Factory Man: Economic Displacement & Trauma

Beth Macy's first book, “Factory Man," tells the story of John Bassett III, a third generation factory owner who battles to keep his Galax, Virginia, furniture factory open while everyone around him has closed up shop. "I put myself in the book is because I thought I owed the reader that transparency," she said. "Because these are my people." A Dart Center Q&A.

Ochberg Fellow Beth Macy, a former reporter for The Roanoke Times in Virginia, has won more than a dozen national awards for her reporting. Her first book, “Factory Man,” was published last year and grew out of a 2012 Roanoke Times series called “Picking up the Pieces.” Now a bestseller, the book examines the effects of offshoring and globalization, and tells the story of John Bassett III, a third generation factory owner who battles to keep his Galax, Virginia, furniture factory open while everyone around him has closed up shop. 

The Dart Center spoke with Macy about writing her first book, the challenges of getting past the numbers, and economic displacement as a trauma issue. The following is a lightly edited version of that March 2015 conversation.

Ariel Ritchin: Last month, employers added almost 300,000 jobs. That made 12 months in a row that the economy created 200,000 + jobs, the longest streak in 30 years. The official unemployment rate fell to 5.5 percent, the lowest it’s been since the Great Recession in 2008. That’s basically the story we’re hearing. What’s missing from that narrative? 

Beth Macy: What’s missing is the U6 Unemployment Rate. And that’s the number of people who are unemployed and whose benefits have run out so they’re not counted. Those who are underemployed are also missing – they’re people who work part-time but wish to be full-time.

But people in these little mill towns will do whatever it takes to scramble by. I interviewed a woman named Wanda at the beginning of my book and I talk to her again at the end. Even though she’s gone back to school and gotten an Associate’s Degree, all she can get is a part-time job at Walmart. 

And in these towns people, especially people in their fifties and sixties, feel they can’t move somewhere else. Many of them have got to care for older relatives, and others just don’t have the money to move. So they’re getting by however they can. 

And then there’s wage deflation. Before I left the Roanoke Times, I hadn’t had a raise in seven years, nor had anyone at the company. Jobs do come up but they’re not paying as much. 

And then there’s another number – the job participation rate. That has gone down.

We’re so fragmented that in big cities you often don’t see the fall out from globalization the way you do when you drive through a small community. Like Martinsville and Hanlon County and Bassett, where it just slaps you in the face; where it feels like a ghost town.

You’ve written before about how these major news outlets, like the Times and the Washington Post, are reluctant to venture out to middle America to really see what’s going on?

The Times has gotten much better, I think. I know that the Times is really taking on “inequality stories” more. They’ve been focusing on joblessness and jobless males in particular.

It’s sort of improving but so many reporters are college graduates. And that’s a good thing, right? But they often don’t have people in their families who still work at factories. My nephew, for years and years, he went to work at a factory everyday without benefits. I see that in my family and in the communities I cover. But I’m not sure that most people in your situation and my situation see it in their daily life.

AR: So, like your nephew, those who are working temp jobs, part-time, or the people that completely stop looking altogether, they’re not included in most of those jobs numbers. And I remember reading about that in 2008-2009, but those stories aren’t really told anymore.

BM: Or at least not enough. Some reporters have gotten pretty good. Chris Rugaber at the Associated Press. He doesn’t just do the cheerful, “Oh look, ‘300,000 jobs’ stories.” I know that deliberately he works on, “But, wage deflation. Only this number of real jobs. People are only working part-time.”

AR: And for some of the smaller papers, what are some of the challenges that those reporters are facing in terms of…

BM: Oh golly. I hadn’t had a raise in seven years – I left last spring. A former colleague told me it’s eight now. And they said, “Not going to have a raise – ever.” I mean what a demoralizing thing to say. We’re never, ever going to have a raise? That just makes everybody want to leave. And so there’s still some really good people there but a lot have left. 

