Blue-Collar Gospel

The union gave them a voice -- and members of the Whiteville Apparel Choir have kept on lifting spirits on picket lines across the South.

Over at the Best Western hotel in Whiteville, North Carolina, where the Whiteville Apparel Choir is meeting to rehearse, no one is warming up with scales or going over harmonies. Kenny Stanley, the keyboard player, adjusts the sound system, bouncing arpeggios off the wall, but that is in the background. In the foreground is the hum of conversation, as the ve women in the group, all but one of them related, try, with limited success, to tell me what jobs they held at Whiteville Apparel, a local suit manufacturing plant that at one time employed 600 people in this small city in eastern North Carolina.

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"I was a die clicker for about ve years," the unrelated one, Sue Washington, volunteers. I nod, but dumbly, so she begins again. "You know lapels?" she asks, making sure I'm with her so far. "I cut in the lapels." This I get, but the image it evokes comes with an unsettling revelation. It occurs to me that until these women started talking, I'd never before thought of a suit, or any other article of clothing, as the sum of its parts, or put faces to the people who spent their days, their years, doing the math with needle and thread to make them whole. These people: Sue Washington; and Anna Stanley (17 years joining side panels to the front of the coat); and Anna's sister-in-law, Cynthia Stanley (six years sewing the lapel to the lining); and Cynthia's mother-in-law, Mary Gladys Stanley (11 years xing everyone else's mistakes, doing what was called "bushel and repairs," a job she took on at 56, after a lifetime of farming tobacco and corn); and Mary Gladys' daughter-in-law, Ruby (29 years cutting in the pockets).

"We need a prayer," Ruby reminds them. "Can't sing without a prayer." The keyboard hushes and heads bow. The group takes up the Lord's Prayer, not in that routine and possibly rote way you hear in some churches on Sundays, but rhythmically, like a poem, and so forcefully that their conviction could be mistaken for anger. At the "amen," heads rise up again, in unison. Front panel to back, lapel to collar, these African American and Native American garment workers -- union members or supporters all -- have deftly assembled themselves into the Whiteville Apparel Choir. It is on them, with their organic blend of labor spirituals and traditional black gospel, that union organizers call when the contract negotiations aren't going well and the membership needs a boost. It is by them and their tabernacle of song that workers in small towns around the South are encouraged to challenge unfair labor practices and to work for equity and a decent day's pay.

"I don't feel no ways tired," belts Cynthia, a short, oversize woman with an even bigger voice. "Nobody told me the road would be easy. I don't believe He brought me this far to leave me." It was an old gospel song, pleading and energetic, with a strong backbeat and gospel triads. Nothing preachy about it.

"I was really blown away by their sound, the quality of their original material, and the way they are able to synthesize Southern gospel music and labor music. They are way able to speak to the emotions, struggle, and daily lives of our members by moving between labor and gospel songs," says Phil Cohen, their producer and manager, when the song is through. "A number of people are recording music about working-class struggles, but to the best of my knowledge, we are the only rank-and-le union members who are getting national and even international attention."

Cohen, who works by day as a special projects coordinator for UNITE, the needle-trades union, rst heard the choir in 1993 at a state union conference in Greensboro. He was so moved by their performance, and so convinced they deserved a wider audience, that he approached the union leadership with an unusual request -- that it bankroll the group, with him as manager, so they could travel more and record their music. But the union, which had trouble enough organizing right-to-work states like North Carolina, didn't go for it. Then, two years later, when the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union joined forces in 1995 to form UNITE, the Whiteville Apparel Choir was invited to sing at the wedding. "There were maybe 4,000 people there and the choir brought the house down," Cohen recalls. "Six months later we got the funding."

 

Still, no one was offering the singers a chance to quit their day jobs in the long, windowless room the length of a city block, where they sat in front of sewing machines or ran the pressers. Eight, ten hours there, and then they'd drive all night and end up in Atlanta pumping up the rank and le, or in Washington, D.C., entertaining college kids at anti-sweatshop rallies. Five days a week they'd work under the chill glare of fluorescent lights, only to watch the sun rise on the sixth day as they traveled to Garland, North Carolina, to bolster workers at the Brooks Brothers plant, where management was trying to break the union, or to Greensboro, where the newly organized workers at a Kmart distribution center could not get what they considered a reasonable rst contract from the company. A raise of 5 cents an hour, the company insisted, not a penny more. Month after month, protesters from all over the state would come to Greensboro each Saturday, a thousand at a time, massing across the street from the Super Kmart, then moving in tight formation to the store's parking lot, where they'd make a human chain around the building.

