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The Old Singer Factory

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posted by alias A.Davey on Thursday 10th of August 2017 01:22:00 PM

There's a story behind almost anything. All you have to do is dig a little in order to find it. Here's a glimpse into the history of the Singer Sewing Machine factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which we passed on the container ship MV Monte Rosa our way to our berth. SINGER PLANT CLOSING: A WAY OF LIFE ENDS By WILLIAM E. GEIST, Special to the New York Times Published: February 23, 1982 ELIZABETH, N.J., Feb. 19— The Singer Company is closing its mammoth plant here. Moving on to a marketing strategy of more costeffective foreign production and diversification in aerospace products, it is finished with this aging city now. So intertwined have their lives become - this company and this city -during their 109 years together that many people here can only shake their heads and say, as Morris Finkel did, ''It just doesn't seem possible.'' In their heads echo the racket of the 10,000-worker assembly lines, the cheering on the tool department's softball teams, the big bands playing at dances in the company's hall on the shore of Newark Bay. It has been more than a professional relationship, and the community now feels scorned. ''Working at the Singer plant,''''was a way of life,'' said Mr. Finkel, who was there for 44 years. ''It was the natural thing for a young man coming out of high school to do. Everyone in town seems to have worked there at some point.'' A machine operator and first-baseman, Mr. Finkel recalls that the company recruited top athletes during the 1930's, 40's and 50's from nearby high schools and other companies to work for it and play ball. ''Everyone in town went to those games,'' said Sophie Kobylinsky. Mrs. Kobylinsky also has fond recollections of company dances on Friday and Saturday nights during that period, to which women were not admitted without bringing cookies and cakes, with the company supplying soft drinks and beer. ''Singer's recreation hall was the center of social activity for the whole town,'' she said. ''My girlfriend and I didn't work at Singer, but we went to the dances. She met her future husband there.'' Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey and other top bands played at gala company affairs. Wedding receptions, bar mitzvah parties and other functions took place in the company hall. Mayor Thomas Dunn recalls that thousands of people used to gather at the plant each year for a springtime demonstration by the company's fire department in which a house specially built for the occasion was burned to the ground. The gargantuan red-brick plant was built here in 1873, during America's industrial revolution. The city of Elizabeth grew up around it, with neighborhoods representing the waves of immigrants who came to the plant from Ellis Island, a few miles away: German, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Polish, Lithuanian and others. Mayor Dunn, whose father worked at the plant for 41 years, has childhood memories of earning nickels by ''rushing the growler,'' a job as common for a boy in Elizabeth as delivering newspapers was in other towns. He said German workers lowered covered beer pails, called ''growlers,'' out the windows of the factory on ropes to the boys, who would rush them over to Grampp's tavern to be filled. Joseph DiBella recalls that the ''growlers'' he carried were heavily larded to hold down the head and allow room for more beer. Donald Wylie, who once edited a local newspaper, says a Catholic priest roamed the streets, knocking the pails from the children's hands. People in the city have fond memories of the long relationship, but now they are bitter that the company is leaving them, particularly when Elizabeth is having unemployment and revenue problems. ''We're being done in,'' Mr. Wylie said, ''by outside influences - malls taking business and cheap labor in Japan and Taiwan taking jobs.'' Not that they are completely surprised; things had not been right between the city and the company since Singer began gradually moving its operations overseas 25 years ago. Closing Announced Feb. 11 The dances and the recreational activities came to a halt, and in the early 1970's the company deeded away the recreation hall to be used by local groups. The work force dwindled, then dropped off sharply in 1980 when the plant stopped making all but industrial sewing machines. Now, only about 950 people work at the plant. Still, the closing, announced Feb. 11, is traumatic. Mr. DiBella, president of Local 461 of the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, said that the union would file a $15 million damage suit against Singer for not living up to its contractual agreement, made last year, to spend $2 million to make the plant more efficient so it could compete with the modern technology of the foreign producers, and also to seek defense contract work for the plant. ''They did neither,'' Mr. DiBella said. Representative Matthew J. Rinaldo has also charged that the company made no valid attempt to obtain defense contracts. 'Reduced Demand for Machines' Singer officials contend that the company sought defense work but could find none. The company plans to spend the $2 million to modernize the plant before it is closed at the end of this year ''in order to live up to the contract,'' said a spokesman, Thomas Elliott. He said that the plant was closing because of ''reduced demand for the industrial machines produced there,'' partly because of the recession. ''Singer officials told me that they'd never move their industrial sewing machine operation out of Elizabeth,'' Mayor Dunn said. ''Their word doesn't mean a thing. We reduced their taxes by $417,000 over four years when they gave us the impression that would keep them open, but they were just taking us for a ride.'' During the lunch hour at Shoban's, a shot-and-a-beer bar across First Street from the plant's main gate, a Singer supervisor wondered aloud whether the United States was not turning into a nation of two kinds of people: white-collar managers for multinational companies that produced their products overseas, and unemployed workers. Later in the day, S. L. Jones summed up the prevailing mood of the rank-and-file workers, many of whom said they believed the company capitalized on cheap immigrant labor until the union negotiated the first contract in the 1940's, then began moving its operations overseas to capitalize on other ''oppressed'' workers. ''Now it seems like they just used us up,'' Mr. Jones said, ''and left us behind.''

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  • Published 05.26.22
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