The rural Western Piedmont region of North Carolina boasts one of the top concentrations of manufacturing firms in the nation—a proud heritage of furniture and textile production that was devastated beginning in the 1990s as jobs vanished due to automation and foreign competition. At the same time, as in rural areas elsewhere, young people were fleeing to urban places. Seizing the opportunity to connect youth retention, cultural heritage, and economic revival, The Industrial Commons helps small to mid-size firms convert to worker-ownership in a quest to build economic fairness and dignity, all while preserving a deeply meaningful culture of skilled people making things. Building on co-director Molly Hemstreet’s experience starting Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned cut-and-sew shop launched with Guatemalan colleagues, she and co-director Sara Chester first formed a federation of 350 small textile plants—known as the Carolina Textile District—to rebuild voice and economic stability for a diverse working class. Now, The Industrial Commons is on the front lines of supporting sustainable manufacturing in America. As a generation of aging factory owners prepares to retire, The Industrial Commons is engaging younger worker-owners who are hungry for a more democratic workplace—and can preserve the region’s unique craft-production knowledge before it’s lost.
The Industrial Commons is rebuilding a diverse working class. We lead and implement a new vision for labor organizing in rural, industrial work. We encourage and equip a new generation of workers to build pride, skill, and ownership in manufacturing. This preserves our heritage industries and roots previously extracted wealth in the hands of our communities through local ownership and control.
We both remember being in high school, at a time when plants with hundreds of workers were told on a Friday that the plant was closing on Monday. How can this happen to a community—again and again and again? How can it look different? The Industrial Commons works to root wealth and control in communities and in the hands of workers by teaching worker-ownership and democratization of the factory floor.
Who will make “Made in America”? Who will be the voice for manufacturing workers? What 20-year-old even wants to work in a manufacturing plant today? Would you? Our biggest challenge is to inspire workers again and show that there is hope, economic viability, and a future in manufacturing work. We must make the manufacturing work environment one in which young people want to come to work each day. We must create manufacturing plants that inspire creativity, develop the gifts of people, and drive the fruits of their labor back into our communities, reversing trends of talent and wealth extraction.
Dan St. Louis, director of the Manufacturing Solutions Center, has supported our work since day one. He hones our ability to work in heritage manufacturing from the business and technical side. Deb Markley of the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship inspires us to focus our work on the best innovation in rural development and strategy. Steven Dawson, a national leader in workforce development and ownership, encourages us to think about scale and lasting impact. We’re also inspired by the leaders of Project Equity, the Democracy at Work Institute, and The Wake Forest Law Clinic, who support us and make our work better.
Walter was working three jobs when he landed a position in a worker-owned sewing company. He has worked there five years now. With his wages, not just as a worker but as an owner, he has purchased a home. His kids are doing great in school. He is a leader in his community. The Industrial Commons is multiplying Walter’s story by supporting workers who are creating better livelihoods for themselves, their families, and their communities.
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