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‘Factory Man’ explores human side of how globalization affects U.S. industry

August 20, 2014 at 6:38 PM EDT
For much of the 20th century, southern Virginia and North Carolina were home to the world's biggest furniture factories and suppliers. But between 1989 and 2007, seven factories closed, in part due to booming furniture-making businesses in Asia. Jeffrey Brown profiles “Factory Man,” a new book by Beth Macy, that recalls of the rise and fall of the industry, as well as one hard-earned success story.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, Jeffrey Brown takes us to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia for a story of music, factories, and one man’s fight against the outflow of U.S. jobs overseas.

JEFFREY BROWN: Heavy rains couldn’t keep fans and musicians from gathering for the 79th Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax, Virginia, where they spent days singing, dancing and catching up with old friends.

TOM WORTH: It’s the music. A lot of us have roots in the North Carolina mountains or the Virginia mountains, and it’s just — this is part of our heritage.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was here in Galax in the 1920s, in fact, that a group calling itself the Hill Billies — two words — got together to jam in a barbershop on Main Street. It’s now a fiddle shop where musicians still gather.

JOE WILSON: This is the originally Hill Billies band that hillbilly music is named for.

JEFFREY BROWN: Folklorist Joe Wilson helped found The Crooked Road, a 330-mile heritage music tour through the Blue Ridge of Virginia. And he draws a direct tie between the musical tradition of playing and making instruments and the industry that also once defined this region: furniture building.

JOE WILSON: Furniture was everything here. And a lot of commercial country music is based on the fact that there came a time of when these furniture factory guys, they had a little more leisure time than they’d had on the mountain farm.

JEFFREY BROWN: For much of the 20th century, Southern Virginia and North Carolina were home to the world’s biggest furniture factories and suppliers. But that was then, before the majority of factories closed down and moved overseas. The rise and fall of the industry is told in the new book “Factory Man” by Beth Macy, who began it while a reporter for “The Roanoke Times.”

BETH MACY, Author, “Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local and Helped Save an American Town”: I had initially set out to tell the story in Martinsville and Henry County of what had happened to 19,000, 20,000 workers that had lost their jobs.

JEFFREY BROWN: What she saw were places like Bassett, Virginia where between 1989 and 2007 seven furniture factories closed.

BETH MACY: And there was one day kind of late in my reporting where I was driving home from Bassett, and I just found myself in tears.

JEFFREY BROWN: In tears?

BETH MACY: In tears, just — not anything particular had happened that day, but I had just interviewed so many people and had witnessed so much destruction. Like, I had seen those plants get taken down month after month after month.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Macy also had a more uplifting story to tell. And it also was named Bassett, John Bassett III.

BETH MACY: He’s this incredible character, he’s relentless, he’s wealthy, he doesn’t have to do this, so what are his motivations?

JOHN BASSETT III, Chairman, Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Company: I was born in a furniture family. My grandfather was one of the founders of the Bassett industries of 1902. My father was chairman of the board of Bassett.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Bassett came from the family, the company that owned everything in town: the homes employees lived in, the bank, the churches where they worshipped, even the electricity.

JOHN BASSETT III: You came home every night and you spoke about furniture. I mean, this — I was indoctrinated in this for all my life, and I have been doing this for 52 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Macy’s book details an American epic: the industry’s growth in a region with abundant hardwood forests, an eager and, compared to the north, cheaper work force, and a railroad running through it, the family dramas that, among much else, forced John Bassett to leave the main company in Bassett to join the much smaller Vaughan-Bassett in Galax, and, of course, the impact of the rise of a furniture-making industry in Asia, based on even cheaper labor.

There are vivid stories, as when John Bassett first visited a vast factory in China and met its confident overseer.

JOHN BASSETT III: And he said, I’m going to take all the business away from all of you.

JEFFREY BROWN: He just said that to you?

JOHN BASSETT III: Absolutely. And he said, you need to close your factories and put yourself in my hands. And I thought to myself, my grandfather would roll up over in his grave if he thought his grandson was closing his factories and put it in the hands of a Chinese.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many, of course, did do that, but John Bassett fought back, bringing and winning what was then the largest-ever illegal dumping case before the World Trade Organization and plowing millions of dollars in duties imposed on Chinese imports into new equipment in his factory.

JOHN BASSETT III: I feel responsible for these people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, with 700 workers, it’s the largest employer in town. But it wasn’t and isn’t easy.

JOHN BASSETT III: Well, we had a lot of sleepless nights, OK?

And then we thought about it, we talked to our people here, we talked to our board of directors about it. We knew what — we had to invest in money. And then we made up our mind, we were going to compete, and remain an American manufacturer, and from that time on, we never looked back.

JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to equipment upgrades, Vaughan-Bassett began offering retailers same-day shipping, holding more inventory in its own warehouse. And the company asks more of its employees.

Delania Grapes, an 11-year veteran here, says she’s gone from gluing the bottoms of 700 dresser drawers an hour to about 1,000.

JEFFREY BROWN: How did you get to speed up?

DELANIA GRAPES: We learned our job better.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty-three-year-old Lee Rigney recently became the third generation in his family to work at Vaughan-Bassett.

LEE RIGNEY: I was unemployed for six months. I was working for Ashland, a big name company and everything else, and I got laid off, and they luckily let me in here, and I love it here.

JEFFREY BROWN: But so many others in this area aren’t so fortunate.

PASTOR JILL BURCHAM, P.U.S.H. Ministries: I’m going have to put a notice on Facebook that we’re really in need.

JEFFREY BROWN: A former manufacturing executive, Jill Burcham, left the corporate world 10 years ago to found Push Ministries in Galax.

JILL BURCHAM: We have people come in here every day in tears. “I just got a $600 electric bill. How am I going to pay this?”  You know, we have paperwork. They have paperwork that they don’t understand. They can’t pay their child support. They don’t have gas in their car, you know, to get to where they need to get.

JEFFREY BROWN: For author Beth Macy, this story was personal as well. Her mother was an Ohio factory worker who’d get laid off in hard times. Macy says she wanted to explore the human side of globalization.

Economists would say we shouldn’t be making furniture in this country.

BETH MACY: Many economists would say that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because it can be made more efficiently elsewhere. We should be training our workers for high-tech jobs, new jobs.

BETH MACY: I agree it sounds like a great theory, and it is a great theory, and I have been to Indonesia and I have seen what happens when the people come in from the rice paddies and they can send their kids to school for the first time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Their wages go up.

BETH MACY: Their wages go up, their lives get better, but what we didn’t plan for is — everybody said when China joins the WTO, that will be a win/win for everybody, we won’t lose jobs because we will be exporting  our goods to the growing consumer class in China and elsewhere in Asia. And maybe that’ll happen, but not for decades, and it certainly hasn’t happened in Martinsville and Henry County.

JEFFREY BROWN: For now, the work goes on at this factory in Galax, a small remnant of a much larger world of craft, industry, music and tradition.

GWEN IFILL: We have more with folklorist Joe Wilson on the legacy of mountain music and why it’s worth preserving. That’s on Art Beat.