Levi Strauss Plant, – Suzanne Coile 1992

I could get a job at the factory and work for three years, then quit. The house my husband and I bought was two blocks from the largest Levi Strauss & Company plant in North America. Our house payment was going to be a little less than we previously had been paying for our apartment. We had been looking wistfully at boats that spring and had finally found just what we wanted, a boat that was absolutely out of our price range. Finally, we came up with a solution to our financial problem. I could get a job at the factory and work for three years (until the boat was paid for), then quit. I applied for a job the next Monday morning and was hired immediately. As the personnel person took me through the plant, I was fascinated.  There were four distinct sections, separated by block walls and steel sliding doors.  Each section was as big as a football field.  My department and operation was at the back of the factory.

 My job was to sew waist bands on blue jeans.  I learned that within six weeks.  I was required to sew twelve bundles of jeans per day and there were fifty-two pairs of pants in a bundle.  The shift I worked sarted at 7:00 a.m. and went to 3:30 p.m.  There were ten minute breaks and thirty minutes for lunch.  Overtime was mandatory when the company deemed it necessary and no absences were excused without a doctor’s statement.  The trainer, a female below supervisor status, began showing me how to operate a double needle, treadle, Singer sewing machine.

Sounds like a battleground. While preparing to write this paper, I interviewed the relatively new International Representative for the United Garment Workers of America assigned to the local at Levi’s.  I asked him bout his first impressions of the factory.  He said, “the noise of the machines operated by better than 1,500 employees sounds like machine guns and mortars being fired and that the factory was like a battleground.  Out of what seems to be a very confused process emerges the sense that there is a very strong and definite line of authority.  The employees, like infantry personnel, artillery people and logistical support personnel, each know their jobs well and perform them with skill and a minimum of wasted motion.” I found this to be an accurate description.

All managers are men.  Although the factory employs 95% women, the top authority figures are all men and all the jobs up until the last five years were very sex-segmented.  The plant manager, line managers, cutting room, mechanic and maintenance managers were all men.  The women in management were all called supervisors.  They were paid less and reported to managers.

Isolated on The banding line.  There were twelve of us on the “banding line.” We, like all of the other operations, were lined up in a straight row.  Each of us looking at the other’s back, the front person on the row looking at a block wall. We could see the people on the operations at either side of us, but the distance between us and the incredible noise of hundreds of sewing machines running prevented communication.

Wrapping your fingers. Each morning I noticed that the same ritual was taking place.  The women would stand beside their machines and wrap their fingers in tape, some kind of white, sticky, soft tape.  The operation you worked on evidently determined which fingers on what hand needed to be wrapped.  I remember how white the tape was going on and how blue it always was at first break. By my second week on the job I knew why they wrapped their fingers.  I had blisters on my fingers from accidentally touching the red hot needles and I had sewed two of my most needed and used fingers into the waist band of a pair of jeans.  This happened while my trainer was standing behind me watching me work and telling me I needed to pick up speed.  I was horrified.  She barely blinked her eyes. That is exactly what happened, the nurse put a band-aid on each finger and sent me back to work.  They both made me feel as if I was over reacting to complain about the pain at all.  After this incident, I began making friends with some of the other women on my line.  I began to notice that many of them not only wore tape on their fingers, but they had ace bandages and braces on their wrist.  They all seemed to consider this as just part of the job.

Helping the new girl. The other banders began showing me ways to pick up speed by deviating from the “method” I was being taught.  They began coming in a few minutes early in the morning, or not taking their full ten minute break to help the “new girl” re-sew her mistakes.

Levi women had blue hands. I was fast becoming part of the factor workers community in Knoxville.  In the afternoon, when the women that worked in factories went to the grocery store on the way home, we could easily recognize which of us was from what factory.  The Standard Knitting Mills women had white fuzz in their hair from the cotton mills, and the Levi women had blue hands from the dye in blue jeans.

Cracking open the steel doors.  It took ten years of working on the banding line, but I finally broke the sex-segmented barrier that kept women out of the warehouse and cutting room of the factory.  I bid on, and, after a fight, was awarded a fork-lift operators job.  Although I never became a part of the fork operators’ social group, the block walls and steel doors at Levi’s had been opened a crack.

My sewing machine. Personalizing the work station.  I remember the day I left “my” sewing machine for the last time. I wondered if the next person assigned would remove all the union stickers that I had used to cover the little storage box and sewing table that had been mine for over ten years.

