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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ivey C. Jones, January 18, 1994. Interview K-0101. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Frustration with the callous decision to close the White Furniture Factory

Jones recalls, with some bitterness, the callous way in which the plant's new owners announced its closing. Employees were devastated, Jones remembers, and the owners' inadequate compensation offer was, in Jones's opinion, merely an effort to save face. Jones seems particularly incensed about the fact that the closing was not the result of poor quality or low output: it was "business as usual," he says.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ivey C. Jones, January 18, 1994. Interview K-0101. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JEFF COWIE:
How did you first hear that the plant was going to close down?
IVEY C. JONES:
They called us all together one morning.
JEFF COWIE:
Do you remember why?
IVEY C. JONES:
Everybody just thought it was going to be another what we called, "butt chewing meeting"--you know, where you get your butt chewed out for not doing something right. They said for everybody to come out into the Shipping Department. We said, "Okay." Everybody went out there. [unclear] and I had gotten a tip before we went out there, "look, they are going to shut this plant down."
JEFF COWIE:
Where did that come from?
IVEY C. JONES:
It was just a tip that our assistant supervisor had given us. I don't know where he had gotten it from, or whether he was just trying to be funny or just speculating, but he said, "They are going to shut this plant down." We went ahead and went on to the meeting thinking to ourselves in the back of our minds that this is highly possible, because the way things have been going in this company we know it can't keep running like it's going now. When we went out there the guy that was the CEO of Hickory White got up and said that the plant was losing money, they were going to consolidate everything into the Hickory plant, and we could consider this our sixty day notice. Basically, that was the gist of it, that was it. He said the plant manager will give you all the details and he stepped down. You could have heard a pin drop.
JEFF COWIE:
Were there two hundred workers out there?
IVEY C. JONES:
Everybody that worked at the plant was in the Shipping Department. You could have heard a pin drop. People had these dumbfound looks on their face. Some of the women started crying right on the spot. Everybody just looked around at each other because verybody thought business was going good. Word had come back that the furniture show had gone pretty good. Everyone thought that things were on the upbeat. The market had looked positive and so when they dropped that bomb everybody was just dumbfounded. People went back to their jobs and they couldn't work. They were thinking, this is my job, my paycheck is gone, I've got a house payment, I've got a family, and still management said, "You've got to get your people in gear and get them back to work." That's basically what came down to us, what we were told, to get back on the job and get started back up. It didn't matter that our lives had been devastated, I mean just totally devastated. Maybe management had gone through this type of thing before, but why people like me? I had worked "short time," a week on and a week off, but to be told, "This is your job and this is it and after sixty days you will have to seek employment somwhere else. I don't know how you're going to make your house payment, I don't care, this is just it, the plant is closed, we are done with you now." That's just basically the way it was. That's just basically the way it was. I mean, it was the type of thing that we have used you now, we're done with you, we no longer need you, good-bye.
JEFF COWIE:
Any compensation, benefits, retraining?
IVEY C. JONES:
They said they would pay for sending people back to school for something like a semester. That was just basically it. Sending people to school for a semester is one thing, but see, you have to buy books. I had gone to ACC before and paying for tuition for a semester is fine, but your books could exceed tuition costs very easily, depending on the type of books that you've got to have. It was the type of thing where they say, "We're going to pay for you to go to school--."
JEFF COWIE:
Tuition only though?
IVEY C. JONES:
Yes, tuition only. But, if you are unemployed you still have a family, you still got to buy books, you still have to have transportation to go back and forth to school. I think it was just a PR type thing to keep the company from looking so bad. They also said that they were going to offer the employees severance pay. That was two weeks pay for people that weren't on salary. "We're going to offer these people insurance benefits, you pay your insurance benefits, you have extended benefits under Cobra, but after four months your insurance rate will be three hundred dollars per month, family coverage." That was the Cobra rate. They said they were going to offer these people insurance, but they didn't say that after four months these people will have to pay three hundred dollars for their insurance.
JEFF COWIE:
Up from a hundred or eighty or whatever it was before?
IVEY C. JONES:
Right, exactly right. So, I mean, you know, a lot of it was PR. That's just basically all it was, just public relations. I mean, they want to be able to have good standing in the neighborhood, good standing in the community by just saying that they are going to lay these people off, but they are going to do this for them, they are going to do that for them. But they are not giving you any fine print of what the things they're going to do for these people are. This is just basically what we are going to do for them, so they won't be hurting at all. It had even been rumored on one of the television shows when they were interviewing different people that they said everybody in the plant had been replaced, everybody in the plant had been placed on jobs. Like I said, this was just a rumor. I don't have any concrete proof of that, but it had been rumored that somebody in management said, "Well, all the employees have been replaced." At that particular time I didn't know of anybody that had been replaced.
