**Originally published on The Standard-Times and on SouthCoastToday.com.**
In response to calls for increased empathy after the divisive national election, many Americans will be making New Year’s resolutions in 2017 to experience life from the ‘other’ side. For all of 2016, I shelved my college professor routine and went to work in a textile mill. And here’s what I found out.
I learned new words, and how to use old ones in new ways. Courses. Scour. Denier. Palletize. End-out. Fag out. Smash.
I learned how to operate machines that move in mysterious ways, and I lessened some of that mystery.
I learned scientific information about fiber, yarn, chemicals, and machinery.
I learned that variations in humidity, fiber, oil, and tensile strength require scientific and artistic mindsets.
I learned of daily efforts to create better fabrics, the highest quality product, to find new markets and recover lost ones.
I learned what it means for a business owner to keep a business alive when odds are against its survival.
I learned what it means to try to keep a job in a dying industry.
I learned that even in Massachusetts, the state where I grew up, and where I can drive from end to end in a few hours, there are chasms in how people see and experience the world. I am an anthropologist, so I knew this before my mill education began. My bread-and-butter is understanding how people make sense of the world they inhabit. I know that with differences spanning race, gender, class, religion, age, and more, we each see the world not so much how it is but how we are.
But with my hands-on mill education, I truly came to understand the value of immersing ourselves in new perspectives. No matter our formal education, no matter our political orientation or family backgrounds, each of us would benefit from seeing the world through the eyes of people unlike ourselves. I have been struck by these experiences at a time when so many of society’s problems reflect a lack of connection across differences.
This wasn’t my first extended factory fieldwork. When I was a child and my mother needed fabric for a sewing project, we’d go to the mills in nearby New Bedford and Fall River. I’d cling to her skirt as we walked through the high-ceilinged spaces larger than any I’d ever stepped into. These mills started to close when I was a child, and I began to wonder why. I spent two years in garment factories in Sri Lanka, examining local impacts of U.S. deindustrialization. Afterwards I spent several years in a needle factory outside Boston, studying how a U.S. manufacturing facility stays open by employing older adults.
In all these places, I’ve been fortunate to spend time working alongside and interviewing people willing to share their world with me.
Last week I interviewed Jimmy, who worked in textile mills from the age of 18 to 75, changing jobs only when a mill closed. One after another. He’s not the only one at this mill who got there after other closures. Some supervisors say that they fear hiring people who bring bad luck to every mill they’ve worked.
But everyone here knows that’s a joke. They know what they face: a systematic gutting of an industry that once sustained whole communities. I saw this when I went with a manager to a closing mill’s equipment auction. The manager wants cheap machinery, and he’d be happy to also find experienced textile workers. Both machines and workers are endangered species.
Jimmy, who is the walking history of the decline of New England textiles, told me he recently met a woman with a degree in textiles. He told her ‘If you were my daughter, I wouldn’t pay the tuition for that. You’re throwing your money away. It’s a dying industry.’ After our conversation that included his commentary on overseas labor rates, Harvard Business Review studies, and how to arrange production incentive systems to benefit both workers and the company, I asked him why he didn’t go to college. ‘I would have loved that,’ he said, smiling wistfully. But he couldn’t because he needed to earn money for his parents and siblings. And once he bought his first Mustang, he liked how that felt.
Ray, another mill worker, told me ‘the struggle is real’ and described his efforts to support his family, pay his bills, and stay out of debt. Long ago, Ray dropped out of college and decided to go into the trades. He spent the next 30 years moving from one manual labor job to another, chasing a good wage. He regrets leaving college. When he talks to his young son he hides that he is ‘crying inside,’ and optimistically emphasizes why college is so important. He avowed to me that if he has to, he will die working in jobs that tax his body and soul, just to give his son that chance.
I’ve had powerful post-election discussions with people at the mill at all levels—some who voted for Trump, others who voted for Hillary, and others who didn’t vote and never have. People with educations truncated by financial need. People with skills they can’t use elsewhere. People who want to create better worlds for their kids. People who struggle with technological change and lament that ‘technology passed me by,’ and ‘I am no longer needed.’ People across all levels at this mill who are fighting to keep it alive. People who want something better, but don’t see a clear path.
I’ll be back in the classroom this month. I already miss the privilege of immersing myself into lives unlike my own at the mill. I thrived on daily discussions as we worked and laughed together, and as we tried to understand each other. I was as much a mystery to some at the mill as they were to me.
Near our interview’s end, Ray described his passion for work: for figuring out how to make fabric well, understanding what machines are saying to him, and learning what they need. He likes his job very much. But it’s a struggle to make ends meet, and he doesn’t think it’s right that some people have to work so hard and never make it. When we finished the interview and I was packing up my notebook and recorder, Ray said, ‘See, you are writing books—you have an education in something you’re passionate about. That’s all I wanted. That’s what I hope for my son.’
Caitrin Lynch is a professor of anthropology at Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts (U.S.) and the author of two books: Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in An American Factory, and Juki Girls, Good Girls: Gender and Cultural Politics in Sri Lanka’s Global Garment Industry, both published by Cornell University Press. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago and her B.A. in anthropology from Bates College. Her most recent project is engineeringathome.org. She is currently writing a book based on fieldwork in a Massachusetts textile mill.