I come from a place that, along with the surrounding area, is known as “Horsecreek Valley” or “Midland Valley” or, more often than not, just “The Valley.” My actual home is located outside the strict geographical definition of the term, but, nonetheless, the reference includes where I was raised as a kid. The “Valley” is the area on both sides of a five-mile stretch of highway about ten miles west of Aiken, South Carolina. It is in fact a valley, split into halves by this highway. The area is supported economically by textile manufacturing; there are five mills on or near this five-mile stretch of road.
The mills have had an adverse effect on the people of the Valley. The people who work in the mills usually do so as a last resort, when they have no other place to go. And although the mills are the main source of wages for most of the folks who live here, it by no means allows for their self-improvement. These people are trapped. They cannot quit their jobs because of the personal financial risk. They have no chance to move out of their near-poverty because there is no other work they can do with their limited education.
One of the favorite bumper sticker slogans of the supervisors and chieftains of the companies is “With textiles a career comes with every job.” Although this may be true to a certain extent, its application is very limited. Most of the old people have been doing exactly what they are are doing now for the past thirty-five or forty years. Their only benefits being seniority ( which has little true value), a very inadequate insurance program, a stock-purchasing program (invest in your owner), and no pension plan. A one-week vacation is included when the mills shut down for cleaning; you get paid that week if you’ve been with the company long enough. They even work Christmas Day, if necessary (depending on orders). The employees are complacent with their situation, lacking the initiative to change.
The local high school is a main source of labor for the mills. Many of the high school students go to school in the morning and go to work in the evenings. Many of these students drop out of school because they think they are making a substantial salary, often not heeding their mill-working parents’ advice to stay in school. This is not an issue for the employer-the drop-out is a lifetime asset for the mill. The culture encourages the proliferation of the mills. As long as the people have low standards and goals they will stay satisfied with what they have.
The local high school is a microcosm of the mill town. My principal was recently quoted as saying, “Nowadays we marry ’em, then teach ’em. We’re the only high school I know of that has to have a midwife at graduation.” The older people have a strong voice in the activities and programs that take place at the school. As a result of the elder’s cultural frustrations with sexual issues, the school has not been able to initiate any sex education classes or birth control counseling. The students are the ones who get punished in the end, with the mills eating up the new labor caused by students dropping out of school due to unwanted pregnancies.
I have worked in these mills and the effect they have is most depressing. I went to school from early morning until 3 and worked part time in the mill. My grades suffered, but I had money. With the money I fixed up my car and worked to fit in with everyone else at school. The summer after high school and before college, I worked full time. It was then that I realized the position people were in. A lot of the people I worked with had been in the mills more than ten years. Most had dropped out of high school and some had even dropped out of grammar school. All were bored with their work, although most would stick it out until retirement. A large proportion of the workers are black. Most of the white workers complain to each other (not to the blacks) that the blacks are taking over the textile industry. All of the people seem to try to forget the position they are in and joke and gossip about insignificant things. The mill officials try to motivate employees by offering weekly coffee and doughnuts for those folks who show up on time and stay the whole shift. In this environment, this appears to mean something to these folks. When I first came into the mills they had just initiated this program. Supervisors brought in the doughnuts and made the coffee for the workers. By the time I left, supervisors were handing out quarters for the employees to get their own coffee and doughnuts from the company vending machines. The workers never raised a brow in reaction to this most insulting gesture. It seemed as if the supervisors and bosses were never to be questioned and everything they thought said and did was sacrosanct.
The company had just started an orientation program when I began working full time. It was managed by Fran Tarkenton Enterprises, and consisted of short propaganda courses telling the new workers how great it was to be working for such a great company. They bribed you to come to meetings by holding a lottery for a small pot of money. I was so irritated by the company’s inaction to really help the people that I never showed up after the first few meetings. I wasn’t so concerned about myself as for the people who accepted the bullshit as fact.
The people in the mills have been programmed by the companies to believe what they want them to believe. Most of the people are afraid to talk about unions, thinking their jobs are in jeopardy if the are caught doing so. This belief stems from a statement in the employee handbook. The mill states it policies toward unions in the handbook. They do not like them and the mill itself believes the people are well off without them. This is enough to satisfy the people that they should not talk, although they make the lowest wages for comparable work in other occupations and although they cannot afford to buy the very cloth they make. The people are apparently satisfied. As a result, the mill culture is very depressing – similar to a Faulkner novel or “The Last Picture Show.”
When the mills came to the valley a few decades ago, they built the “mill towns.” The mill realized that the type of labor they were promoting and seeking would not be conducive to private ownership. In order to overcome this problem, the mills build a mill town, a collection of very cheap, low-rent houses. Many of these houses remain standing today. And each house looks like the other. These houses are comparable to the people. They people work to sustain their existence. They know nothing else. They are all alike. Just like the houses. Their children will later make up the working force. The schools will provide a good source of labor for the mills.
As a result of the mills the townspeople are trapped. As a result of the people, the mills will continue. The mills will always be. Always be unless a nation-wide economic collapse occurs. Then everyone will be in the same boat. But until then the mill workers wives will always be trying to stretch their income while their husbands are spending theirs in the massage parlors and beer joints that also line “The Valley’s” main roads. The people will always be.