JEFF COWIE:
When you say "replaced" you mean found new jobs?
IVEY C. JONES:
Yes, already located other jobs. The company was nice enough to let some of the other companies come in and talk to some of the people that were interested in employment at some of the other companies like A.O. Smith. Representatives from A.O. Smith came in and talked to some of the people and told them if they were interested in employment after the plant shuts down, they could come to them and put in an application, and they would consider hiring them. Some of the people that did work for White did get jobs at A.O. Smith. Some of them got jobs at DAYCO, some of them got jobs down at the hose plant that makes plastic hoses and things like that. Some of them took jobs for the city and different places like that. Some at this particular point now are still unemployed.
JEFF COWIE:
A lot of people in service jobs like flipping burgers?
IVEY C. JONES:
I wouldn't necessarily know. The ones I see in Mebane, when I go through Mebane, I know the particular type of jobs they got. But, like some of the others, I don't know whether they are in food service jobs or just what. I would imagine it's just like anything else; once employment is terminated you have to make some kind of move even if it is flipping burgers. Unemployment lasts twenty-six weeks, then you can get a seven week extension, and after that you are on your own. You either have to take one of these four or five dollar an hour job--which is better than nothing if you have no income coming in at all--until you can find something else better.
JEFF COWIE:
Okay, we got as far as the big announcement.
IVEY C. JONES:
After the big announcement that was just basically it. Everybody was just dumbfounded. People just basically couldn't work. People didn't understand why the plant was shutting down because, "We've got good business, we've got good owners." They just couldn't understand. The point they failed to mention was that this wasn't about the plant shutting down because it didn't have orders, this wasn't about the plant shutting down because we weren't getting enough business. This wasn't about the plant shutting down because we were doing bad work, this was just business as usual. The company had basically run it's course. They had drawn all out of the company they could draw out. They bought the Hillsborough plant and they bought the Mebane plant. They consolidated the Mebane plant and the Hillsborough plant into Mebane. They re-sold the building in Hillsborough and made money off that. They had run this plant [Mebane] as long as they wanted to run it. Now they were going to shut this one down in hopes of selling everything out of it and then consolidate Hickory. It is just like a business chain reaction; you shut one plant down and consolidate to another one. Basically, if you think about it, this was associated with Hickory indirectly. This wasn't one of the original plants that Hickory owned, so they didn't have anything to lose by running everything out of it they could run out of it and then shut it down. This wasn't one of their base plants. I mean, it wasn't like Hickory Furniture, it wasn't like Hickory Chair or some of these other companies. It wasn't like they were shutting any of them down. They were just basically shutting down companies that they had just previously bought, so it was business as usual. I mean, we run the companies as long as we can run it, we pull all the assets out of it that we could pull out of it, we pull all the capital out it, we basically made our money that we paid for the company by the stock that was sitting on the floor when we bought it. Plus now we've got the White's name, so we can still keep producing White because we own the name. We don't necessarily have to produce it in Mebane. We don't particularly have to produce it by those people that have those jobs down there. We own the name. We can go to Japan and make White Furniture Company, ship it back over here, and it's still White Furniture Company because we own the name. It is just basically the type of business decision as usual.
JEFF COWIE:
Was there a sense among the employees that the plant could still be run profitably?
IVEY C. JONES:
Honestly we had had some problems--from my experience at being at White--with production. We had had some problems with quality. I know that in the last few years, just like everybody else in the furniture business knows, the furniture industry had been down. From what I had seen on television this year was one of the most upbeat years it has been for furniture in the past six or seven years, because everything looked good this year. They had strong sales at the market. From what I could gather everybody did pretty good at the show, especially the high end pieces of furniture. This is the type of thing where people just new to the plant were beat at. It was just taken for granted, well, this plant has always run. This plant has gone through a depression and survived. This plant has gone through being burnt down to the ground and rebuilt, and it survived. I mean, you think about it, if you went to a plant applying for a job and this plant had been in business for five years and the plant over here had been in business for a hundred and five years, which plant would you want to work at? You would think that the hundred and five year old business would be more stable. Naturally, a new business starting out-- [pause] If you are going to fold the first five years you are in business is when you will fold. That's when the new businesses go under, in the first five years of business. A company that has been based here for a hundred and five years, gone through a depression, gone through the great fire and still is producing, still is employing people, yes, I would want to go to this plant. That's the sentimentality that a whole lot of people had that this company will always be here, this company will always run. But what they didn't figure on was new people coming in with new business ideas thinking in the 90s rather than loyalty to the employees brought on the base of the 50s thing. I think this is basically the way this thing was to get in here and make money, make a good turnover, make a good profit, be able to buy this name and put it on another product and get out. I feel like it was just a short-term business.