Features

Resizing the downsized

National | Big business, small town: A snapshot of economic uncertainty

Issue: "A reason to live," March 23, 1996

Belzoni, Miss--Monteen Jones sews "clothes shoulders," a textile trade term for the neck-to-arm seam on a Jockey T-shirt. Perched on a factory line in a hair cap, blue jeans, and Mississippi Valley State T-shirt, the 48-year-old can stitch quicker than her Delta Devils run the fast break. She's good. But at V-necks, she may have been even better.

For 18 years, originally, Mrs. Jones was a V-neck collar operator for Jockey International's Belzoni, Miss., plant, one of the company's oldest. But then, without warning, Jockey closed its Belzoni (pronounced "Bell-zone-a") operation in 1993, bought out its employees' hefty pensions, and said it would not return; their Jamaican operation, Jockey claimed, along with other domestic plants, could easily absorb the work long done by Belzoni's nearly 300 textile workers, about 50 percent of whom had been with the company more than 10 years.

For about two years, the plant sat silent and hollow and many workers lingered largely unemployed as city fathers in the town of 2,500 struggled to lure other industry to the land of fish ponds-the "Catfish Capital of the World." One cap manufacturer seemed close to coming, but ultimately quipped: "Belzoni isn't the end of the world, but you can see it from there."

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Belzonians are accustomed to such comments, and generally don't take offense. They realize their town's pluses and minuses; and a new federal empowerment zone designation-one of 10 nationally, three of which are in rural areas-offers fresh hope for future industrial additions. "You do almost have to be going here," jokes Ed Ketchum, Jockey's current plant manager and a Delta native. "You don't just pass through. You are not necessarily going to drive down the street and see what makes the Mississippi Delta special; you got to come live it."

That's why in 1993 Mr. Ketchum, 47, an engineer by profession, declined Jockey's offer to transfer elsewhere, though he loved the company. Instead, he worked to help find the city another plant. Then last year, Jockey's Wisconsin executives suddenly seemed to grasp Mississippi's metaphysics; again, without any real warning, they swooped back south like a corporate Zeus, and whipped their old operation back into shape. Nearly 1,000 applications are still being screened to fill a final 20 or so positions.

"The people [in Belzoni] over the years have done a great job for Jockey," Jockey spokesman Terry Schneider told WORLD. "There is a strong work ethic. When we first came back to Belzoni, it was on a three-month basis. We hadn't planned to reopen permanently." But they did, and just as the city seemed ready to pen a deal with American Uniform to potentially employ much of Jockey's old work force. It is Jockey's about-face that makes the Belzoni story so unusual-the city's old beau actually came home, defying seeming stereotypes.

Across the United States today big corporations-and especially textile manufacturers-are closing some shops, scaling down others, and sending more jobs overseas. With NAFTA and GATT in the news, a national drama has reached mythic proportions, as big businesses play Greek gods toying with helpless workers' destinies. One in four American workers say they fear the loss of their current job, explaining almost uniform 20 to 30 percent support presidential candidate Pat Buchanan attracts with his blue-collar absolutism that recasts workers in white and most corporate employers in black. Mr. Buchanan's rhetoric rightly highlights that thousands of American livelihoods hang in a sensitive balance. In Belzoni's mythical pantheon, some details remain sketchy, and these days it's hard to tell whether Jockey is considered benevolent or malevolent; a hero or villain; a gutsy survivor clinging to its domestic work force while others downsize and relocate abroad, or a cunning corporate dealmaker.

To hear Deborah Smith tell it, her old employer is no longer worth working for. Mrs. Smith, 35, whose oldest daughter just started college, put in 12-1/2 years at Jockey, but she didn't return there last year. Now she sits outside her dusty tan trailer by the bluffs of the Yazoo River, petting her miniature Dachshund while a goat next door bleats. The blue warm-ups she's wearing are-yep, Fruit of the Loom-or maybe she's joking.

"We had been on vacation and we came back in to work," she recalls about Jockey's 1993 closure, "and they just arrived out of the blue, got on the intercom one morning, and announced that they were shutting down for good."

On July 19, 1993, two top Jockey executives pulled into town, past the Pig Stand barbecue, past a line of blue shotgun houses, up to city hall, where they gave town officials the news. Then they drove five minutes eastward, past the mayor's house, past Belzoni's Indian mound, past a cemetery, arriving at an underwhelming brick-and-stone building. As they entered the ragweed-yellow front office, they passed a sign boasting Jockey's mission: "To be a company built on employee participation allowing individuals to grow professionally and personally in an environment that fosters increased productivity."

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