Rob Christensen

Christensen: Trying to save the furniture industry

Wanda Perdue, a 58-year old laid-off furniture worker in Stanleytown, Va., doesn’t have outsized expectations. Her longest trip from home was to Myrtle Beach, S.C., made three years ago. She is going back to community college hoping to land an office job at Walmart, a store where she works part time. A splurge these days is a can of Luck’s pinto beans, the only non-store brand food she buys.

But she did have one question for reporter Beth Macy: “I want you to see what they do in Indonesia and explain to me why we can’t do that here no more.”

Perdue is collateral damage in the furniture wars that Macy, a reporter for the Roanoke Times, writes about in her recent excellent book, “Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town.’’

The protagonist is John Bassett III, a third-generation furniture man, who lives in Roaring Gap, N.C., and his determined effort to keep the 700 jobs in his Vaughn-Bassett bedroom furniture plant in the town of Galax, Va., despite a flood of imports.

But the book also uses a wider lens to examine the furniture wars and the devastating effect of globalization on Appalachia.

At its height during the 1960s, 23 of the nation’s 30 largest furniture manufacturers were located along a 150-mile furniture belt from Bassett, Va., to Lenoir.

At the beginning of the 1900s, the furniture industry had been mainly in Grand Rapids, Mich. But it migrated South after the Michigan woods were depleted and after unions drove up labor costs. The Depression killed off the Grand Rapids furniture business.

The first threat to Southern furniture manufacturing occurred in the form of Larry Moh, an American-educated Chinese native living in Taiwan. In 1975, he opened a factory on two floors in Hong Kong, paying his workers 76 cents per hour compared with the $6.36 that American furniture workers were earning.

So began a flood, as American manufacturers began moving their manufacturing operations overseas to take advantage of the cheap labor. Soon, foreign companies began selling furniture directly to retailers.

Jobs gone for good

Economists love free markets. And they note that it means cheaper goods for consumers. But free markets assume that enough people will be left working to afford even the cheaper goods.

Some 300,000 American furniture workers lost their jobs, many of them in the foothills of North Carolina and Virginia, according to Macy. Many lived in small isolated towns, where other jobs were hard to come by.

In 2002, John Bassett flew to China to visit the furniture plant that was threatening to drive him out of business. Most of the workers were young men in their 20s, typically paid less than $100 a month.

Many American furniture manufacturers, which were publicly traded and facing stockholder pressure, took their production overseas.

But Bassett was a rebel, and his company was privately held. He modernized his plant, repositioned it to respond to customer orders more quickly than Asian companies could. And he sued Chinese companies for violating anti-dumping laws that sold furniture below the cost of manufacturing.

It was personal

While Bassett’s actions may have slowed the flow of Chinese imports, in many cases, the furniture manufacturing just shifted to other countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam.

But for Bassett, saving one factory and one town was personal.

“This is not like picking up a telephone from your office on Wall Street and saying, ‘Close factory number 36 down in Alabama,’ ” Bassett said. “These are people we look in the eye every day.”

Workers such as Wanda Perdue, who worked for Stanley Furniture for 37 years, were not so fortunate. She had not been able to find full-time work after three years. Globalization had not made the world a better place for her.