The Rise and Fall of the American Textile Industry

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 2nd, 2013

History 101

Inventions and Innovation gave the United States a Burgeoning Textile Industry

The American textile industry was founded by businessmen.  And inventors and their inventions.  Not by any labor movement.  For before there could be a labor movement there first had to be industry to employ laborers.  And laborers weren’t creating these industries.  They were just selfishly waiting for others to do this so they could get a job in them one day.

We may never know which came first.  The chicken or the egg.  But we do know which came first when it comes to industries and laborers.  The mind came first then the muscle.  Rich people with a keen eye to judge a good investment.  Businessmen and entrepreneurs unafraid to take a risk.  And who will throw their body and soul into their business.  Then the non-risk taking people come along.  The laborers.  Who have no skin in the game.  Who wait until the minds come together to create something in which they can apply their labor.  And get a paycheck.

Samuel Slater built cotton mills in New England (1800ish).  Slatersville Rhode Island, the town he established, bears his name.  Francis Cabot Lowell and Paul Moody created a more efficient power loom and a spinning apparatus (early 1800s).  Elias Howe invented the sewing machine (mid 1800s).  And the lock-stitch.  Throw in a few more inventions, some improvements on past inventions and some innovation and you have a burgeoning U.S. textile industry.

The Luddites went about England smashing the Machines of the Mechanized Textile Industry

Cloth-making used to be a labor-intensive activity of highly skilled artisans.  For those who had the money to afford the costly clothing they made.  Many could not.  And made their own clothing in the home.  Women would spin fiber into yarn.  And weave the yarn into cloth.  Which was very labor intensive.  Allowing only a meager production of clothing for the family to wear.  Which meant a lot of darning for worn out clothing.  Hand-sewing patches to cover holes.  Sewing ripped seams back together.  And sewing together rips and tears.  Until the clothing was so worn that it couldn’t be darned anymore.

It is hard to fathom how important this was during early America.  A time of a mini ice age.  In the north the winters were long and they were cold.  This homemade clothing may not have been pretty.  But it could keep you from dying of exposure in those brutally cold winters.  The mechanization of the textile industry changed all of that.  Smart inventors and business owners used machines to automate the cloth-making process.  Allowing less skilled people to operate smart machines.  Producing more clothes for less.  Bringing the cost of clothing down.  So anyone could afford to buy clothing.

Of course, this did not make everyone happy.  As those machines replaced the need for highly skilled artisans.  Who demanded high prices for their craft.  Allowing only the rich to afford their wares.  They didn’t like these machines cutting into their high wages.  And did something about it.  A group of people called ‘Luddites’ went about England smashing the machines of the mechanized textile industry (1811-1817).  Hoping to force a return to the old ways of making clothing.  By skilled artisan.  Where only the rich could afford to buy clothing.

Unions have Exported Entire Industries to Emerging Economies to Escape Soaring Labor and Regulatory Costs

Just as the textile industry was modernizing and mechanizing two seamstresses formed the first all-women’s labor union in 1825.  The United Tailoresses of New York.  Protesting 16-hour workdays.  And the lack of a living wage.  Strikes followed.  The Lowell, Massachusetts, mill women’s strike in 1834.  The Manayunk, Pennsylvania, textile strike in 1834.  The Paterson, New Jersey, textile strike in 1835.  And the Llowell, Massachusetts, mill women’s strike in 1836.  In 1844 women formed and ran the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association.  Then more strikes.  The Cohoes, New York, cotton mill strike in 1882.  The Fall River, Massachusetts, textile strike in 1884.  The Augusta, Georgia, textile strike in 1886.  The Fall River, Massachusetts, textile strike in 1889.  In 1890 New York garment workers won the right to unionize.  Close their shops to nonunion workers.  And fire any nonunion workers on the payroll.  In 1900 the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union was founded.  In 1901 the United Textile Workers was founded.  Then came the New York shirtwaist strike in 1909.  Massachusetts passed the first minimum wage law for women and minors in 1912.  Then came the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike in 1912.  Giving us the walking picket line.  Then the Paterson, New Jersey, textile strike in 1913.  The Amalgamated Clothing Workers union was founded in 1914.  Then the Fulton bag and cotton mill strike in 1914.  The Passaic, New Jersey, Textile Strike in 1926.  And so on.

The Luddites hated the machinery of the modern textile industry.  As they didn’t like the idea of replacing many highly skilled and well-paid artisans with automated machinery operated by fewer low-skilled laborers.  So they tried to smash the automated machinery.  To try and save their jobs.  Which the labor movement was happy to see go away.  For they would rather pack as many low-skilled laborers into those Dickensian factories as possible.  For the more members they had in their unions the more powerful they were.  And the more they could demand from the business owners.  They demanded a lot, too.  Higher wages, shorter hours and better working conditions.  So much so that the cost of labor rose while productivity fell.  Throwing the door open to foreign competition.

