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The changing face of Georgia’s carpet industry

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

DALTON, Ga. Jerry Nelson steered his grocery cart out of the Wal-Mart on a recent night, fuming about globalization, Southern style. “Another great night at the Mexican Wal-Mart,” he groused to no one in particular.The mass migration of Latinos to this corner of northwest Georgia known as the carpet capital of the world has changed the character of everything from factory floors to schools to superstores. On this night, Wal-Mart’s ubiquitous TV monitors alternately promoted arroz and rice, aparatos and electronics.Like many working-class natives of this once lily-white area, Nelson blames the changes on the carpet industry, which he insists lured the Mexicans–and more recently, other Latinos–to keep down wages and workers’ leverage in this nonunion region. “We all know who the culprit is: Big Business. That’s who’s running our country,” he said.But the immigration-driven transformation of work in the United States is not simple, and Nelson played a role in the story, too. For decades, displaced farmers were the backbone of carpet mills. Nelson’s mother left a farm in Appalachia to work in one until age 82. But Nelson didn’t follow her. Neither did his wife, Georgia, also a mill worker’s daughter. “We wanted more than our parents,” said Jerry Nelson, who spent most of his career as a heating and ventilation contractor.Another indispensable force was a federal immigration system that went limp in the face of urgent demands for labor, whether in the Vidalia onion fields 270 miles to the southeast or the Atlanta Olympic Village 90 miles to the south. Both drew thousands of illegal workers, many of whom ultimately found their way to Dalton through another important force: the amazing Mexican jobs grapevine.And then there was the longest economic expansion in American history. As buildings rose and homes kept getting bigger, Americans carpeted almost a billion more square yards of floor in 2004 than in 1994, a 50 percent increase. With more than three-quarters of America’s carpets made in and around Dalton, a shrinking workforce and 10,000 jobs to fill in a decade, the region was in the grip of a labor vacuum.And immigration adores a vacuum. Today 40 percent of Dalton, 61 percent of its public school students and half of this region’s carpet factory workers are Latino.”A lot of people used to come here from Tennessee when there were no jobs there,” said Shirley Silvers, who has worked 30 years for Dalton carpetmaker J&J Industries. “I guess it’s the same now for Mexicans.”Dalton may be 1,200 miles from Mexico, but it is in many ways a border town, whipsawed by every twist in the immigration debate. Its business and civic leaders call Latinos saviors of their one-industry economy, while its state and federal lawmakers are in the forefront of efforts to seal the border and block a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.And U.S.-born workers at Mohawk Industries Inc., the nation’s No. 2 carpet manufacturer and a major Dalton employer, have filed one of several class-action lawsuits around the country alleging that the hiring of illegal workers constitutes federal racketeering–a legal strategy that, if successful, could subject Mohawk to huge fines. Mohawk says it obeyed all applicable laws and is trying to have the suit dismissed. But the forces that changed Dalton are not easily reversed. The carpet industry always has relied on migrants. It took off in the 1950s, drawing people throughout Appalachia to the steadiest paycheck in the hardscrabble region.”Men left farms, stayed in boarding houses for $7 to $10 a week and worked in the mills until they saved enough money to bring their families,” said Shaheen Shaheen, an industry pioneer who in 1954 started World Carpets, now part of Mohawk.So began a cycle of carpet companies depending on workers from well beyond Dalton, and Dalton staking its future on carpet companies. Whitfield County Commission Chairman Brian Anderson said that the area’s 150 carpet factories pay 70 percent of county taxes and that nine out of 10 jobs depend on them. And as in the 1950s, industry executives praise the new arrivals’ work ethic and appetite for overtime–only now they cross national instead of state borders.Norberto Reyes arrived here in 1981 with visions of opening an authentic Mexican restaurant for an Anglo clientele, and he remembers finding only a handful of Latino families. “I wanted to hire Mexicans to work in my restaurant, and it was hard to find them,” Reyes recalled from the stucco hacienda that houses Los Reyes, now a Dalton institution.The shift began soon after the 1986 immigration law granted amnesty to millions of illegal U.S. immigrants. At about the same time, carpet factories began hiring after a deep recession. Frank Shaheen, a cousin of Shaheen Shaheen and owner of a small carpet mill in nearby Calhoun, said he first noticed the transition at a sweltering factory where his company’s yarn was dyed.”It was like there were two completely separate workforces there,” he said. “One was these older (white) guys who’d been there since the business opened in 1951. And the other was