busby says. "They don't care about people."

The town of Milton has to compete for jobs not only with Mexico, but now with neighboring Alabama, where hefty incentive packages have attracted manufacturers like Mercedes Benz and Honda. Some of the Vanity Fair sewing will move to another plant in Alabama. And the same day VF announced the Milton plant closing, local economic development officials learned the town lost a bid for a new Ace Hardware distribution center, which will go to Alabama, too.

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"I thought I would be fired."
— Gene Davis
[Times photo: Lisa DeJong]
"We called it Black Friday," says Gene Davis, who heads a local economic development group. "I thought I would be fired."

VF officials are blunt about the need to close plants: The company must cut production costs, or competitors around the globe will beat their prices. Retailers will pick the cheaper suppliers, especially on basic clothing like T-shirts and underwear. Most shoppers, even in economic good times, still care about prices.

Consider this: Milton's Wal-Mart, less than 3 miles from the Vanity Fair plant, sells Vassarette stretch satin bras for $7.94 each. The bras are made in Mexico, not the hometown plant. One bra made in Haiti sells for $2.50. Even Nancy Busby shops at Wal-Mart, usually buying whatever bra is on sale.

"Wal-Mart's slogan used to be "Made In America,'" says Corky Fountain, a VF manufacturing vice president. "You don't see that anymore. Some things can't be made in the U.S."

* * *

Milton, with a population of 8,600, is the county seat of Santa Rosa County, the first county east of Pensacola and Escambia Bay. The area is a hub for transplanted military families who come to Pensacola and surrounding bases. While newcomers learn to fly military jets, generations of local families worked on farms or in factories.

Nancy Brewer grew up in the county, helping her parents, William and Fae Olive Brewer, pick cotton and peanuts. Her mother plowed fields and canned vegetables to feed her husband and two children. "There were times when all we ate was gravy and bread," Busby recalls.

She was diagnosed with polio when she was 9 years old. But she recovered and fell in love. At age 15, she left home to marry Edward Busby, a brickmason.

At 17, she had her first son, Howard. Within five years, she had another son and two daughters. In 1964, shortly after she had her youngest daughter, her doctor gave her bad news: She had cervical cancer. "He gave me two years to live," Busby recalled.

But she outlasted his prediction. Three years later, she got her job at Vanity Fair, a red brick factory that opened in 1967 to make lounge wear and undergarments.

After five years, Busby left the job to stay home with the children. She took a part-time job delivering the Pensacola newspaper. But she returned to Vanity Fair in 1979 and was grateful for the work when she and her husband divorced two years later.

The work is intense, but Busby learned to focus on fast production. A bell rings each morning at 7 a.m. The doors are locked behind the women, a safety precaution taken at VF plants to keep angry ex-husbands and boyfriends from slipping in a side door to harass their ex-loves. Workers who show up late sometimes pound on the back doors, hoping a sympathetic co-worker will help them slip inside before a supervisor notices.

The workforce is mostly middle-aged women, who spend their days cutting fabric and lace into pieces that become the bra's straps and cups. The pieces then go to "cup ladies," who assemble the front of the bra, while the "tubers" insert the underwire inside the bottom seams.

Pay varies, based on speed. The pace is non-stop, except for two 10-minute breaks and 30 minutes for lunch. During breaks, women dash outside to smoke or drink Cokes. Some say they take ephedrine pills to stay alert. Busby is critical of that: "If they got their rest, they wouldn't have any trouble," she says.

Working side by side makes for some close ties. "It gets to be kind of like family," Busby said. "You get attached to people."

The work is a natural fit for Busby, who grew up quilting, embroidering and making her own clothes. She rattles off a list of skills -- sewing darts, shoulder seams, making belts and attaching lace. She pauses. "I guess there's not much of nothing I haven't done." The bosses can count on her to show up. "I can't even remember when I missed a day."