The big labor movements used their friends in government to protect their generous union contracts.  By passing pro-union legislation.  And placing tariffs on imported textile goods.  Keeping clothing prices high.  So business could earn enough to pay those generous union pay and benefits.  But this left these businesses uncompetitive in the world’s markets.  Which they wanted to sell in.  For it wasn’t only Americans that wore clothes.  Those union contracts increased labor costs so much that businesses found it hard to remain in business let alone remain profitable.  So they started leaving the United States during the 20th century.  Which is why today there is no U.S. textile industry.  Because of the high cost of labor.  And costly regulatory policies.  Where is the textile industry today?  In the emerging economies.  Where labor and regulatory costs are lower than in America.  While the standard of living for those employed in these factories are often higher than their fellow countrymen.  Which is what unions have often done in the United States.  Create good jobs in emerging economies.  By exporting entire industries from the United States to these emerging economies.  Where they can escape soaring labor and regulatory costs.

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Bangladesh has about 4,500 Garment Factories because they have no Unions

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 4th, 2013

Week in Review

The union workforce in the private sector has shrunk from its peak in the Fifties.  Falling from about 30% of all workers belonging to a union down to about 11%.  Why?  Well, consider the industries they once dominated.  Textiles.  Steel.  Automotive.  Ship building.  Industries that went from world dominance to being a shell of their former selves.  This is why union workforce has fallen so greatly in the private sector.  Because the high cost of union labor destroyed these industries.

Those on the left want to bring these jobs back.  Despite hating these jobs.  Which is why they unionized them.  They were dirty, dangerous, monotonous and inhuman.  Right out of a Dickens novel.  Or the worst of capitalism Karl Marx could rail against.  Now that we don’t have them they call these good manufacturing jobs.  Not those same jobs they went on strike from in order to get better pay and more humane working conditions.  And say it is a crime that someone else is now exploiting their workers doing these jobs Americans should be doing.  Only the labor costs and working conditions in these countries are such that they will never come back to America.  For as bad as they may be at times they have no problem staffing these factories.  As American workers would have done had it not been for the unions forcing these jobs offshore.  And the American factories no doubt would have been safer (see Shoppers face tough choices over Bangladesh by Emily Jane Fox posted 5/1/2013 on CNNMoney).

It is hard for American shoppers to avoid buying clothes made in unsafe factories abroad.

That’s because just about all, or 98%, of clothes sold in the U.S. are made overseas, according to the Apparel and Footwear Association. Also, companies don’t tell consumers if any of their suppliers violate safety standards.

The recent spate of deadly accidents in garment factories in Bangladesh has caught international attention. Last week, more than 400 workers were killed when a garment factory building collapsed. The tragedy follows two more factory fires in November that killed and injured more than 100 workers.

A very large portion of U.S. apparel imports comes from Bangladesh. Many companies have been shifting orders there, because labor costs in the country are so low. Bangladesh is on track to surpass China within the next seven years as the largest apparel manufacturer in the world…

Bangladesh has about 4,500 garment factories that make clothes for global retailers…

“Companies don’t want consumers to understand the reality of what’s going on — the labor abuses, the low wages — that make products for the U.S. market,” Nova said. “Customers do care, but they don’t have enough information about where and how products are made to react.”

The United States used to have a booming textile industry.  And because of that they had a booming garment industry.  But they don’t have either any more.  Why?  These industries unionized.  Labor costs went up.  Which raised their selling prices.  This, of course, reduced sales volume.  For lower-income people could not afford to buy the same amount of clothes they once did at these higher prices.  Rich people could.  But not lower-income people.  The vast majority of the buying public.  Unable to make clothing average working Americans could afford U.S. garment manufacturers closed down.  Or moved offshore.  Killing the U.S. garment industry.  As well as the U.S. textile industry.

This is why Bangladesh has about 4,500 garment factories.  Because they can make clothing lower-income people can afford.

Customers care?  And if they had enough information they would…what?  Say, “That’s it.  I’m done buying affordable clothing.  For now on I will pay for only the clothing that I cannot afford.”  Yes, of course that’s what they will say.  But they won’t be able to afford to do that.

Buying clothes is a lot like eating meat.  We like it.  We enjoy it.  But we don’t want to think about the slaughterhouse.  And so it is with our affordable clothing.  We like it.  We enjoy being able to send our kids to school in something nice and clean every day.  But we don’t want to think about the working conditions in those factories.  And trust our retailers that they do everything within their power to make those working conditions meet acceptable standards.  When they don’t they will be the first to raise their moral outrage.  While no doubt wearing something from those factories.  Because like those factory workers there just isn’t a better alternative.

If a country can staff 4,500 garment factories these must be the best jobs available.  Or the only ones.  Like in China in those export factories.  Which attract people from the rural interior regions.  Who are trying to escape their chronic hunger.  And occasional famine.  So while organized labor bemoans the loss of the high pay and generous benefit packages of those manufacturing jobs the people working in these factories are probably living better than they ever have.  Despite the occasional collapsed factory.  Or factory fire.

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