Teach a Man to Fish

by David Trumbull

June 30, 2000

Lake Chargoggagoggmanchaugagoggchaubunagungamaugg--said to be the third longest place name in the world--is a Nipmuc Indian phrase usually translated (very loosely) as "You fish on your side of the lake; I fish on my side; no one fishes the middle." It is also the most distinguished geological feature of Webster, a medium-sized town on the Connecticut border in central Massachusetts. Webster, since founded in 1812 by Samuel Slater, father of the American industrial revolution, has been a textile mill town.

"Textiles? Do we still have any textile mills in Massachusetts?" Yes, more than you imagine. Do you sew at home? If so you likely use fabric printed in Webster, Mass. at Cranston Print Works. Headquartered in Cranston, Rhode Island, this mill does most of its rotary screen printing of cloth in a nineteenth century mill building in Webster. This antique New England facility has been able, through management-labor cooperation, to continue in operation and thrive, while a Cranston mill in North Carolina--a newer facility with lower labor cost, lower energy cost, lower taxes, and lower level of government regulation--had to close.

The key to success of New England textile producers has been continuous innovation in styling and quality goods that only a skilled workforce can produce. A studio of designers in New York is constantly employed in developing new artwork for Cranston printcloth.

This is not your grandfather's textile mill. "We are a chemical processor whose end product happens to be a textile product," says Cranston manager Len Rudolph boasting of the modern production techniques housed in that century and a half old building.

Cubical-dwellers--fodder for Dilbert comic strips--may give little thought to the many millions of yards of cloth consumed every year to make office divider panels. The cloth is woven in New England at Guilford of Maine, one of the world's largest producers of panel cloth. Last year Interface Interior Fabrics, the parent company of Guilford of Maine and Toltec Fabrics, closed a factory in North Carolina and relocated those jobs from a low-wage, low-skill area to Massachusetts. Interface has since invested a quarter of a million dollars to train weavers of office upholstery fabrics at its Dudley, Mass. Toltec Fabrics division.

Aaron Feuerstein was universally, and justly, applauded for rebuilding Malden Mills Industries, Inc. in Lawrence after a December 1995 fire--the greatest industrial fire loss in Massachusetts history--razed the facility. Mr. Feuerstein has always maintained that keeping hundreds of textile jobs in Massachusetts rather than taking the insurance money and moving south or overseas was good business sense. He could not replace his skilled Bay State workforce in a low-wage low-skill region.

It is tempting to view jobs in the world economy much as fish in a lake. Every fish you catch is one less for me. A more accurate economic model is dynamic, recognizing that each job that is created itself contributes to the creation of still more jobs. In the past decade low-skill jobs have left the US seeking lower wage rates in Mexico. At the same time that we are losing these jobs our unemployment rate declined to a peacetime record.

Since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994, Quaker Fabric Corporation has grown to 2,400 employees at 11 plants, making it the largest private employer in Fall River. Quaker designers with an eye for fashion unveil at least 400 new and different styles every year. That innovation, combined with aggressive development of export market sales, has made Quaker the world's largest producer of chenille yarn and of jacquard upholstery fabrics. Quaker upholstery fabrics are now sold in 45 countries, with Mexico being one of the largest consumers of Quaker fabric. The company is now building a new $10 million facility in Fall River that will employ an additional 700 to 800 workers.

Clyde Barrow--not the 1930's bank robber, but a University of Massachusetts researcher by the same name--recently published a study of the textile industry in Massachusetts. He concludes, "the prospects for the Commonwealth's textile industry appear promising, especially if the state's firms continue to invest in the latest production technology, basic information technology, workforce training, and export development."

Textile jobs in Massachusetts? Yup, we got 'em. Skilled workers and employers who will invest in worker training are what keep them here. Teach a man a skill and you've given him a livelihood.

[David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.]