Six a.m. Already the women driving into the grassy field that is the parking lot for the Workers’ Owned Sewing Company can feel the 95-degree heat of August days in Windsor, North Carolina. Six had not always been the hour the day shift began, but the Workers’ Owned factory has no air conditioning. So, at the beginning of the summer, the board of directors “called a meeting” at which the workers voted to start their day early in order to finish when the heat of the day became unbearable.
Ten a.m. Fifty women sit at their machines, sewing pieces of cloth into finished garments. Longtime civil rights activist and chairman of the board Tim Bazemore, one of two men who work here fulltime, is nowhere to be seen, although he often spends over 12 hours each day at the factory. This morning, Bazemore took a bit of time from WOSC to sell his hogs.
Although at first glance WOSC gives the physical appearance of an old-fashioned sweat shop, it is not. The machines are lined up in four rows for production, but no assembly-line demands make workers keep up to pace; no one has yet been fired, for working too slowly or for any cause. When one woman continually overstated her production, she was not fired; instead Bazemore and the workers’ board talked with her about the problem. They also discussed the issue in general terms with all the workers, and gradually the woman improved her behavior. Unlike the other factories where these women have worked, permission is not needed for a quick trip to the bathroom or to the water fountain.
A few standard grievances do exist, due mainly to the new company’s lack of money, and workers express these grievances over and over. Besides the basic complaint about the heat, the workers ask: Why is there no place to make a private call? When are we getting insurance? When will we be able to get paid holidays? Other questions apply specifically to the coop: Why don’t we have our business meetings at 11:30 so we don’t have to stay after work? When will we get a share and how often? And some questions show a concern for their company: Why do we sit near the window with the curtain tied back; it looks bad from the outside for a place of business.
Despite a general lack of explicit verbal expressions of the differences between a worker coop and a standard corporation, most people treat WOSC as a special place. Almost all plan to buy a share of stock eventually. “It’s something we started ourselves. We’re proud,” says one board member, and Maggie Cherry adds, “If it comes to working Saturdays and Sundays we do that, too.” A worker who joined the coop in March when she lost her transportation to another job now prefers WOSC: “It’s a worker-owned cooperative so you get a chance to help make decisions…You watch the company as it grows; you ’re part of it. ’’Helen White, who comprises the one-person personnel committee to process grievances, thinks, “Most of us work very hard” because of worker ownership. “[The difference] is that people here are supposed to be part owners.”
The story of the Workers’ Owned Sewing Company really began with the local schools. In the early ’60s, Tim Bazemore and other black farmers and small businessmen began to push for a new black school, one with running water and other advantages of the white school. “My children were involved in those schools,” says Bazemore, “and I owed it to them as well as to the community.” After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the group changed its goal to integration of the schools.
Three years later the schools remained segregated. In the backlash, no white would allow Bazemore, a farmer and pulpwood cutter, to rent land or cut wood on their land. So blacks organized a “withdrawal”: a boycott of downtown businesses led by Bazemore, with the assistance of activists from other parts of the South, including the staff of the Highlander Center in Tennessee and John Salter, Jr., of the Southern Conference Education Fund. When business came to a standstill, the demands, which included access to local jobs for blacks as well as integrated schools, were met.* That boycott, Bazemore now says, “had more impact on the black community than anything else that happened to this day.”
But even though local jobs were opened to blacks, the lack of industry meant few jobs were available. Decades of hostility to industry of any sort by a few rich landowners left Bertie County, home of WOSC, with little industry at all. One of the 10 poorest counties in the United States, Bertie County in 1970 had a per capita income of $1,550, under half that for the U.S. The average weekly manufacturing wage in 1979 — $152.87 — was only about three-fourths that for North Carolina, the state with the lowest manufacturing wage in the nation. As one local minister commented recently, “The plantation philosophy was, if you have competition, you can’t get cheap labor.” Even minimum-wage factory work posed a threat to the landowners’ access to a cheap workforce, but with the increasing mechanization of agriculture, this attitude has mellowed in recent years.
The idea for a black community owned company to provide employment first appeared during the school crisis of the early ’60s. Initial plans called for opening a laundromat since the only one in town served whites only. After several years of meetings and raising funds, the concept changed to starting a cut-and-sew factory (cutting finished cloth to patterns, sewing the cloth into garments). With $21,025 raised largely by selling 841 shares at $25 each to the black community, Bertie Industries opened in 1966. By 1975, the book value of each $25 share of BI stock reached $229, and before-tax-profits remained steadily over $100,000 per year. With 120 workers and its own building, Bertie Industries became the sixth largest employer in the county.
