CAFTA, NAFTA and living in rural Alabama
Published 12:00 am Friday, August 5, 2005
For the most part, it’s easy to spot the one-story metal buildings.
You don’t see them from the interstate because they’re not there.
Instead, you need to go to Red Level, Andalusia, Florala and Opp and hundreds of other rural hamlets.
These were apparel plants.
Home of Judy Bond blouses and Liz Claiborne pants and Van Heusen shirts.
Home to thousands of jobs now gone to places we can’t pronounce or spell.
Between 1990 and 2002, Alabama lost 54,900 manufacturing jobs-41,200 of them in apparel.
For most Alabamians, these numbers mean no more than the Monday newspaper report of how many folks were killed on our highways the weekend before.
They’re just numbers without faces.
Just like someone who ran off the road in Lauderdale County and gets written about in the Dothan Eagle.
Except Margaret Megginson thinks she’s more than just a number.
As were the 400 people who once worked with her at her last job in Thomasville.
She grew up in west Alabama when Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis were ushering in a new wave of music and Saturday night meant a trip to the drive-in.
As she says, “All I ever wanted to do was be a housewife and a mother.”
She was already married when she graduated third in her high school class in 1962.
Instead of accepting a college scholarship, she found a job at an apparel plant in Grove Hill.
She was still 17.
“It was the only work available,” she recalls, “But it was a living wage.”
Through 37 years of marriage Margaret was never very far from a sewing machine.
“There was always a sewing plant not far away and if you were willing to work hard, they were glad to have you,” she says.
She was good at what she did, whether it was operating a machine, training others or in product development.
She is proud of what she did and the people she worked with.
“People tend to think of working in a factory as unskilled labor,” she says.
“But it takes a lot of skill and knowledge.”
And she feels strongly about all those like her who have lost their jobs.
“There is no such thing as just a factory worker”, she says.
She worked in Grove Hill, Linden, Toxey, Demopolis, Thomasville.
But slowly and surely, the plants closed their doors and parking lots filled with sandspurs and crabgrass instead of pickups and sedans.
Her husband died in 1999 at age 57, leaving Margaret and five children to cope with a changing economy and a changing way of life.
Her last job ended on Sept. 30, 2004.
She was one of only 11 employees left to walk out the door for the last time that Thursday afternoon.
Instead of Elvis and Jerry Lee, now we have NAFTA and CAFTA.
While President Bush tells the nation how we’re rebuilding roads and schools in Iraq, Margaret tries to get by on a monthly social security check of $759.
Her savings gone, her heath insurance is $300 a month and medicines for
degenerative arthritis and fibromyalgia take another $150.
She can earn up to $11,600 annually to supplement social security-if she can find a job that is not too physically demanding.
Margaret recently sent an email to key members of Governor Riley’s staff.
She spoke poignantly about her life and the circumstances she now faces.
She spoke about her concern for the rural region she has always called home.
She spoke for all the other “Margarets” who once stitched sleeves and pulled samples and made patterns.
She asked that the governor put rural Alabama on the agenda for the special session.
That in some small way, the people who have made the clothes for our backs, the lumber for our houses, the food for our tables, not continue to be forgotten.
She got a reply saying that the special session would be limited to “urgent” items.
“Evidently whoever wrote me back is not trying to live on $759 a month.”
Larry Lee is a member of Governor Riley’s Black Belt Action Commission.
He and Dr. Joe Sumners of Auburn co-authored two publications about rural Alabama, Beyond the Interstate and Crossroads and Connections. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org