ROCKY MOUNT, Va. — A WOMAN came up to the book-signing table at an event at my local library Monday night. She did not have a copy of the newly released paperback of “Factory Man,”my book about what happened when 300,000 American furniture-making jobs were offshored to Asia.
But she waited a half-hour in the signing line anyway, to introduce herself and to tell me she was one of the more than 550 people laid off in 2001 when Furniture Brands International closed its Lane Furniture plant in this former mill town.
She couldn’t afford the $17 book, she whispered, because she was doing housecleaning and other off-the-books, part-time work. (I offered to give her one, but her gainfully employed sister-in-law ended up buying her a copy before I could get to the box of books I keep in my car, for just such occasions.)
In the front row of the auditorium where I spoke sat a retired sales executive from Bassett Furniture Industries. He’d spent his career nearby in the eponymous company town of Bassett, a place that used to teem with seven factories set along the banks of the Smith River. In retirement, he and his wife live comfortably in a sprawling home in the nearby resort community of Smith Mountain Lake.
But they’ve had a hard time renting out property they still own in Bassett, which saw its factories close, one after the other, as the company offshored nearly all of its wood furniture production to China, Vietnam and Indonesia in the wake of trade liberalization and China’s admission into the World Trade Organization.
At the other end of the front row sat another septuagenarian retiree, whose eyes filled with tears, as I showed pictures of and spoke about the people who line up outside the region’s food pantries two hours before the doors open. His story was like that of others in the crowd: His mother was raised in a Bassett-owned home, and his father lost fingers to the company’s saws. He’s also a native of Henry County, which has lost nearly half its jobs in the past two decades — not just factory work but also jobs in the smaller companies that supplied the factories, and in the mom-and-pop stores and diners where factory workers used to spend their cash.
Unfettered free trade has not only put the Henry County region near the top of Virginia’s unemployment rankings for more than a decade, but it has also ushered in an era of soaring food insecurity and Social Security disability claims.
And crime, too. A sheriff’s deputy told me at another book signing that many of his calls are now related to methamphetamine and heroin. An unemployed man accidentally set an abandoned factory on fire while trying to rip out copper electrical wires to sell on the black market; he was riding a bicycle, an unusual sight in this hilly, rural, car-reliant area.