Naturally, the road to success was rocky. Whites in the county didn’t fight BI simply because they believed blacks couldn’t succeed, and the lack of capital did nearly kill the factory in its first year. High training costs for workers — virtually none had previous experience in any factory work — and low prices on contracts almost doomed the company in 1967. The black community then formed the Bertie Boosters Club which, with the Windsor Merchants’ Association, raised $6,000 to get BI more firmly on its feet, and by the end of 1968 Bertie Industries showed a profit. The next year, at the behest of local Republican politicians, Bertie Industries got a quick, almost-unasked-for injection of money from the Small Business Administration, which saw BI as a potential model of black capitalism.
The Nixon Administration considered the SBA 8(a) program to be the key to the success of black capitalism. Under 8(a), minority-owned businesses received contracts at subsidized rates until the company could compete on its own in the free market. In theory, 8(a) would provide the opportunity to overcome the handicaps of lack of capital and lack of expertise. The fall of BI from before-tax profits of $100,000 in 1975 to a loss of $161,000 in 1978, the year the program ended for BI, illustrates the total failure of 8(a).
Under 8(a), the Small Business Administration sent in managers, almost always white, who would run the company, supposedly teaching the real owners how to conduct a respectable business. In practice, however, these managers had no incentive either to train the real owners or to run the company well. Moreover, to participate in 8(a) the BI board of directors had to turn over almost total control to SBA and its appointed managers. In one case — not an isolated instance — SBA insisted BI award a contract to a relative of a government official rather than to the lowest bidder. Bazemore asserts that the board of directors asked to have black managers trained, but SBA “did not allow a black to be trained under the white management. ... We were not allowed to really be involved in the day-to-day operation.” To Bazemore, the fact that “the board of directors of the black community was not really involved” — a lack not totally the fault of SBA — was “one of the greatest factors that caused [BI] to fail.” In addition, the white managers had little interest in or understanding of the goals and history of BI, to the extent that, according to Bazemore, “Bertie Industries would not hire people who were involved in” the boycott.
When the SBA connection ended in 1976, BI had been stuck with a large government contract to produce camouflage jackets at a price so low as to guarantee a loss, a contract arranged by an SBA-appointed manager who disappeared, never to be heard from again. Eventually, Bertie Industries lost a quarter of a million dollars on the contract, and over the next two years BI opened and closed a few times as Bazemore took over as manager and attempted to save the company. But he lacked any experience running a cut-and-sew business, and the debts proved insurmountable even though small profits appeared before BI finally closed its doors in 1978.
In one reopened phase during 1978, Bertie Industries’ board members were presented with an idea: start a new company that would be owned and managed by the workers. The Workers’ Owned Sewing Company was the brainchild of Frank Adams, an activist from nearby Gates County who has long been involved in civil rights and other struggles in the area and around the South. Board member Willie Riddick, who had worked with Adams in the Gates County Assembly, a grass-roots, multi-issue political action group (see Southern Exposure, Vol. VII, No. 1), brought him in to help save BI.
“At that time,” recalls Adams, “I was running a shoe repair shop which I was using as a center for social change in Gatesville. . . . Some people came over from Bertie County and wanted to know if I’d come over. They had also heard, and perhaps correctly, that I had a lot of contacts with not only money people but people with technical skills who were willing to put those skills to the service of people.”
Adams put together the Workers’ Ownership Technical Assistance Group, composed of himself and several professors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and financed by the Youth Project and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. Although the TAG did investigate the ability of BI to survive, its main purpose was to develop a plan for transition to some form of worker ownership and/or worker control.
After first learning the basics of the cut-and-sew business themselves, the TAG made a semblance of order out of the business records of BI and proved to the board that the more business the company did, the more deeply they fell into debt. At least two board members — Bazemore and Riddick — increasingly became convinced that worker ownership was the path to take. The board as a whole still wanted to save the company, but before any of the TAG’s recommendations of ways to revive or transform BI could be enacted, creditors forced the demise of Bertie Industries.
