Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tultex: Ten Years Later

Ten years ago today, I was an eighth grade kid being picked up after school. I walked out to my mom's car and got in. I'll never forget what came next. "Well, it's official," she said as we pulled onto Starling Avenue. "They told me today that I've been terminated." Terminated. They actually used that word.

And with that, globalization came home for me in a very real way. I didn't quite understand it yet, but my family had just walked into a much different world. And for my hometown of Martinsville, it was only going to get worse.

On that day, the former textile giant Tultex filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, putting more than 1,100 people out of work. Literally overnight, Martinsville's unemployment rate shot to nineteen percent. By the time the company finally closed down several months later, 3,300 former employees had lost their jobs.

No job, no severance, no health care. Just in time for Christmas.

My family didn't end up losing our house, and my mom found another job in Danville a few months later. But to this day, my parents still struggle as a result of what happened at Tultex. After working at Tultex for twenty years, my mom never received her severance package, nor did any of the other employees who lost their jobs in 1999-2000.

Today the Martinsville Bulletin began a series of retrospectives on the fall of Tultex and the absolute devastation it wrought on our community. Today's article reminded me of the most reprehensible part of the whole saga: the reaction of then-Governor Jim Gilmore, who not only did nothing, but actually went out of his way to betray the unemployed.
“One of the biggest letdowns was the sense of disbelief at how the General Assembly and the governor turned their backs on us,” said Paula Burnette, Iriswood District member of the Henry County Board of Supervisors now and a decade ago.

Former governor Jim Gilmore was in office when the company closed in 2000 following the layoff of 1,130 people on Dec. 2, 1999. When he learned of the economic devastation in Henry County because of the closing, Gilmore said he was unable to help because “‘If I do it for one group, I’ll have to do it for others,’ or something like that,” Burnette said.

Gilmore “never even came to visit or see the people. He never bothered to look them in the eye and at least say, ‘I’m sorry for what you’re going through.’ That utter lack of compassion for a fellow human being was beyond belief,” she said. (My emphasis)
The General Assembly, especially with the leadership of Delegates Ward Armstrong and Brian Moran, tried to pass an extension of unemployment benefits for the laid off workers. Gilmore vetoed it. Last year, I talked to a staunch Republican acquaintance of mine about Gilmore's Martinsville appearance early in his senate campaign. His exact words were, "I can't believe that man even has the nerve to show his face in this town." But hey, at least the unemployed didn't have to pay the car tax.

Among the indignities the Tultex closing inflicted was the way the company treated its departing workers. As mentioned above, severance and other benefits were out of the question. But this quote from today's article highlights an especially disgraceful aspect of the closing:
Ideally, the closing “would have been handled in a different manner,” Vaughn said. As it was, employees were told to leave and not take anything with them.

Later, when the Tultex building was for sale, Vaughn recalled the company he worked for considered buying the facility. Vaughn was among those who walked through.

“I always kept photos of my wife and kids on my desk to kind of remind me why I was working,” Vaughn said. Apparently, many Tultex employees did the same thing.

The one thing I remember from when I walked through the building was all those personal items I saw around work stations and on desks,” Vaughn said. “It was kind of like walking through a battlefield or a ghost town.” (My emphasis)
Not only that, but the employees who were allowed to clear their desks were watched intently by company personnel. I guess the higher ups didn't want anybody getting out with an extra stapler.

To this day, Martinsville has not recovered. Instead, even more jobs have left due largely to outsourcing and other problems. There are signs of hope and undercurrents of change; the focus of the article was how Martinsville-Henry County as a community came together to help each other during the aftermath. I remember that clearly, and that same spirit is helping us redefine ourselves now. Renewal will happen, but there's no denying that we took a big hit and there's still a long way to go.

In future posts, I will go into greater detail about what caused the collapse and how we can address those issues. In the meantime, thanks for reading.

No comments: