These Workers Are Fighting To Keep Your North Face Jacket From Being Made for Poverty Wages

Alex Lubben

The factory makes fleece for companies like the North Face and Patagonia.

When Saudia Dur­rant approached the man­ag­er at an REI store in Man­hat­tan ear­li­er this month to explain that Polartec, the com­pa­ny that makes much of the fab­ric that REI uses in their prod­ucts, was clos­ing their flag­ship pro­duc­tion facil­i­ty in Lawrence, Mass­a­chu­setts, the man­ag­er lis­tened attentively. 

I let her know that we’re there to rep­re­sent the Polartec work­ers [in Lawrence] who are orga­niz­ing to put pres­sure on Polartec to have a con­ver­sa­tion about keep­ing Polartec in Lawrence, Mass­a­chu­setts,” Durant told In These Times.

Dur­rant, who works for UNITE HERE in New York, was one of over 100 union mem­bers, includ­ing a num­ber of work­ers from the Lawrence plant, who approached man­age­ment at REI stores in 21 cities across the coun­try last Wednes­day to draw atten­tion to the clos­ing of the his­toric tex­tile mill.

Dur­rant says the union tar­get­ed REI because many of their prod­ucts con­tain Polartec fab­rics, and they have a rep­u­ta­tion for being super pro­gres­sive.” They care a lot about their employ­ees and imple­ment a lot of pro­grams geared toward their employ­ees. They also have a respon­si­bil­i­ty in look­ing out for Polartec workers.”

Polartec, best known for invent­ing polar fleece, pro­vides mate­ri­als for com­pa­nies like Patag­o­nia, The North Face and LL Bean, as well as the U.S. mil­i­tary. The com­pa­ny has oper­at­ed the fac­to­ry since 1906. Once a thriv­ing fac­to­ry town, Lawrence has seen numer­ous fac­to­ries close in the last few decades as domes­tic man­u­fac­tur­ing has left in search of cheap­er labor mar­kets in the South and over­seas. The town has a vibrant his­to­ry of labor mil­i­tan­cy: In 1912, dur­ing the Bread and Ros­es Strike,” tens of thou­sands of work­ers, who spoke over 20 dif­fer­ent lan­guages and worked at near­ly every tex­tile mill in Lawrence, suc­cess­ful­ly struck to protest management’s response to local laws that sought to reduce the num­ber of hours they were able to work.

The clos­ing of the Polartec fac­to­ry comes as a sur­prise to the 350 work­ers at the mill, who are rep­re­sent­ed by UNITE HERE’s Local 311. Many of the work­ers have been at Polartec for decades. They say that busi­ness — in spite of what man­age­ment has sug­gest­ed—seems to be going well.

In a state­ment pro­vid­ed to In These Times, Polartec claims that at its busiest, it was only ever able to use 25 per­cent of the Lawrence facil­i­ty. The intend­ed change in Polartec’s man­u­fac­tur­ing is the result of glob­al mar­ket­ing pres­sures, cus­tomer needs, and an over­large facil­i­ty in Lawrence that can­not be made to sup­port Polartec’s pro­duc­tion needs.”

The work­ers, on the oth­er hand, claim to be busy at work, strug­gling at times to keep up with their workloads.

Until recent­ly, work­ers say their rela­tion­ship with man­age­ment was good. Aaron Feuer­stein, who owned Malden Mills (the com­pa­ny that was lat­er renamed Polartec) until 2007, treat­ed his work­ers fair­ly and val­ued them high­ly, they say. For the own­er of a suc­cess­ful com­pa­ny, he has led a rel­a­tive­ly mod­est life. He owned a five-room con­do­mini­um where he lived with his wife while he ran Malden Mills. He now lives with two of his grand­chil­dren, ful­fill­ing a promise he made to his wife before she died in 2013 that he wouldn’t ever live alone.

In late 1995, when the mill burned down in a fac­to­ry fire, Feuer­stein rather than tak­ing his $300 mil­lion insur­ance pay­out and retire, he would rebuild the fac­to­ry. He kept all of his employ­ees on pay­roll for 60 days and gave them Christ­mas bonus­es. Rather than fol­low the tex­tile indus­try out of Lawrence, Feuer­stein kept a his­toric tex­tile mill running.

Tony Melo, who has worked at Polartec for 31 years, tells In These Times, A lot of peo­ple vol­un­teered to go there and help clean the ash­es and move things out of the way, … cause we want­ed to get this place going again.” Of Feuer­stein, he said, I don’t think there’s no more peo­ple with a heart like that.”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Malden Mills was nev­er able to ful­ly recov­er from the fire. Sad­dled with debt that it was ulti­mate­ly unable to pay off, Feuer­stein sold the com­pa­ny out of bank­rupt­cy in 2007 to Ver­sa Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment, a ven­ture cap­i­tal firm spe­cial­iz­ing in restruc­tur­ings and turn­around” and reor­ga­ni­za­tions and liq­ui­da­tions.” They changed the name of the com­pa­ny from Malden Mills to Polartec in an attempt to spruce up the company’s image.