Convincing the workers that workers’ ownership would be good for them was even more difficult than convincing the board, and that task has yet to be completed. For 13 years, Bertie Industries provided jobs for black and white people and stood as a source of pride for the black community especially. But the chaos of BI’s last years — the payless paydays, the periodic closings, the decline of community involvement, the widespread nepotism — left a legacy of distrust that would be a major hurdle for any new experiment.
Compounding the problem, in the final days of BI’s existence, the TAG (except for Adams) had had practically no contact with the workers, who were naturally suspicious of these white men from Chapel Hill. The only substantive meeting between the TAG and the workers came at the end of the study when its results were presented. TAG member Ed Bergman, a city planner with experience studying and advising several worker ownership projects, recalls that day. The workers expected the meeting to be another announcement of a payless payday, the reason for previous worker meetings. (One such day had occurred the day the TAG first arrived.) After the TAG’s presentation of the conditions they had found at BI, “They [the workers] were truly perplexed.” Bergman believes that the workers received the plans with much skepticism and misunderstanding. As in subsequent meetings between outside advisors and the workers as a group, the workers remained almost totally silent. However, a committee of 10 workers was selected to discuss and help plan the transition. Adams later described the activities of that committee:
We had regular meetings. They stayed two or three hours after work and they talked with Steve Dawson [a consultant who had also worked with the Assemblies] , they talked with Diana Wilson [of the Youth Project, a funding agency]. They talked with Ed Bergman and they made proposals like asking people to work for no pay in order to keep a new firm going and things like that. In general, they discussed the subtleties of worker ownership and worker management and three of the people that were elected to that transition committee are on the board [of the Workers' Owned Sewing Company] now.
With the help not only of Frank Adams, but also of the Industrial Cooperative Association [ICA], a group of Massachusetts-based consultants, a set of by-laws for a worker-owned corporation was written. In August, 1979, Tim Bazemore purchased the first share of stock. Under the by-laws, WOSC opened with Bazemore holding a majority of stock, with total control to be transferred to the workers gradually over the next three years.
Like Bertie Industries, WOSC lacks both sufficient capital and sufficient equipment. Standard business loans are unavailable to the worker coop, and Bazemore used up most of the personal savings he had amassed as a farmer and woodcutter in the effort to save BI. The initial capitalization of WOSC was a little money from Bazemore, plus a $3,000 low-interest loan arranged by ICA. A $15,000 loan in November helped the company buy machines and employ enough people to reach the break-even point, but not enough to bring in experienced managers. (Half of that loan has already been repaid, and payments are six months ahead of schedule.)
How WOSC met its first payrolls illustrates the tightness of money at the company . . . and how starting a workers’ coop in Bertie County is unique. At the last minute Tim Bazemore, with the help of friends and neighbors, sold his corn crop on Thursday to raise the cash for Friday’s pay. This ad hoc arrangement continued for several weeks. “Tim got the first money, literally,” says Adams, “with his corn crop, his soy beans and his hogs. And when the next crisis came, ICA and I got the money” in November.
WOSC has faced some opposition — some outright — from blacks in Bertie County, arising in part from personal rivalries between Bazemore and other BI board members who express a desire to reopen BI. Although nothing has come of this, the workers and others involved with WOSC sorely want that BI building for themselves: not only is it air-conditioned, but it is much larger than the current WOSC building.* And some people continue to be bitter at Bazemore because, in the closing days of BI, he was forced to fire some people.
On the other hand, “Many of the whites have been supportive,” says Bazemore. “The mayor has been extremely helpful,” and one white man offered to loan the company $8,000. But this support from the white community is not universal, and trouble from the Southern Bank and Trust Company almost resulted in WOSC following BI to the graveyard.
When it appeared that WOSC might succeed, says Bazemore, “Everything I had come due yesterday;” the bank foreclosed on personal loans to Bazemore, thereby threatening to kill WOSC. The relevant officer of the bank also chairs the local chamber of commerce. The death of WOSC would have freed up a workforce for a new company that local businessmen apparently hope to open in the BI building, now vacant. The day before the loan had to be repaid, Frank Adams and ICA arranged another loan to get the needed $11,000.
These were not the only financial crises: in January, 1980, the company found itself $9,000 short of being able to pay quarterly payroll taxes. At the same time, Opportunity Funding Corporation (only one of many groups that supporters of WOSC say don’t understand the problem) rejected an application for a long-term loan. Next, the WOSC application for CETA funding was denied, after assurances that it would be approved. Then the SBA office in Charlotte, North Carolina, delayed processing an application to admit WOSC into the 8(a) program. The application was eventually turned down because of the unusual structure of the company as a worker coop and because the company was undercapitalized.