What you end up with is people coming in to fill those jobs who don’t know the area and who don’t have the institutional memory or the experience. 

It took me a long time to see this story because it’s an hour away and it’s kind of off the beaten path. I had driven through Bassett maybe twice before I did the series that led to the book because it’s on the way to this place where my family used to camp. But otherwise there was no reason to go there. 

So that was an hour away for you. To take that to an extreme, when a local story goes international, sort of like all of these factories whose competition is now China. That story just stops then, right?

Yeah, and what you’ll see are kind of cheerful stories. Now I’m talking about the Martinsville Bulletin – the main paper that covers that area that I wrote about in the book. They’ll say something like “The governor was in today, and he announced that we’re giving an economic incentive grant to get a minor expansion.” Or they’ll even call it a “big get.” But in reality it only employs about 30 people. 

And what you don’t see is the paper going back and digging deep. For example I had never seen the figure that I found for the book in any report. It said the region had lost half of its jobs.

The local paper hadn’t pointed that out. It’s just hard – is it their responsibility to know what’s happening at the WTO, and at the US International Trade Commission? They don’t have reporters in Washington. And in small, small towns, reporters and editors have relationships with the people that still own these multinational corporations. Are they going to ask them the really hard questions?

AR: So you grew up in a factory town. Your mother was a displaced factory worker. How do you think your background has influenced your reporting?

BM: I think that it probably influences every single thing I’ve ever done. It influences my worldview, the way I see stories. 

One of my favorite stories I’ve ever written is a profile of a young woman named Salena. A super bright, 14-year old library page who I met at this little Tudor library – one of the first libraries built for blacks in the South during Jim Crow.

And I just followed her. Her whole path. She was the valedictorian of her high school class and she was destined to be not only the first person in her family to go to college, but the first person in her neighborhood. I didn’t know her very well but I was always checking in on her and I wanted to be there the day she found out if she was getting into college. 

There’s this elderly gentleman there, who had become kind of a civil rights leader in the sixties – he was in the Navy at the time – he would go to the library everyday to read his newspaper. And when Salena found out she got into Harvard, a full-ride, she screamed, and everybody erupted because the whole library kind of raised this kid. And this man, he put down the newspaper he was reading and he wept. And that’s the kind of story that I feel super lucky to get because you can tell so much about poverty and race and it’s one of those stories that’s all about memory and desire. 

That’s kind of my story too. I mean I didn’t go to Harvard for undergrad or anything, but that’s the kind of story that moves me and I’ve learned that those are the kind of stories that I write best.

So in the beginning of the book when I meet Wanda at the computer lab outside of her community college, she’s studying because she doesn’t understand math and she’s 58 years old. She hasn’t been in college in 40 years. When she says things like, “You know, I just saw the beach for the first time last year.” It’s just that desire, that wanting to do better – I love that kind of story. 

And one of the reasons I put myself in the book is because I thought I owed the reader that transparency. Because these are my people. And this is why my book is different than most books you’ll read about globalization, because I know these people. 

AR: So in the past 25 years, you’ve covered stories about both trauma and PTSD, and the economy. How do you understand economic displacement as a trauma issue? 

BM: Well think of Wanda. She’s a super proud person. Never had to ask anybody for anything. And her husband’s on disability and they live in this small trailer. She struggles to make her car payments. She applies to all these jobs and nobody’s calling her for an interview, probably because she’s 58 years old. 

So she finally swallows her pride and calls the Church food bank, and the food bank happens to be located in a prosperous area in her county, and the woman on the phone says “Sorry, you’re out of our jurisdiction.”

And she’s telling me about it a year later. And that’s trauma. The trauma of those people having to go to a food pantry two hours before it opens to get a spot in line – that’s trauma. And really dignified people, some of them on walkers. And a lot of them didn’t want to talk to me initially because they were ashamed. Because they were people who had worked most of their lives. 