all young Hispanics. There was nobody in between.”According to Ruben Hernandez-Leon, a sociologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, almost 2,000 Mexicans had moved to Whitfield County by 1990–still less than 3 percent of the population but the foundation for what followed.The national housing boom of the 1990s sent demand for carpet soaring, prompting alarm about a labor shortage in Dalton. First-generation workers were retiring and many young people had left for New South metropolises like Atlanta. The county’s non-Hispanic workforce dropped by more than 4,000 in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Census. And many who remained turned away from factory work. Industry executives talked of moving some major facilities from the area, possibly to Mexico. Meanwhile, word of the jobs bounty–advertised on billboards and banners–spread to Mexican enclaves around the country.Carmen Campos, who became a citizen after the 1986 amnesty, was working in a foul-smelling meat-packing plant in Dodge City, Kan., for less than $10 an hour when his sister-in-law called with news of better work and better schools in Dalton. (He now makes $14.64 an hour as an operator for Shaw Industries Inc.) A woman named Elizabeth, who would not give her last name because she is here illegally, said she and her husband were working on cleaning crews in Los Angeles when an old friend called to say they could make more money in carpet factories and pay half as much in rent. Mario Figueroa, 18, said his father was working on a dairy farm in California when a relative called with a message that beckoned many a farmworker: “Alla se trabaja adentro.” (There you work indoors.)The Pew Hispanic Center has found that Mexicans who have been in the United States for a year on average have relatives in a dozen U.S. cities. “The labor market knowledge of your typical Mexican worker is astounding,” said Roberto Suro, the center’s director.(optional trim starts here)The buzz didn’t stop at the border. Kitty Kelley, an anthropologist who researched immigration here in the 1990s, said she interviewed carpet workers who would go home to Mexico to help their families during planting seasons, then return with eight cousins. A men’s soccer team here is named Jalisco because all the players came from that Mexican state; most now work at Mohawk, which sponsors the team. By 2000, the Census counted 18,419 Hispanics in Whitfield County, a ninefold increase in a decade and still a severe undercounting, according to researchers.Asked what they knew about Dalton before arriving, seventh-grade Latino children at a Dalton State College summer program had many versions of the same answer. “There was work here and there were no jobs at home,” said a girl named Candelaria from Guatemala. “There was a good future,” said a boy named Jesus from Ecuador. “My father said of all the states in the U.S., this was the best place to live and make money,” said a girl named Julia from Brazil.Carpet factory wages start at $8.50 to $10 an hour for unskilled workers, compared with a state minimum wage of $5.15. But the grapevine also touted Dalton’s safe schools and neighborhoods, far from the gangs and crime of border towns and big cities.Campos, the former meat packer from Dodge City, and his wife, Armida, who both work for Shaw Industries, said they came with hopes that their sons would get good educations. On the living room wall in their immaculate trailer home are two framed certificates from the President’s Education Awards Program, each for their oldest son, Jorge –one signed by Bill Clinton; one by George W. Bush. Jorge, 18, graduated in May as valedictorian of Southeast Whitfield County High School, the first Mexican-born student to do so, and plans to attend Dalton State College in the fall.”He is like our hero, we are all so proud,” said Nancy Fraire, a classmate and also a child of Mexican carpet workers.(optional trim ends here)While Nancy and Jorge’s parents are here legally, industry officials say they know that some workers are probably using fraudulent papers, which are widely available for a price. But the law does not require employers to verify whether official-looking documents are valid.”If there’s no reason to question the validity, we don’t. If there is, we do,” said Louis Fordham, vice president of human resources at J&J Industries.The Mohawk workers’ lawsuit invokes a 1996 law that made knowingly hiring illegal immigrants a potential racketeering offense. It alleges that the company recruited illegal workers and paid bonuses to employees who transported and housed them and supplied them with fake papers. It also alleges that the company effectively winked at obviously fake documents. The alleged scheme suppressed the wages of U.S.-born workers, according to the lawsuit.Mohawk denied the allegations and has challenged the racketeering theory all the way to the Supreme Court, which last month sent the case back without a ruling to the federal appeals court in Atlanta for reconsideration.”Mohawk is proud of the fact that it has a diverse workforce,” said its lead attorney, Juan Morillo of Sidley Austin LLP. “It didn’t do anything intentionally to generate that.”