Despite these multiple setbacks, by spring of 1980 Bazemore and Adams both expected WOSC to succeed. In part, the Workers’ Owned Sewing Company derived some benefit from the legacy of BI — learning from both its mistakes and its positive contributions. Almost all the workers at WOSC previously worked at BI, making them experienced cut-and-sew operators. Further, a significant minority of the workers at WOSC had owned shares at BI, making them more cautious about the company’s financial risks, but also more aware of what owning stock can mean and can demand. A share of BI stock carried no voting rights; at WOSC, each worker will eventually have to buy, after a six-month trial period, one and only one share of stock under the principle of one-person-one-vote.
Lastly, for all its faults, BI set a precedent of decent working conditions. Almost all see a big difference between WOSC or BI and other local industries such as Perdue, a $9.6 million chicken processing plant built in nearby Lewiston in 1976, described by one WOSC board member as “just simply a prison.”
But the factor that will make the difference between success and failure (and which accounts for Bazemore’s and Adams’ optimism) is the concept of worker ownership and control. That concept has drawn to Bertie County the interest and support of several foundations and the crucial expertise of several consultants, all of whom recognize in the WOSC — a rural, black-worker-owned coop — an experiment with wide potential impact. The foundations, of course, provided the initial capital in the form of loans and grants, which would otherwise have been unavailable to blacks attempting to start businesses in Windsor and which got WOSC over several financial humps.
The foundation money also supports the participation of consultants which, although not without negative effects, brings much-needed expertise and personal support. The TAG helped only in the transition, but the Industrial Cooperative Association has been providing educational, management and financial assistance for two years. The connection between ICA and WOSC grows in part out of the involvement of ICA project coordinator Steve Dawson in the Assemblies, where he first worked with Riddick and Adams. Joseph Fox, a business analyst from ICA who travels to Windsor every two months, has helped WOSC both to judge accurately how well the company is doing and to do computer projections for the next three years under a variety of circumstances. A current application to SBA for participation in 8(a) was prepared and submitted by ICA.
To make worker control a reality, to realize both its economic and human potential, requires education, and this has been Frank Adams’ task. Adams describes his assignment, which began in the BI period, as the “development of an understanding of the democratic process and democratic decision-making.” In short, he teaches the workers how to be managers and, conversely, teaches the present managers — Bazemore and the board — how to let worker control become a reality. For several months, Adams held “school” for workers and managers over weekly pot-luck lunches around the wood stove that provided the only (vastly insufficient) heat for the factory in winter. Most workers recall those meetings fondly. Instead of lecturing, Adams attempted to lead the workers to understand what worker ownership meant:
The reality that I faced as a teacher in this process was an enormous hostility toward the idea of a cooperative because of the history of Bertie Industries and the Poor People’s Coop another [attempt at community cooperation in Bertie which, in many people’s eyes, failed.] In order to develop an educational process which reinforced their willingness to learn about workers’ ownership and participate in it, we had to structure an educational process which reinforced the good things which happened to them, and make sure good things did happen to them.
Most of the discussions centered on production, while more politically oriented issues are faced as they arise. For example, “The process [of electing the worker board of directors] was very, very important,” says Adams.
A big deal was made of that…We started the process by helping them learn how to organize and hold an election. . .. When I see they can’t form a committee to hold an election, that’s when I begin working with a group of people. I start working with them by raising questions about how you go about electing people in your church. I try to relate the process as much to their previous experience as possible. And it’s simply a matter of setting them in motion so they can learn by doing in the context of doing it on the shop floor.
Adams’ approach does have one drawback: although there is a small core who today can discuss worker ownership, only a few workers explicitly understand that the name of their company has any special meaning. When asked how long they’ve worked at WOSC, all include their years at BI. And, unfortunately, the potlucks were suspended, partly due to business ups and downs, partly due to the heat of the summer, and partly because Adams believes that that phase of his task as teacher has largely been completed, that the workers must educate themselves from now on.