"Kmart was picketed for three years," says Ruby Stanley. "The choir was always at the front of the line. We walked miles and miles around that place."

Invariably the police, in riot gear, were there to greet them.

"We used to call it music to get arrested by," Cohen laughs.

 

At the Best Western, the group huddles a minute off-mike, then Kenny starts playing again. I know the tune and try to place it. Meanwhile, the choir is stepping in rhythm, left foot, right foot, shoulders swaying. "Dancing in the Street!" I want to shout, as if it is the answer to a game show question. But everyone else already knows what I've just gured out. This version is called "Marching in the Street," and from the mouths of the Whiteville choir it is a rousing, foot-stomping, union anthem: "Come on everyone, grab a sign, and don't you cross that picket line!... All we need are unions, unions are what we need!" On another day, in a different place, I might consider these words merely rhetorical, but looking from face to face, from Sue Washington's open and friendly gaze, to Ruby Stanley's earnest one, to Mary Gladys' serious, almost stern mien -- especially hers -- I understand that they are not. Being members of the local isn't just about money, though the $10 an hour that Whiteville Apparel workers were able to earn once the plant was unionized was far higher than wages had been before. Even more, union membership is about voice. These folks can sing -- really sing -- because they have found, or have been given, or have given themselves, a say in their own destiny. "Whiteville Apparel was the best plant in the county," says Mary Gladys Stanley, who saw 9 of her 10 children go to work there. Management respected the workers and what they could do, she explains. Management sought their advice. What would be a fair way to compensate piecework? How should the company deal with poor attendance? What could they do to keep the plant competitive?

"We helped make the decisions," Ruby says simply.

 

If their words sound mournful, that is because in November 1999, the Whiteville Apparel company went out of business, a casualty of NAFTA, which left its parent corporation, Hart Schaffner & Marx, unable to compete with cheap labor south of the border. For months both management and labor worked together to keep it alive, but eventually they found themselves debrillating a corpse. Nearly 500 people lost their jobs, including every member of the Whiteville choir except Sue Washington, who had left the factory a few months ahead of the pink slips. Junior Kelly, a 30-year veteran of the plant who sings bass, found work as a janitor at the high school. Mary Gladys Stanley retired at 67. Sue Washington had already taken on the early-bird shift as a waitress at the Campus Grill, across from Southeastern Community College, where Ruby, Cynthia, and Anna Stanley are now paid to study for new careers, thanks to the union, which negotiated their parting benets. Hundreds of workers scattered like seed, but some roots were already securely planted. There's a reason that almost every member of the Whiteville choir now has the same last name. It's a remnant group, down in numbers from about 20 to 8.

 

The group breaks into "If I Had a Hammer" and makes it their own, then into Cynthia Stanley's original composition, "Wait Till Jesus Comes," and "Angel of Freedom," a civil rights ballad by Phil -- he's a songwriter, too -- Cohen. Then Anna Stanley, who is the choir's president and its livest wire, takes hold of the microphone. Her gold bracelets, which number about 25, wink as she moves in and out of the light. So do her 15 rings and seven necklaces. It looks as if she's plugged into a socket, and maybe she is. Anna's got a smoky voice, perfectly pitched -- think early Aretha Franklin, fresh from her daddy's church, but rawer. On the group's CD, Union Power, she's so good she sounds like a ringer.

Anna looks straight ahead and waits to take the solo on a tune called "Starting All Over."

"I cried when I heard the factory was closing," she had told me. "That was my job. It was all I knew at that point." Now Anna Stanley is in school -- in college -- studying to be a child care worker.

"It's going to be rough and tough but we're going to make it," she sings pointedly, and even if it weren't true, she'd make you believe it was.

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