It’s biscuits and gravy on Saturday. Our regular hours of work were from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Although we were already tired from a forty-five hour week (Monday through Friday) we always tried to do something different on Saturdays.  We would start work at 6 a.m. instead of waiting till 7 a.m. Someone would bring homemade biscuits.  Others would bring gravy, ham sausages, eggs, jelly.  Everything you could think of.  We would work like crazy until 8 a.m.  Everyone would then go into the cafeteria and “nuke” the food.  We would eat like crazy for twenty minutes (twice our normal break time), pack the empty plates and bowls into paper bags and return to work.

But no one’s wearing Levi’s?  The women wore a wide variety of clothes to work. The most common uniform was jeans, tee shirts and tennis shoes.  One of the most ironic things was that the women never wore Levi’s jeans.  Levi’s made women’s jeans, but they were awful to try to sit in all day.  So, there we were, a factory of 1,000 people, 99% women, sewing 20,000 pairs of Levi jeans a day and 99% of us were wearing “Chic” and “Wrangler” jeans.

The language of making Levi’s jeans.  It took a while, but I finally found out what most of the jobs were called. Following is the language of making Levi’s jeans.

 

shade & grade – rolls of material of same color and weight put together

spreaders – material laid out for pattern and cutting

staplers – pattern and tickets stapled on material for cutting

cutting – cut out a pattern

material handlers – material taken from cutting tables and delivered to departments for sewing.

bag pockets – without this operation yourchange and keys would be in your shoes

set watch pockets – this is the cute little 5th pocket in Levi’s

cook belt loops – this is a fusing process where edges are turned in

make belt loops – where a very long strip of material is cut into belt loop size

make fly – this is done on a YKK fly machine, you put the fly in and it attaches the zipper

left fly and outline – the orange stitches you see when your pants are zipped

right fly and join – put it all together and zip it up

set front pockets – sew them to the front panel of the pants

tacking – a lot of stitches on top of each other to make certain areas of the pants stronger

side seam & inseam – sew the front half and back half of thejeans together – sew the inseam also called serge and fell

cording-top stitch – these are the organge outline stitches you see on jeans

seat seams and risers – this is part of the back panel

rivets – these are the little metal studs at the corners of the pockets

banding – the waist band is sewn on the pants

band end finish – make sure the band doesn’t unravel

button & button hold – one operator for two machines. One machine holds pants and makes thebutton hole whileyou put a button on another pair of pants

button hem – hems the pants

belt loops – put eight belt loops on each pair of jeans

trim and inspect – cut off long threads, look for mistakes

wash and dryp – only certain styles go through this process

press – only if washined

repair – if anything came loose in the wash

fold and box – fifty-two pair of folded jeans per box

 

I also began to understand the language of repair work and all the things that could happen to cause work to have to be done over.

 

Programmers laying out patterns.  Until five years ago the patterns were hand drawn on a large roll of paper and cut out with a knife. Now there is a staff of computer programmers who have developed a system for laying out patterns on a video display screen. Hour by hour employees lift patterns for the various  components by use of a mouse and place them on a video facsimile of the paper layover on which automated pencils will scribe the pattern.  The cutters will then jigsaw through a stack of up to sixty-four layers of denim cloth lain out on huge tables fifty-four inches wide and one hundred fifty feet long.  Although we don’t have it yet, in an even more technologically advanced system the program is fed into an automated Gerber cutter which is operated by one person and cuts through the sixty-four layers of denim with a laser.

No longer checking their brain at the door.  A revolutionary reordering of the traditional military style management authority structure is beginning to evolve.  The process will take much longer and be fraught with more difficulty than either the managerial staff or the production employees can yet imagine. Recently, the corporate headquarters in San Fancisco has decided to implement an employee empowerment work system.  There is a cultural change taking place that is dramatic in nature. What the company is now proposing is to abandon the incentive manufacturing system based on the principles of Frederic Taylor, which has been the hallmark of the clothing and textile manufacturing system of modern American industry.  The principles embodied in the vision of this new manufacturing culture are directly descended from the principles of Edward Demming.