The basis of Adams’ positive assessment, and the focus of much of his contribution, is the board of directors. Although the by-laws provided for Bazemore to appoint a majority of the board for the first year, he allowed the workers to elect the entire board from the outset. The current board — Bazemore and workers Lila Dudley, Celia Cherry, Maggie Cherry (no relation) and Louise White — do have a deep understanding of the company and the collective process born of a hard year of experience. The most dramatic display of this understanding occurred in June when the board voted unanimously, except for Bazemore, that it was time to sell shares in WOSC to the workers: they overruled Bazemore’s caution and saw the necessity of making worker ownership a reality even while the venture seemed risky. In late September, this mandate finally was put in action, and by October, 47 of the 60 workers were buying a $100 share through a payroll deduction of $2 to $5 per week.
The board, like the workers, still has much to learn. While the board is informed on all matters relating to the company — they discuss the state of grants and loans, Fox explains the business plans, Bazemore and Adams report on projects to buy the BI building — in actuality it appears to simply approve, or in rare cases disapprove, of actions taken by Bazemore. In this they usually function much as a standard corporate board of directors, voting on proposals put forth by managers, but taking no initiatives in management itself, such as seeking out contracts, talking to job applicants before Bazemore does, selecting supervisors. All the board members agree with Lila Dudley that “you need a manager” and always will.
But, as Joseph Fox, who hopes to complete his role as business advisor soon and begin helping Adams with continuing educational work, points out, in Bertie County every advance is made against immense odds. “I learned to be very excited just by the small changes in people’s ability to grasp just one more piece to make their business run.”
Today, the balance sheet of the Workers’ Owned Sewing Company, if not that of General Motors, is better than that of Chrysler. The company recorded its first monthly profit in May, 1980, only eight months after opening. Sales now run at a comfortably steady $35,000 per month, and worker productivity, by standards in the cut-and-sew industry, has risen from dismal to respectable. From 25 employees in the fall of 1979, the coop grew to 56 in August, 1980, with 100 projected for May, 1981, with three employees to be added each month. The business plan prepared by Fox projects annual sales of $2 million and an annual profit of $134,000 within two years, even without 8(a) or additional grants or loans.
No payless paydays have occurred at WOSC, avoiding perhaps the chief bitterness in the days of BI. In fact, the coop’s first large, steady contract — from K-Mart in the summer of 1980 — means a few workers have become practiced enough working on a single pattern to earn incentive pay to go with the base pay of $3.10 per hour (the minimum wage).
Outside Bertie County and eastern North Carolina $3.10 per hour sounds pretty poor for a worker-owned coop, especially since the stock may never bring great financial dividends. But in Bertie County, with few industrial jobs existing, especially for women, and given the national standard for cut-and-sew, the pay at WOSC is a welcome contrast to unemployment or low-paid seasonal farmwork. Bazemore is not joking or exaggerating when he says that “At minimum wage, we’re average.”
Worker ownership is seen as the key to survival for the company after the consultants leave. The cut-and-sew industry is highly competitive, with fixed costs in almost all operations. The only way to compete is to be more efficient, and practically all studies agree that productivity increases with worker control. In the first place, costs for supervisors are kept to a minimum: supervisors at WOSC mainly coordinate, and never discipline; when a machine is free, they often join the other workers sewing garments since no one is bound by job descriptions.
More important, when the workers own the company, when they feel in control of the company, they obviously have a greater incentive to do good work. While much education remains to be done, the seeds of cooperation always existed. Several people donated a few weeks of their time before WOSC opened in order to make the warehouse space clean and usable. As one worker said when WOSC approached its first birthday, “Everybody here’s trying to make money for the company. ... I find myself more interested in the quality since I’m working in a workers’ coop. . . . You care.” Says board member Louise White, “I feel like I’m doing it for myself.” And the other board members all agree.
The real advantages of WOSC, however — the real difference between working for Blue Bell Corporation in nearby Robersonville and working at WOSC — lie in the conditions of work, in the power of the members to control their own working lives. Almost all the employees of WOSC say nothing negative and much that is positive about the company they will come to own. “Here it feels just like I’m working at home,” says board member Maggie Cherry. Other opinions range from “I like the people” to “It’s easier’” than work at Blue Bell to “more relaxed, less pressured.” A few workers voice negative feelings, such as “It’s a big difference [from the shoe company]. The shoe company was better,” or “You don’t want to ask.” (This last comment came from a person “ordered” to WOSC by the Employment Security Commission. The ESC on the whole refuses to send experienced workers to WOSC. “They direct them to all over hell,” says Adams, “rather than direct them to Workers’ Owned.”)