(optional trim starts here)Several researchers say the 1996 Olympics are the reason Georgia has more illegal immigrants than any Southern state except Florida–350,000 to 450,000 in 2005, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Atlanta’s former Mexican consul general, Teodoro Maus, said thousands of illegal workers from Mexico suddenly appeared on construction crews when preparations for the Olympics fell behind schedule, and federal immigration officials assured him they would not interfere–and they didn’t.”You’d see 40-foot-high girders, and up top, all these brown faces, right in the middle of Atlanta,” Maus said. “Everyone agreed the Olympics never would have been finished on time without them.”Another turning point came in 1998, when immigration agents raided the Vidalia onion fields, putting the valuable harvest in jeopardy, only to be called off after Georgia congressmen protested to the Clinton administration. One protest came from then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R, now a senator and an advocate of deporting illegal immigrants.Soon afterward, periodic immigration raids came to a halt in Georgia and nationally. The Government Accountability Office found that the federal government filed notices of intent to fine only three companies in 2004, compared with 417 in 1999. The Pew center and UCLA’s Hernandez-Leon estimate that more than half the Latinos who arrived in Dalton after 1995 were illegal.(optional trim ends here)The government recently conducted several highly publicized raids of companies with illegal workers and has promised more.Even when the raids were going on, Dalton’s civic leaders were sending a different message. When Latino parishioners overflowed Dalton’s 130-seat St. Joseph’s Catholic Church–even after pews were extended and aisles narrowed–industry executives helped pay for a new, 600-seat church whose bilingual priest now leads both masses and misas. Parishioner Carl Burkhardt, president of Dalton’s No. 3 carpetmaker, Beaulieu of America Inc., gave $1 million while Shaw Industries chief executive Bob Shaw “godfathered” the project, according to Father Daniel Stack, the priest at the time. “He said we were taking care of his workers, so he wanted to help take care of us,” Stack said.And as Latinos increased from 4 percent of Dalton public school students in 1990 to 44 percent in 2000 and 61 percent in 2005, help came from the industry, the city government and a $500,000 federal grant, all at the behest of a prominent local attorney and former congressman. The Georgia Project, founded by attorney Erwin Mitchell in 1996, brought bilingual educators from Mexico to teach Latino children and to instruct local teachers in the Spanish language and Mexican culture. It also sends Dalton teachers to a summer institute in Mexico and provides after-school tutoring for Latino children whose parents don’t speak English.”We’re not about immigration; we’re about education,” Mitchell said. Commission Chairman Anderson said the county would have to raise property taxes to cover rising costs for schools and indigent health care, but he argued that paying for immigration is cheaper than not paying for it.”People will say if it wasn’t for these darned Mexicans, we wouldn’t have a tax increase,” Anderson said. “But would you rather have a little increase in property taxes because our industry thrives and we all benefit, or would you rather the industry left and we had no jobs here?”To Betty Motley, who retired last year after 21 years with six carpet companies, the choice is not that simple. Standing on her porch in a mill workers’ neighborhood, she pointed out a green, two-bedroom house across the street where she said five Mexican men live.”They don’t spend anything, they’re just saving,” she said. Around the corner is Morales Market and a branch of Sigue Corp., the leading transmitter of money from the United States to Mexico.Down the street, a woman named Diane, who would speak only on condition that her last name not be used for fear of retaliation from her supervisor, has worked 15 years for Mohawk said most of her white co-workers have retired, quit or been laid off.She said that her new Latino co-workers work faster than she does and that she can’t meet the new production quota, meaning she now makes less money.”They’re taking our United States and making it their United States,” Motley said. “Mohawk and Shaw used to be our companies.”Rep. Nathan Deal, R, whose district includes Dalton, said he hears constantly from constituents upset about the Spanish-speaking majority in their children’s schools, about hospitals where disproportionately uninsured Latinos increase the cost of care.Deal is considered a hard-liner on immigration. He has introduced legislation to deny citizenship to U.S.-born children whose parents are illegal immigrants, and he wants to deport illegal immigrants, secure the border and establish a fraud-proof guest-worker program.But when asked where this would leave Dalton and the carpet industry, he sounded more open to negotiation.”To say we’ll seal the border and enforce the law is not something we can do by snapping our fingers,” he said. “That’s no more realistic than those who say we should just have open borders.”


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