Shirt factory ‘girls’ find binding thread

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 26, 2000

Features Editor

Dec. 25, 2000 10 PM

Should old acquaintance be forgotten and never brought to mind?

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Over those years, many people came and went, but many also came and stayed. Those who stayed became good friends and then they became family.

"We were just like one big happy family," Mrs. Anderson said. " I looked forward to going to work each day. We all had the best time and we grew to love each other."

Mrs. Anderson started at Alatex making a pretty good pay – 40 cents an hour.

"That doesn’t sound like much, but back then it wasn’t bad pay because you could buy a lot more with 40 cents than you can today," she said. "When the plant closed in 1987, hourly wages had gone up to $4.10 an hour. We really thought we were getting good pay then."

No matter whether they made 40 cents an hour or $4, the shirt factory girls were proud of the opportunity to work outside the home and contribute to the family income.

"There weren’t many opportunities for women who didn’t have higher education or special training to work outside the home," Mrs. Anderson said. "The shirt factory gave us an opportunity to be in the work force and make a little money. The textile industry was good for us."

Working conditions weren’t that bad and the "girls" quickly learned to talk over the machines and they could sew and talk at the same time without missing a stitch.

"We all knew each other so well and, when one had a problem, we were all concerned for them and, when good fortune came their way, we were just as proud for them," Mrs. Anderson said. "We had a 10-minute break in the morning and one in the afternoon and an hour for lunch. We carried our lunches and we would go outside to eat. That got us out of the plant for a while and we got to socialize. Later, we had a break room but never a cafeteria."

When the union began to come into the factory, there were some differences of opinion about joining, but nothing like the turmoil that was depicted in the classic move about the textile industry – "Norma Rae."

"We didn’t have any hard feelings," said Mrs. Anderson, who was opposed to the union. "We did have picket lines and we had those who crossed the lines, but there was no animosity among the workers. The strike lasted a day and a half and then it was back to work as usual. Some joined the union. Some didn’t. Those who joined didn’t feel hard toward those who didn’t and those who didn’t join had no hard feelings against those who did."

After all – it was family.

And, those who came pouring into Mrs. Anderson’s home Monday came to a "family reunion" of sorts.

Many of the shirt factory girls had not seen each other in 15 or 20 years but "it seems just like it was yesterday," they all said.

They wasted little time in catching up.

They talked about what was going on in their lives – their children and grandchildren, their new jobs – some outside the home and some at home. But most of the talk centered around the good times they had at Alatex.

Much of the laughter came from "private jokes" among them and some of them actually revealed funny secrets they had held all these years.

And, if the shirt factory girls could sew half as fast as they could talk and only a little faster than they could eat, then they must have been the most productive shirt makers in the land.

"Oh, we were!" they all agreed. "We were!"

All of them also believe moving of the most of the textile industry off-shore is bad for the woman who want to work outside the home.

"When you take away sewing jobs – jobs that women can do and enjoy doing – that means that a lot o women will have fewer opportunities to work and these days, it just about takes both the man and woman working to make ends meet," one of the girls said.

Alatex-Pike opened on the highway in 1957 and many of the "girls," including Mrs. Anderson worked at both plants. When the Troy plants closed in 1987, some of them accepted jobs at the Enterprise plant. Mrs. Anderson worked there for five years, "but it was never the same as working in Troy."

The shirt factory girls talked at great lengths about the good times in Troy and the bad times in Enterprise. They also paused to reflect on their co-workers who had died since the closing of the Troy plants.

"There are about 95 of them – including 14 men, five of them plant managers," Mrs. Anderson said. "We wanted to remember them, too, because they were part of our family" – a family whose lives were woven together by the threads of friendship and held together by the bond of love."

The reunion of the shirt factory girls made Christmas 2000 a much brighter one and one that will be long remember for all of them.

They each thanked Mrs. Anderson for thinking of them and giving them the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with their "fabric family" once again.