Urban Decline and the Global Economy

Mollie’s Job : A Story of Life and Work on the Global Assembly Line, by William M. Adler, Scribner, May 2000. 352pp. $27.50.


To understand the link between urban decay and globalization, start with William Adler’s Mollie’s Job. Adler tells the story of Mollie James, a Black woman who migrated to Paterson, NJ from the segregated south in 1950 and was hired as an assembly line worker at Universal Manufacturing Co. He follows Mollie’s life and job for the next four decades as they become interwoven with the fates of two other women – Dorothy Carter of rural Mississippi and Balbina Duque of Matamoros, Mexico – who work the same job at the same company.

Along the way we meet white middle class families fleeing the city for suburbia, civil rights activists, principled and corrupt union leaders and risk-taking entrepreneurs like Paterson native Archie Sergy who founded Universal Manufacturing, helping make Paterson an industrial powerhouse.

In 1963, lured by the intense competition for new industry among the Southern states, Universal opened a plant in Mississippi; many of James’ co-workers in Paterson lost their jobs. In the 1980s, the company was swept up in “the gale winds of Wall Street’s merger mania.” Twice in eight months, Universal was sold, both times to companies headed by disciples of Michael Milken, who invented junk bonds for corporate raiders who bought and sold companies for quick profits.

The second company that took over Universal, an electrical components conglomerate called MagneTek, Inc., opened a plant in a Mexican city Adler describes as a magnet for “foreign-owned assembly plants that wed first-world engineering with third-world working conditions. The [plants], in turn, are a beacon to tens of thousands of poor, young women(the industry prefers women, the younger – for their nimble fingers and compliant minds – the better), for whom a factory job trumps any other employment options.”

Paterson simply could not compete with Mississippi and Mexico’s government incentives, weak unions, weak environmental standards, right to work laws, and most of all, low wages. In 1989, the Paterson plant closed and James lost her job. “The job,” notes Adler “in which Mollie James once took great pride, the job that fostered and valued her loyalty, enabled her to rise above humble beginnings, provide for her family – that job does not now pay Balbina Duque a wage sufficient to live on.” The plant closing was another blow to Paterson’s hard hit economy. Today nearly one in five of its residents live in poverty.

Only One Piece of the Puzzle

Adler’s isn’t a balanced account of the pros and cons of the global economy and free trade. He uses the story of the three women, their company, and their communities to explore “a story about the demise of unions and the middle class and the concurrent rise of the plutocracy; about the disposability of workers and the portability of work; about how government and Wall Street reward U.S.-based companies for closing domestic plants and scouring the globe for the lowest wages in places where human rights and labor rights are ignored; and about the ways in which “free trade” harms democracy, undermines stable businesses and communities, exploits workers on both sides of the border, both ends of the global assembly line.”

In his book, you won’t find much evidence of how free trade contributes to the increase in the world’s wealth. Nor is this the story of extremely productive American workers who earn more than most workers without pricing American goods out of the global markets.

You also won’t learn that some old industrial cities – like Lowell, Massachusetts – have revived their tax base over the past several decades by creating good jobs, improving education and lowering crime rates, through strong local leadership, local cooperative efforts and economic development strategies. These cities started with ‘historic preservation,’ then lured non-manufacturing but revenue-generating activities like commercial office space, restaurants, theater, museums, educational and cultural events and activities.

Adler also should have noted the disparate, but growing, movements protesting the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund (see Shelterforce #111), and the campus-based anti-sweatshop movements. Also, while both Bush and Gore are ardent “free” traders, opponents of trade liberalization are fueling a grassroots presidential campaign for consumer advocate Ralph Nader. According to several polls, Nader has cost Gore five percentage points.

A Need for Reform

At the turn of the last century, a time of similar corporate abuse, governments stepped in with minimum wage, child labor laws, and affordable housing programs that saved unfettered capitalism from itself. Despite its omissions, Adler’s readable book is important because today, despite the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank, no international authority exists that can similarly soften the global market’s excesses. William Greider, in One World, Ready Or Not  (Simon and Schuster, 1997) argues that one solution is for institutions like the WTO to adopt binding standards for international labor rights.

Unless the protest movements grow stronger, however, the targets of reform will themselves weaken the reformers’ hand. Including labor rights in world trade treaties, for example, grows more difficult as the mobility of capital reduces the power of unions.

At its base, Mollie’s Job delivers two powerful reminders: Ordinary people are the victims of political and market forces driven by corporate greed, and urban decline and jobs are related to the global economy.

John Atlas is a found of Shelterforce and board chair emeritus. He is the producer of ACORN and the Firestorm, a film directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard and author of SEEDS OF CHANGE: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group. He is also the former executive director of the Passaic County Legal Aid Society.

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