In 2012, Ver­sa thought it had suc­cess­ful­ly revi­tal­ized the com­pa­ny. They put out a pro­mo­tion­al video, like­ly as part of an attempt to sell Polartec. (Since they acquired Polartec, they’ve tried to sell the com­pa­ny twice, both times unsuc­cess­ful­ly.) They claimed to have breathed new life into Polartec,” result­ing in a trans­for­ma­tion that saved jobs and a town.”

Ver­sa and Polartec are now look­ing to close the company’s flag­ship pro­duc­tion facil­i­ty and move to a marked­ly small­er facil­i­ty in Ten­nessee, a right-to-work state. (Mass­a­chu­setts is not.) In a let­ter to employ­ees dat­ed Jan­u­ary 13, Polartec CEO Gary Smith wrote, We’ve made our fab­ric in a loca­tion too far removed from where our cus­tomers actu­al­ly con­sume it, and in a mill that was gross­ly over­built from the day it re-opened twen­ty years ago.”

While the fab­ric is pro­duced domes­ti­cal­ly, Polartec claims that their largest cus­tomers most­ly cut and sew their prod­ucts abroad. But a union staffer says she doesn’t under­stand the company’s rationale.

If a major part of the deci­sion to move was due to bur­den of long tran­sit times, ship­ping costs, import duties, and expo­sure to for­eign cur­ren­cy fluc­tu­a­tions,’ how will con­sol­i­dat­ing into NH and TN help mat­ters?” asks UNITE HERE spokesper­son Meghan Cohorst.

Polartec also oper­ates a facil­i­ty in Chi­na, which in the 2012 video is referred to as a man­u­fac­tur­ing part­ner.” Work­ers spec­u­late that Polartec will keep the pro­duc­tion of goods relat­ed to gov­ern­ment con­tracts, which must be pro­duced domes­ti­cal­ly, in the Unit­ed States while mov­ing pro­duc­tion for its con­sumer goods overseas.

The work­ers who spoke to In These Times empha­sized that Polartec is a great place to work. You get com­fort­able with the place you work,” Melo told In These Times. It becomes like a fam­i­ly.” Many of the work­ers have been there for decades.

Greg Guz­man, who’s worked at Polartec for 11 years and sup­ports a fam­i­ly of six, stressed the skilled nature of work at the plant: With the qual­i­ty of mate­r­i­al we got here, … you have to get trained. … These guys know what they’re doing, they’ve been here for­ev­er. … The peo­ple here in our Lawrence plant def­i­nite­ly have bet­ter qual­i­ty and style of work­ing than you would find in our oth­er plants.”

If the mill clos­es, there’s rumors going around that we’re sup­posed to be pro­vid­ed with train­ing and some help get­ting jobs and all that,” Guz­man said. But hon­est­ly that doesn’t mat­ter because a lot of us are going to the unem­ploy­ment lines.”

As part of their orga­niz­ing strat­e­gy, UNITE HERE is reach­ing out to orga­ni­za­tions that are invest­ed in Ver­sa, like­ly in hopes of ask­ing them to help keep the Lawrence fac­to­ry open. The Penn­syl­va­nia Pub­lic School Employ­ees Retire­ment Sys­tem, which man­ages Pennsylvania’s school employ­ees pen­sion funds, has $375 mil­lion invest­ed in Ver­sa Cap­i­tal. The Col­orado Pub­lic Employ­ee Retire­ment Sys­tem also has $50 mil­lion in the fund.

It’s not unheard of for these sorts of funds to move their mon­ey away from cor­po­ra­tions deemed irre­spon­si­ble invest­ments: In the wake of the New­town shoot­ings, the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Employ­ees Retire­ment Sys­tem (Calpers) sold its stakes in two gun man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­nies, includ­ing the com­pa­ny that pro­duced the Bush­mas­ter assault rifle used by Adam Lan­za, the New­town shooter.

UNITE HERE has also begun to reach out to some of Polartec’s largest cus­tomers. These com­pa­nies — Patag­o­nia, North Face, LL Bean — pride them­selves on what they claim is eth­i­cal sourc­ing, envi­ron­men­tal friend­li­ness and sound labor prac­tices. Polartec pro­duces many of its mate­ri­als from recy­cled plas­tic, a major sell­ing point for many of its eco-mind­ed cus­tomers. The process is com­plex, and could be dif­fi­cult to repli­cate at anoth­er facil­i­ty — a fact the union hopes will add pres­sure to keep the fac­to­ry in Lawrence.

Work­ers like those at Polartec are affect­ed most by fac­to­ry clo­sures in search of cheap­er wages and a more docile work­force. The Lawrence work­ers say they are ready to push back in order to keep what they have.

We need to help each oth­er, we need to show that we care, we need to keep push­ing,” says Melo. One way or anoth­er, we’ve got­ta give them a black eye.”

Alex Lubben is the for­mer Deputy Pub­lish­er at In These Times and is cur­rent­ly a free­lance jour­nal­ist in New York. You can fol­low him on Twit­ter at @alexlubben.
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