AR: So you’re someone who is telling that story, those stories – giving us a more complete picture. We aren’t just reading numbers. In the book you bring us to Galax, Virginia, and tell us the story of a third generation factory owner fighting to keep his factory open. When did you know that your series for the Roanoke Times should become a book, your first book?

BM: My first book at age 50. I had done all this research and I had heard enough about John Bassett to know that you can tell the whole story of what happened through his one family. You could write about Bassett furniture – where he was born and raised and worked for the first half of his career – which closed all the factories but one or two. And you could write about John Bassett, who now owns Vaughan-Bassett – a totally different entity. One’s a public company, one’s a private company. One closes all its factories, the other doesn’t. And not only does he keep them open, but he vows to fight to keep them open with a lawsuit – the world’s largest antidumping petition, against China. From Galax – Galax is about barbecue and bluegrass, not the world’s largest antidumping petition!

So the way I got the idea is exactly the way I described it in Chapter One. My neighbor who runs a furniture store said, “Bassett says things like the fucking Chicoms aren’t going to tell ME how to make furniture.” And the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Because it’s really rare to meet a multimillionaire who has this kind of sweeping scope of history that exemplifies this really relevant complex global financial thing. And then he’s a badass too? 

And when I met him, he walks in and he’s like 75 and looks like he’s been on the golf course. And I had been told to dress down because I’d be in the factory and so I’ve got jeans on and hiking shoes, my long gray hair’s back in a ponytail. He looks down at me, literally, and you can see he’s thinking, “Why has the newspaper sent this damn hippie to interview me.” 

And then we go into his conference room. He loves to talk. He starts telling me stories and he basically told me the whole scaffolding of the story. 

I stayed at a hotel in Galax that night. Usually I’d be zonked but I was so excited. I typed up all my notes from that day and I sent them to my editor at 10 pm. She wrote back at 10:30, and got it right away. And so she gave me time and that was really key. Then I told another journalist friend and his agent loved it. He told me, “Holy shit, you found Moneyball with furniture!”

AR: It certainly seems that way. Tom Hanks is a big fan. He’s optioned it for an HBO series.

BM: Yeah, hopefully! Fingers crossed. It’s very early.

AR: So beyond Tom Hanks, it’s obviously had a huge impact. What do you hope a reader will take away from it?

BM: Like my agent says: It’s the book you can give to your mom, and she’ll understand, finally, why it is that the once-thriving little factory town she grew up in, like the one I grew up in, looks the way it does now. 

I mean we’re so good at covering the daily things when they happen but we never really stand back and give that sort of global, big picture view. So I’m just hoping that the reader understands the situation that these people are still in. 

Everyone said it was going to be a big win when China joined the WTO in 2001. That we wouldn’t lose jobs. We would just export things to the growing Chinese consumer class. But the reality is that it’s going to be decades before a place like Bassett, Virginia, recovers. There’s almost nothing there.

AR:  So what advice do you have for young reporters, someone like me, who wants to work toward making sense of all these numbers, and telling the more complete picture of modern industry in the US?  

BM: Some people get really turned on by numbers. I’m not that person. I still have someone check behind me when I do a percentage. What I get turned on by, it sounds cliché, is when I’m interviewing somebody and the hair on the back of my neck goes up; I know there’s something more there. 

One woman in the book, she said she ran into her old boss at a party she was catering, and she told him, the old CEO who had closed her factory, “If Tultex were to open back up today, and the only way I could get there would be to crawl on my belly like a snake, I would do it.” That took my breath away. I’ve read that section before and I tear up almost every time I read it still. 

So my advice is to pay attention to what takes your breath away, to what makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. What makes you laugh, you know, what sort of breaks through the monotony and all these distractions we have, and really makes you understand something. 

Follow what moves you. I was really slow to figure that out. The best kinds of stories I do are the outsiders and underdog stories. Probably because I was one of them, too.