The low turnover at WOSC reflects in part the lack of other options in the county, but also a significant degree of worker loyalty and contentment with the work. What seems to set WOSC and its predecessor BI apart from other companies is not the abstract idea of worker ownership but its effect: the lack of pressure, especially from plant supervisors. At WOSC the supervisors are so well integrated into the workforce that no one expresses any of the customary resentment towards them. Few people seem to grudge them their slightly higher salary of $150 per week or their privileged parking spaces. Supervisors decide who will work which contracts — a potential source of antagonism since most everyone wants to work on the K-Mart contract with its greater potential for earning incentive pay — but they never ride herd on the workers. Assignments are rotated so that more workers can benefit from the good contracts. Workers who can’t give a precise definition of worker ownership are well-aware of the differences between WOSC supervisors and those elsewhere: “The supervisors are different because they’re not pushy.” “There’s nobody on my back.”
One of the great achievements at WOSC has been the positive way blacks and whites work together. About three-fourths of the workers are black, and the board has ranged from about 50-50 to its present 80 percent black. The idea that the future of the company depends on the workers appears to be the force creating cooperation. Again, the board members speak most eloquently. Louise White (white): “One big family, that’s all. ... My kids are just like I am. If you cut your finger, it’ll bleed just like mine.” Or Lila Dudley (black): “We don’t even think about color. We think about people. We couldn’t make it if there were discrimination. We have learned to deal with people not color. That’s one of the reasons we’re going to make it.” One white ex-employee was widely considered to be a racist when she started at WOSC, but, says Dudley, “She was much different when she left… She had it in her heart, but she held it in real good.”
For all the potential for an egalitarian workers’ coop in the future, WOSC does operate with a hierarchy today. At the top of the pyramid sits Tim Bazemore, one of two full-time male employees; the other is the mechanic. The mechanic’s higher pay reflects the pay rate demanded for the job. Bazemore’s higher pay grows out of his role as manager, and out of his personal financial and emotional commitment to WOSC, plus the 10 weeks he put in without pay when the company began. Besides being paid more, workers view Bazemore as the boss, although the board does recognize and act on its ability to overrule him. The unanimous view of Bazemore as boss may be WOSC’s biggest problem for the future. As one satisfied employee, with six years of experience at BI, phrases it, “I’ll stay as long as he lets me.” Or, on a lighter note, one board member recalled that Bazemore (Mr. Bazemore to the workers and to the board) promised the workers watermelon and ice cream during the summer, a promise never fulfilled.
The fact that all outside consultants are white males — Frank Adams, Joseph Fox, Steve Dawson, Mike Miles, Mike Redmond, Rick Carlisle, Ed Bergman — certainly reinforces the male dominance at WOSC. Even the few part-time men at WOSC strengthen the pattern, since they usually do specific tasks, such as cutting or pressing.
Smaller points add to the hierarchy. The assigned parking spaces for supervisors are excused as necessary because the supervisors have to sometimes take a person to the hospital, but why does a supervisor have to take care of such a task? More important, two board members are also supervisors, carrying a suggestion of potential for misuse of board member power, although no signs of that exist now.
Lastly, neither the board nor Bazemore believe that the workers are ready to know the financial state of the Workers’ Owned Sewing Company. The workers did not know the company lost money most months, and therefore didn’t know when the first profits appeared or how welcome a $60,000 loan from the Presbyterian Church was. Certainly, no one had the opportunity for collective rejoicing at these positive signs, just as they have not been able to learn, as a group, the extent of the trials of establishing their coop. The reason for keeping the workers in the dark lies in the bitter memories of Bertie Industries’ financial woes, leading Bazemore and Fox and Adams to insist that keeping workers’ confidence is more crucial at this point than education on cooperative management. They are probably right, but the ramifications of protecting the members of a worker coop from full knowledge of their own company may not be easy to overcome.
Just as the problem of hierarchies, unmentioned at WOSC today, will inevitably surface, so too will the question of labor unions. In fact, one of the nails in the coffin of BI came when that company unknowingly got a subcontract — later blocked by the courts — from a Northern company being struck by a textile union. Even without experiences such as that, unions show a great reluctance to support, and sometimes even show hostility towards, worker coops. Says Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, “The concept of workers’ control is an exciting one for soapbox oratory in the streets and rap sessions in the faculty lounge. It’s just not realistic to talk about under the social, political and economic system in this country.”*
People at WOSC today see no role for a union in their factory. While one board member could visualize a need for a union if WOSC grew larger, all supported Lila Dudley’s belief that “If the company profits, the people profit, so they don’t need a union.” One worker who “didn’t know much about a coop when I came here,” and wanted a union in her previous job, says “There’s no need for it [at WOSC]. A union’s to protect you, right? ... A board you elect is going to look out for your welfare and your well-being. ... A union is somewhat the same thing.”
