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‘Norma Rae’ Image Said Obstacle for Apparel Industry

September 25, 1991

ATLANTA (AP) _ The sweatshop image portrayed in the movie ″Norma Rae″ persists and is turning young people away from the apparel business, a survey released Wednesday at the industry’s convention said.

Manufacturers on the floor of the trade show confirmed it’s difficult to attract young people to plant jobs, but said the problem is more of economics than image.

″People have the perception they’ve got to work their tail off for $6 an hour,″ said John Fields, route manager for Oneita Industries, an apparel maker in Andrews, S.C.

The survey results, which appeared in Wednesday’s edition of the trade show’s newspaper, were based on a poll of high school and college students, teachers and parents.

Among the high school students, nine out of 10 agreed with the gritty portrayal of workers in ″Norma Rae,″ a 1979 movie about efforts to unionize a Southern textile plant. Seventy-one percent of the high school students said they would not consider a career in apparel or textiles.

Among all the respondents, 65 percent rated the industry’s pay as average and 22 percent said it was poor. Sixty percent perceived worker status in the industry as average and 22 percent said it was low.

″It is obvious that we in the industry need to work on creating a more positive image,″ said Carl Langlois, a member of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association’s education committee, which conducted the survey.

Langlois, senior vice president of Vanity Fair Mills Inc. in Monroeville, Ala., said the survey was limited - only 158 people were polled - but that it accurately reflects the industry’s image problem.

″This is of great concern,″ he said. ″It is something we are trying to overcome.″

One thing the industry can do to attract young workers is to retire such archaic job titles as ″fixer″ and ″ticket tacker,″ which perpetuate low self-esteem, Langlois said.

″Those don’t reflect the job enrichment you want to convey in a title,″ he said. ″Members of the industry themselves refer to being members of the ‘rag’ industry.″

Bill Green, purchasing agent for a Tennessee apparel maker, said there are many job opportunities for young people today more attractive than working in a sewing plant.

″You get a lot of people in small towns who have grown up, and their families have sewn. We’ve got third and fourth generation workers,″ said Green, of Chester County Sportswear in Henderson, Tenn. ″When you get into a metro area, there are too many other things you can do for better pay than the garment industry.″

Green said working conditions in the apparel and textile industries have improved from those depicted in ″Norma Rae,″ though the pay remains low - about $6 an hour average at sewing plants.

″That was true at the time. That was a factual movie. But on the whole, we don’t fight that,″ Green said. ″Conditions have improved. You want to keep operators in a plant and keep them happy. If you don’t you’re not going to keep them.″

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