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Resizing the downsized

"Resizing the downsized" Continued...

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

Back in the massive work room, spools of white thread spun to a standstill. Plant employees hushed to hear routine announcements, but weren't prepared for today's harsh, final words. As the news of the closure sank in, some at the old plant wept; others cursed; still others stared blankly into stacks of white underwear parts. About four months later, the building was empty.

Today, the room is back and buzzing. When Jockey returned, it made Mr. Ketchum the new plant manager. He walks through aisles of white, brown, and black men's briefs and pink women's panties.

At one station, Lamuris Mallard, 31, displays a small Jockey flag awarded top producers, able to fold and bind women's white panties far above quota. She has six children and a husband to help support. A new Jockey employee, she is thrilled with her first three months. "I love the job," she says with genuine verve. "I have been looking for a meaningful job a long time." At Jockey, she's paid top textile-work dollar-around $7 an hour-plus 80-percent family medical- and life-insurance coverage.

A few stations over, Mr. Ketchum bumps into his new plant mechanic, Mike Mitchell, 40, who came to Belzoni after being laid off at a competitor's downsized domestic site. He says he's glad to be at the Belzoni plant. The real problem isn't the textile companies, he asserts. "I think NAFTA had 90 percent to do with" his other job's vanishing.

Jockey's Belzoni reincarnation, of course, has a rationale. Jockey's Mr. Schneider

says his company fired the executives who closed Belzoni's plant. Since 1993, Jockey has discovered that while its Jamaican facility cheaply sews materials, tough foreign customs and taxes make importing such goods too costly; so now Jockey ships Jamaican-made products in bulk to Belzoni for final packaging. Moreover, while Jockey's larger domestic plants can more cheaply knit and dye cloth on a mass scale, skilled Belzoni workers still prove valuable for domestic sewing. And with demand unexpectedly rising, training a new employee might cost six months and $3,000 each, whereas Belzoni workers were ready and eager. "Frankly, we don't always make absolutely correct decisions," quips Mr. Schneider.

Some locals can't help noticing, however, that Jockey's passion to return seemingly emerged only after American Uniform showed interest in locating there. Yes, Jockey had contracted with a local labor-lease group to reopen its Belzoni plant "temporarily" for about three months citing, in part, sudden high product demand; but no signals had been given about a complete return. "As soon as American Uniform announced they were going to start hiring, that [temporary] Jockey plant would have emptied," notes Allen McLain, chairman of the city's industrial recruitment committee.

Jockey hastened its full-scale return, and rehired many former employees; yet for the most part, the company paid returning workers only entry-level wages, not including previous benefits, accumulated paid vacation, or formerly bought-out pensions.

An incidental corporate coup? "I hope that's not why they [originally closed]," said Mr. McLain.

Jockey's Mr. Schneider told WORLD he wasn't privy to details about the Belzoni closing or reopening, and couldn't elaborate; he stressed the company's return was based on handling unprojected increases in demand for Jockey's products; Mr. Ketchum says his company's ability to maintain a domestic work force while competitors move more work overseas is actually yielding Jockey good fruit in the form of more military contracts, which by law must stay domestic.

Whatever the case, today Monteen Jones is back at Jockey, the plant to which she's given more than a third of her life. When the plant closed two years ago, she was making $7 an hour; today, she makes about $5. When the plant closed, she'd accumulated two weeks paid vacation a year; she'll have to start over again and re-earn that.

Still, she's glad to be back. Jockey has given her a job again, and Mrs. Jones wants to work. Like others, she illustrates the paradoxes of Jockey's relationship with this small town down South, a region legendary for perplexing extremes. Why did Mrs. Jones come back to Jockey? she's asked. "I didn't have no other choice," she replies. And besides, she adds: "I like Jockey."

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