Her Vanity Fair paycheck provides a modest living in a trailer outside of town, just past the local landfill.

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On Wednesday nights, and twice on Sundays, Nancy Busby can be found worshiping at the Full Gospel Tabernacle about 30 miles north of Milton. She gives whatever she can in offerings. [Times photo: Lisa DeJong]

Since the divorce, Busby has focused on family, church and work. She attends the Full Gospel Tabernacle three times a week, standing at the front of the church to sing her favorite hymns. She tithes and gives whatever she can when the collection plate is passed.

The rest of her free time is spent visiting her 76-year-old mother, who suffered kidney failure and now lives in a nursing home. Her father died in 1982.

Nancy's daughter-in-law was laid off from the Russell sweatshirt factory. A few months later, her kids' trailer was flooded when a hurricane pounded the Panhandle, so the couple, along with their two teenagers, moved into Nancy's cramped trailer. Nancy sleeps on the couch. They plan to eventually move to another house, now being renovated to repair flood damage.

Like Nancy, many women relied on Vanity Fair jobs for a paycheck after divorce split up their families. At least half of the plant's workers are the primary wage earners in their households, according to a survey by the Florida's Jobs & Benefits Center in Milton.

Pauline Majzun needed a job after her 26-year marriage ended in divorce. A native of Buffalo, she followed her husband's military career to the Panhandle. They had four children. The youngest, Tina, was 14 when her parents split. Pauline moved into a trailer and pleaded for a job at the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store.

Eventually, she got hired at the Russell sweatshirt plant, making $50 a day. Tina dropped out of school in the eighth grade and worked various jobs, including Vanity Fair, before joining her mother at Russell.

The 200-plus workers at Russell got raises one morning last year, only to find out a few hours later that the plant was closing in 60 days. "It was like they told you they had bombed your house," says her daughter, now Tina Cohorn, a mother of two.

Cohorn went back to school after losing her job, but her mother found another job -- at Vanity Fair.

* * *

When the Russell plant closed, Vanity Fair workers wondered about their jobs. A new plant manager had arrived. Fountain, the VF executive in charge of intimate apparel manufacturing, visited the plant last fall to announce the management change. He told them to keep up the good work. Employees said they were reassured that the plant would remain open. But Fountain says he never made any promises. "We had a pretty good idea it wouldn't stay open," says Fountain, who has worked at VF for almost 28 years.

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Nancy Busby spends a lot of free time caring for her 76-year-old mother, Fae Brewer, who has lived at the Santa Rosa Convalescent Home in Milton for 16 months. [Times photo: Lisa DeJong]
By Feb. 19, it was official. The workers were told the plant would close in mid-May. Supervisors walked the assembly lines and handed out paperwork and paychecks to women who sobbed. Everyone was sent home early, with the promise of a full day's pay. "It was total chaos," Busby recalls. She considered dashing to the bank to cancel her van loan, but she knew she needed a more reliable vehicle. Instead, she prayed. "The Lord put me here. I know he'll take care of me."

VF officials declined a Times request to tour the Milton plant. The company defends the closing as necessary to compete.

Dozens of other clothing companies are doing the same thing this year: deciding which plants must close. Levi Strauss & Co. announced it will close 11 plants and cut 5,900 jobs. Russell will close 25 of its 90 plants over three years and cut 4,000 jobs. Starter Corp. recently filed for bankruptcy.

The American Apparel Manufacturers Association, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group, does not keep numbers on plant closings. But one indication of the decline: The group represents 300 companies, down from 450 six years ago.

Some of the consolidation reflects changing fashion. Men buy fewer suits, thanks to casual Fridays even in stuffy corporate offices. The undergarment business is one of the few apparel segments that is growing. Why? "Everybody buys a lot," says Larry Martin, president of the apparel manufacturers group. U.S. retail sales of bras, for instance, climbed to $4.27-billion in 1998, up 8.6 percent from a year earlier.