Ironically, what the company is proposing is to a large extend what the employees through their collective bargaining representatives have been advocating even before the time and motion based system of Taylorism was instituted.  Inevitably one realizes that the company proposes to empower those who its system has disempowered from its inception.  This process will create an enormous trauma for both those who are instructed to stop checking their brain at the door and start using their minds, and perhaps even more significantly, for those of middle management who have always considered those whose actual labor creates the wealth and profits to be little more than human cogs in the giant corporate machine.

 Team assembly. The various pieces that go to make up the garment are separated and delivered to the individual operators who assemble the garment.  In theory the new process will allow the operators to assemble the finished garment through a method which they themselves helped to design. Again, theoretically, the employees who have functioned purely as individual operators, against the clock, will now be allowed to function as a team.  Each is supposed to be cross trained in the numerous functions of the entire operation and choose when and how to move from one operation to another as bottlenecks occur. Getting from an individual-focused piece incentive mentality to the collective and cooperative bonus incentive system is really the hard part. Traditional supervisors must relinguish their traditional line authority. They must evolve from supervisor to facilitator. The empowered employee must learn to exercise that power. The supervisor must relinquish it. This is the rub. The finishing, packing and shipping stages of the operation will necessarily have to undergo a like evolution. The team concept must be ingrained in the thinking of all employees and to this point in the process it has not.

 

EPILOGUE

When I wrote the paper, I had already been fired from my 15 year job at Levi’s. (Remember I was only going to stay until the boat was paid for.) By that time the Fredrick Taylor principals of manufacturing had succumbed to the new principals of Edward Demming. I worried that the new TEAM concept would pit union member against union member and these employees would not be able to make the hard decisions necessary to keep their wages up and production for their department within the limits that were imposed by the Company. I was very wrong in my assumptions.

Women teaching women.  In my paper I mentioned there had always been a subculture in the plant of women teaching women how to short-cut the “method” for sewing jeans. Women helping others when there was a lot of repair work to do. Everyone on an operation made sure each employee had enough “tickets” at the end of the day to make production. Someone always carried tools to work on machines when a mechanic was not available.

Teams worked at Levi. Suddenly TEAMS were able to decide how to best do their jobs. They were able to hire or vote on any new member of their team. Production soared; pay increased and grievances dropped off to almost nothing. These employees were empowered and they took their responsibility to the team very seriously. They became so good at the TEAM concept so quickly many of them were in great demand as speakers and teachers in Levi facilities all over the U.S. The Knoxville Levi facility was one of the most productive plants Levi’s had.

Then they closed the plant. In the midst of all this hard work and pride Levi’s announced it would be joining most other clothing manufacturing in the U.S. and off shoring all their work to other countries. One thousand five hundred employees lost their jobs. The Company gave a six months notice and hired an outplacement firm to help the “dislocated workers” through their “transition”. Levi’s offered a wonderful severance package. It took these workers about two months to digest what had happened to them. They passed quickly through the seven stages of grief most dislocated workers have to go through before they can go forward.

A work family. These women (and some men) remained a “family” and helped each other start a new life. They went to school together; they helped each other with homework and started job clubs. Some of them started their own businesses and hired Levi friends to work for them. The majority of them transitioned successfully to a very different life than they had at Levi’s.

 I see them today everywhere I go. The doctor’s offices and hospitals are full of former Levi employees that went back to school. There are restaurants owned and operated by former Levi employees. They are secretaries in union offices. One of them is the Labor Liaison at the local United Way. Groups of them meet monthly for lunch or dinner.

I wonder, with all the changes that have taken place since those days as a Levi employee are they (we) still a “culture” of the same people??????

My biography, an update. I retired from the Tennessee AFL-CIO in October of 2011. Since that time I have become the Central Labor Council President in Knoxville, TN. Over the week-end I knocked on doors for labor’s endorsed candidates. That activity is part of the labor movement’s culture.  It was my great pleasure to be paired with a young man who has a master’s degree in sociology. Although we knocked on our 50 doors we also talked a lot about the importance of trying to understand people and why they felt certain ways about things.

Iles Minoff received his doctorate in anthropology from Princeton University. He taught at St. Xavier College in the Chicago area and taught a class in the anthropology of work at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in the 1990s. He worked for the labor movement for 28 years, first with the Human Resources Development Institute in the early 1980s where he worked on retraining programs for displaced workers, and later for Union Privilege where, for over 20 years, he developed benefit safety net programs for union members and their families. He has a wonderful and amazing wife, three great daughters, and two, soon to be three, of the cutest grandchildren on the face of the earth.

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