Wednesday, June 14, 2017

We got shoes! (I’m a sole man…errrrr, woman.)

Fifty years ago today, I can pretty much tell you what I was doing, and that was working in a shoe factory in Worcester. I was on the completely unskilled end of the line. I applied shoe polish to the raw seams of combat boots, and cleared glue and other gunk of those boots. At the workstation in back of me – our workstations were ancient wooden tables, probably dating to the late 19th century, and painted over many times - my friend Kim (now a partner in one of Boston’s largest law firms) worked as a “heel podder”, gluing pieces of leather into the heel end of a boot’s inner sole. We made $1.40 an hour. Every day at lunch, our friend Kath (now Kim’s wife) picked us up and we went to McDonald’s for lunch. There, because at that moment in my life I didn’t like the “stuff” they put on a burger, I got fries and a small chocolate shake.

Halfway through the summer, probably because I wore glasses and was able to deploy my junior high Spanish to inform the Cuban workers in our area when there was no overtime work on Saturday (“No hay trabajo en sábado.”), I was kicked upstairs to work in the office. This involved a pay increase to $1.70 an hour, which delighted me. But although I now wore a dress, stockings, and (made in New England) Weejun penny loafers to work, my actually tasks remained mostly blue collar.

Half the time, I operated a little handset rotary printed press to create the piecework coupons (pronounced “kewpons”) that workers detached and put into their piecework books each time they finished with a rack of shoes in whatever state of production. You had to accrue a certain number of kewpons to make anything above the $1.40/hour wage, and even when I turned on the jets and killed myself, I never quite made it up to that level. (I don’t think Kim did either, but I’ll have to ask her. Certainly she was the more likely of the two of us to have achieved this bit of paywise nirvana.)

Over Christmas vacation, I went back to work in the H.H. Brown office but, unfortunately, I was only there a couple of days when I had to have my wisdom teeth yanked which, in those days, entailed an overnight hospital stay. And, of course, a ton of boring, feverish, stay in bed misery.

The next summer, I worked as a waitress, a far more lucrative endeavor. (My friend Kath was a fellow Big Boy waitress with me.) A good gig that I worked for two summers and two Christmas breaks.

Anyway, it was my stint in the shoe factory that has made me especially sympathetic to the lot of shoe workers in New England.

Shoes used to be a big deal in these parts. Massachusetts, in fact, was once considered the Shoe Capital of the World. Even today – long after most of the shoe factory jobs have fled – there are a lot of footwear companies located here: Converse, New Balance, Reebok, Sperry, StrideRite. Timberland in NH.

And then, up in the great state of Maine, there’s MaineSole, founded by Dick Hall and some other alumni of Dexter Shoe, who are:

…attempting to bring shoe manufacturing back to Maine, at least in a small way. Founded last year, MaineSole is a case study on the difficulties of “reshoring” American jobs once an entire industry—manufacturing plants as well as suppliers—has migrated to another continent. During the 1960s, footwear factories in Maine employed 20,000 people, according to data ­compiled by the state’s Department of Labor. That number has dwindled to fewer than 2,000, ­mirroring a nationwide trend. Even L.L. Bean Inc. makes many of its shoes abroad these days, though its trademark Maine Hunting Shoe is still produced at one of the two facilities it operates in the state. (Source: Bloomberg)

Things are moving along rather slowly. So far, there are only 10 folks on the payroll – at its peak, Dexter employed 800 in the town of Dexter, Maine - and their output is not quite up to what it was when Berkshire Hathaway made what turned out to be a fiasco acquisition of Dexter Shoe. Back in those days, Dexter turned out 7.5 million pairs a year. MaineSole’s level is more along the lines of 100 pairs a week.

But they’re not interested in the mass market biz of selling shoes to J.C. Penney customers. “Think $325 hand-sewn penny loafers.”

Unless they can cure posterior tibial tendonitis, I won’t be forking over $325 for penny loafers, even if they’re hand sewn. But I wish them well.

MaineSole will not bring Dexter, Maine, back to where it was when Dexter Shoe ruled.

There was a bowling alley, a movie theater showing first-run films, and a dance for teens every Saturday night at the old town hall. “It was a great place to grow up,” says Al Kimball, 65, who followed his parents into a job at Dexter Shoe and is now the factory manager at MaineSole. “Anything I wanted was right here.”

Well, that was then and this is now.There’s no more going to be a big resurgence of shoe factory jobs in New England (or anywhere in the US) than there is going to be a big bump up in, say, coal mining jobs.

Still, I’m rooting for MaineSole to make it.

Most of the workers they have on board are folks my age, folks with experience in the old-style shoe companies like the one I worked in. The MaineSole founders are hoping to attract enough investment to let them build their business and get it into a more stable mode before all the old soles souls hang up the awls for the last time. MaineSole wants them to stick around to train a younger generation of skilled shoe workers. “If I lose them,” [MaineSole’s Kevin Cain] says, “it’s like something going extinct.”

I get that going extinct bit. I can pretty much guarantee that there’s no call for anyone with my rudimentary skills applying shoe polish to the bare-naked seams of combat boots.

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