But most bras now are made in Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and other low-cost labor markets. During the mid-1990s, some manufacturers took heat from consumers who did not want to buy clothing made offshore. Some still stage occasional protests, but most consumers fail to even look at the tags to see where their garments are made. Besides, shoppers have little choice because so few garments are made entirely in the states.

At the end of 1998, VF had shifted 57 percent of its sewing to foreign plants, up from 30 percent in 1995, to combat rising labor costs and pricing pressures from retailers. Wall Street likes the strategy. The Greensboro, N.C.-based company posted $388.3-million net income on 1998 sales of $5.5-billion, its third year of record sales and earnings. VF officials are still predicting this year's sales and earnings to be up 5 percent to 10 percent over last year. To reach that goal, the company announced more cutbacks in other divisions. One problem: slower sales of jeans in Europe. The company's stock closed Friday at $39 1/4 a share, down $1 1/4.

VF officials say their company is one of the last to move bra manufacturing plants abroad. "Our competitors have been offshore for 10 to 15 years," Fountain said. "We're playing catch up."

Moving jobs and production is a lot easier since passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement five years ago. That took away barriers and tariffs, allowing companies to move more production to Mexico. Wages and benefits vary, but Fountain estimates U.S. employees cost 10 times more than what the company pays workers in Mexico.

Even more sewing could be transferred if Congress approves bills extending NAFTA benefits to Caribbean Basin countries. "It's an issue of survival," says Martin, president of the manufacturers' group. "We have to have access to low-cost labor to compete." He contends the trade pact will protect other U.S. jobs, such as apparel design, marketing and transportation. Without it, "the whole thing will go to Asia," Martin says.

The trade plan has opponents, including the apparel industry's union, UNITE, the union formed from the merger of the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. (The union does not represent the workers in Milton.) Mark Levinson, UNITE's chief economist, figures the trade proposal will continue to erode the remaining 700,000 U.S. apparel jobs. He does not buy the argument that the U.S. economy can no longer sustain such low-end jobs. "These are real jobs, real lives, real people," he says. "The companies and shareholders make out fine, while the workers simply lose their jobs."

* * *

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Nancy Busby, 57, has rarely missed a day of work at the Vanity Fair plant in Milton. The pace is non-stop except for two 10-minute breaks and 30 minutes for lunch. The plant closing is bad, she says, "especially for people my age. [Times photo: Lisa DeJong]

As the Vanity Fair plant winds down production, Gene Davis is busy searching for new manufacturers to move to Milton. Of the 500 acres in the industrial park, about 250 are vacant. "Our industrial park isn't exactly setting the world on fire," says Davis, executive director of Team Santa Rosa, a local economic development agency. Indeed, there's an empty plant at the corner of Opportunity Drive and Industrial Park Boulevard.

One big challenge is competing with Alabama towns, which are more organized and generous when recruiting manufacturers. The latest battle: Who will win a New Era Cap Co. baseball cap plant?

The city and Santa Rosa county are pooling their money to buy the VF plant to help persuade New Era, based near Buffalo, N.Y., to put a cap plant in Milton. But company officials told Davis that the package must include $2-million to buy equipment for the plant. At least five other southern towns are competing for the plant.

Davis is not optimistic, especially after watching Ace Hardware pick Alabama instead of Milton for a distribution center. With dozens of empty apparel plants scattered throughout the South, newcomers have a choice of site locations. "It's who has the best deal," Davis says.

It will take several companies to replace the 541 jobs at Vanity Fair. The median income in Milton is about $21,000, but Vanity Fair workers could make more than that with overtime, despite a lack of education. "For Podunk America, that's pretty good," says Sam Copeland, manager of the local Jobs & Benefits office.

Losing the plant will cut about $15,000 from the local United Way campaign. "It will have a dramatic impact here," says Mayor Guy Thompson, who also heads the local United Way.