Logically, the people at WOSC are correct. But on August 25, 1980, the 500 employees of South Bend Lathe, Inc., a 100 percent employee-owned company in Indiana, went on strike, apparently against themselves. They struck because, although they owned the company, they had no say in management. The structure, size and history of WOSC are quite different from those of South Bend Lathe, and great effort at cooperative education is made at WOSC to ensure that worker management goes hand-in-hand with worker ownership in Bertie County. But the potential for conflict is obvious in the existing hierarchies, in a lack of worker awareness of the existence of their board let alone its role, and in the lack of board or worker involvement in the day-to-day management. Further, events in Poland in the summer of 1980 showed that even when an entire nation expresses worker control as official policy, unions are necessary as a counterforce to the potential to abuse that ideology. Even the probable success of WOSC, affecting perhaps a hundred families, would not in itself prove Wurf wrong, prove that worker control can succeed on a wide scale in the U.S.
In Bertie County today, these potential hurdles seem beside the point. The immediate raison d’etre, after all, of both Bertie Industries and the Workers’ Owned Sewing Company was to create jobs in one county. Tim Bazemore and the board members and other employees see 60 people gainfully employed in a far more humane structure and environment than most people would think possible in a region where plantation landowners still retain effective control of local politics and economics. A significant number of those 60 people take pride in being part owners of their place of employment. They have succeeded, for the most part, in escaping the negative parts of the legacy of Bertie Industries, slowly gaining the trust of the black community and establishing the faith that WOSC will live. There have been problems along the way, and a great need exists for constant attention to education, but a solid foundation has been laid.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” says Lila Dudley, “but we’re going.” In August, 1980, Dudley was honored by her church, one of the most influential in Bertie County, for her role in the Workers’ Owned Sewing Company. And now that workers are buying shares, they are also investing in and becoming aware of the nature of worker control. The workers who own shares, as would be expected, also appear to understand best what the Workers’ Owned Sewing Company is all about.
Meanwhile, as advocates of worker coops predict, the idea of economic democracy is slowly spreading. Tim Bazemore, with the prodding encouragement of Frank Adams, has become a spokesperson for worker ownership in the state and eventually plans, when his presence at WOSC is no longer needed, to return to his true vocation, timber cutting, and set up a worker coop in that business. And 70 miles away, in New Bern, North Carolina, 250 people showed up for a meeting in late summer, 1980: Texfi Corporation had announced its intention to close its plant there; these angry workers began to discuss saving their jobs by running their plant as a coop. In this they can listen to one Bertie County worker for inspiration: “When you get into something like this, it makes you think about what could be done.”
* Today, Bertie County still comes in almost at the bottom of North Carolina counties in local funds spent per student, and only a fifth of adult males complete high school. White landowners led the forces that successfully defeated a $4 million school bond issue in 1979.
* WOSC tried for a major loan of $150,000 from the new National Coop Bank in order to purchase the BI building. In a sense, this loan application can be seen as a test of the new coop bank, which considers itself a partisan of the coop movement. All early loans from the bank, however, went to established and stable coops, those that needed loans more for special projects than for survival. Grass-roots and shaky coops - such as a coop of working-class blacks in Bertie County - have yet to benefit. But the building was sold to someone else before the bank could make a decision.
*Quoted in Daniel Zwerdling, Democracy at Work, available for $5.00 plus $.50 postage from Association for Self-Management, c/o 1414 Spring Rd., NW, Washington. DC 20010.
Marc Miller was a staff member of the Institute for Southern Studies and Southern Exposure for eight years. He is now a senior editor of Technology Review magazine. (1986)
Marc Miller is associate editor of Southern Exposure. He edited Working Lives: The Southern Exposure History of Labor in the South, published by Pantheon Books in 1981. (1980)
Marc Miller is an historian on the staff of the Institute for Southern Studies. He is currently editing a book of first person accounts of work in the twentieth century. (1978)