Local retailers are worried. Tagnar Pettersen has posted a Going Out of Business sign in the front window of his discount store. He finds it's easier to do telephone sales instead of keeping a store. He blames local and state officials for not doing more to keep and create higher-paying jobs. "Alabama is progressing. They're always bringing in somebody new," he says. Nearby, Kim Mai has just opened Nailtips, a nail salon in a renovated gas station. Most of her customers are teenagers, who rarely become repeat clients for $20 manicures.

The biggest growth seems to be a stretch of retail and fast-food restaurants along U.S. 90. And there's a new county jail next to the Santa Rosa State Correctional Institution. Davis points to another sign of hope: a new video store. "Once you get a Blockbuster, you're on your way."

Some new motels are cropping up near the interstate. But Davis finds it difficult to attract fancier restaurants to the area because Santa Rosa is one of the few remaining dry counties in Florida. He has tried to persuade conservative local leaders to loosen up the strict liquor laws. "But how do I tell that to a Baptist minister?" he asks.

* * *

Workers laid off when jobs move abroad qualify for retraining money and extended unemployment compensation. But going back to school is a frightening prospect for many of the workers, especially those who have mortgages, car payments and credit card debts.

Terry Ellis, 31, was laid off last year from the Russell clothing plant, where her fast sewing meant she sometimes earned $12 an hour. Ellis and her husband have two children, plus they were supporting her parents.

When she lost her job, the family had about $65,000 in credit card debt, plus a mortgage and a car loan on a new Chevy Blazer. "It was devastating," she says. She filed for bankruptcy, wiping out her bills. Now Ellis is attending Pensacola Junior College's program in drafting, design and civil engineering and she shuns credit cards. She is grateful for a fresh start and aspires to run her own business. "If Russell hadn't closed, I'd still be sitting out there," she says.

Local career counselors have been visiting the Vanity Fair plant. One problem: Many of the workers read at a second- or third-grade level, which will make it more difficult for them to return to school or find better jobs.

Besides, many fear the market will be saturated as 200-plus Russell workers graduate from retraining classes and fill what few jobs are open. "A lot of women are really scared," says Majzun, the Vanity Fair worker. "If we all wait until the plant closes, there ain't gonna be any jobs left." The help wanted ads in the Santa Rosa Press Gazette are not encouraging: The Oval Office Pub and Grub needs a short-order cook.

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Johnny Carter, 11, plays in the Blackwater River in downtown Milton, population 8,600. Carter's mother, Loretta Gilkerson, quit working at the Vanity Fair plant this year after she found out it would be closing. [Times photo: Lisa DeJong]
Vanity Fair supervisors are asking a few workers to stick around through mid-July, so they can finish one last order. Majzun works days at the plants, then spends her evenings perming friends' hair to make a few extra dollars. Her daughter Tina paid her $25 to dye her hair blonde.

Majzun hopes the ball cap maker will move to Milton. It would be her third sewing job in less than two years. "'Third time's a charm, instead of three strikes you're out," she says.

Likewise, Nancy Busby would prefer to keep sewing. She is encouraged when her daughter-in-law Susan finishes a six month-training course and gets a $5.34 per hour job as an emergency room technician at a local medical center. But Busby shuns the idea of "going back to a school desk."

Instead, this grandmother might enroll in a two-month program to learn how to drive a truck, a job that promises a starting pay of $9 an hour. "I'm talking big rigs," Busby says with confidence. "I'd prefer local hauling, but if I have to, I'll crawl in and go."

By mid-June, Busby's hours are reduced to only a few per week, as production slows to finish the last order. She calls in each day to see if there's work for tomorrow. To earn extra money, Busby spends afternoons or nights with homebound elderly people. She reads them passages from her worn Bible, a source of comfort for them and her.

Busby has about $100 in savings and she's not sure how she will pay for health insurance, something that she took for granted before her Vanity Fair job went to Mexico. "It's just not right."

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report and information from Times wires was used.

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