The Workers’ Owned Sewing Company (1979-2000)

The Workers' Owned Sewing Company was, at peak, a 70-worker democratic cut-and-sew factory that operated for 21 years in Windsor, North Carolina.  The company was founded in 1979...

The Workers’ Owned Sewing Company was, at peak, a 70-worker democratic cut-and-sew factory that operated for 21 years in Windsor, North Carolina.  The company was founded in 1979 out of the bankruptcy of a 12 year-old form called Bertie Industries (after Bertie County).  The manager of that firm, Tim Bazemore, reorganized the company as a democratic enterprise and helped relaunch it with the help of consultants including Frank Adams of ICA.   Bazemore owned all the shares for the first two years but then began to sell them to the workers through payroll deductions.  An elected 7-member board was responsible for all major business decisions, including hiring and firing the plant manager.  After several years of subcontracting, the cooperative was successful enough in 1983 to sell directly to K-Mart and Sears.     

 

The success of the cooperative helped activists to persuade Guilford College’s Business Management Department to sponsor four-day summer workshops three successive summers, and contributed to the founding of the Self-Help Credit Union, which in turn helped the cooperative to expand.  In 1993 Bazemore was invited by Bill Clinton to the White House to speak to bankers and community economic developers that “poor minorities could build enterprises, create jobs, and instill confidence in their future” as Clinton announced his Community Development Banking and Financial Institutions Act.   

 

 

 

Pictures from Adams and Shirey.

 

Sources

In 1992 Kathy Hoke interviewed Bazemore about his childhood, his time in and return from World War II, his activism, and his enterprises.  The transcription of the interview is an inspiring read, an exceprt of which is below. 

 

Kathy Hoke: Okay, let’s go back a little bit. Tell me about how the idea for Workers’ Owned Sewing Company was formed. Was it Frank Adams’ idea? How did it come up, and what was your understanding of what worker ownership meant?

 

Tim Bazemore : Yeah, Frank Adams was instrumental in trying to help provide a means of a feasibility study. In that study, we discussed. . . .

 

KH: Did he just come here and say, “I’ve got an idea?”

 

TB: No, we asked him to come and help find funds to help us get back in 8 (a), to find enough funds, Small Business Administration.

 

KH: With Bertie Industries?

 

TB: Yeah, Bertie Industries. So as he came in, and he managed to find enough funds to do a feasibility study to see what direction we might be wise to go in. In that we talked about worker ownership. One of the discussions that we often talked about, and as I envisioned how we might do it, we talked about we might could take a few people and own the business together. A few of us getting together and compiling our resources and owning it and bringing it on up on a small scale basis. It was, I guess, a conjunction of ideas as to how it might work. Because I thought we could do it from a workers’ ownership viewpoint without any restrictions. No restrictions as to how much you pay, no restrictions as to how long you work, these kinds of things. I thought if a group of us get together, go find some work to do, and we’d just do it. Didn’t know that we had to fall into the same category as other business as far as the state regulations and federal regulations are concerned. So that’s why I had the concept, but there were two, in these feasibility study, stand-out recommendations. One, 8 (a), get back in 8 (a) Program. The government would help you become viable again. Two, worker ownership. That was the two standouts, and we looked at and began to study and talk about it. So we elected, by a choice of not knowing, really, that was my election, to come and see can we find a building, and start a sewing factory of our own. Just start our own. We found enough people there that were willing to follow me, to try.

 

KH: Enough people from Bertie?

 

TB: Yes, we could have got a lot because there were no jobs. So they wanted to come, but we just didn’t have the money or the facilities to do. We didn’t have machinery and money,  nothing to bring but a few people. We brought most of the key people so that we could build around those key people, people with certain expertise that were down there. And that’s how we managed to do as well as we did, because we had a core of key people–mechanics, supervisors and that kind of thing, management, the whole works, bookkeeper. Brought them along. Then we intended to grow around them, which we did.

 

KH: And the idea was that each person working at the company would have ownership?

 

TB: Oh sure, that was the idea, and each person would work for hardly no pay. That was the concept, just work whatever we could afford to give them for pay. That’s what we talked about, and that’s what we had planned. But when we started, IRS came right behind us. “You can’t do that.” The manager is the only person that can work without pay. The rest of them had to be paid at least minimum wages. And that’s where we dropped a little. We looked at some strategies. We planned some strategies around it. Being owners, we said we can work some without no pay. We can do some volunteer work, and they don’t have to know about it. We can do some volunteer work. They can’t stop that. They can’t stop us from working if we want to work. [Laughter] We did that some. We registered everybody hours of volunteer work, so that if the company ever became viable it would reimburse them. And it was an incentive to get to do what we were doing because we weren’t taking in enough money to really afford that.

 

KH: So how many people volunteered to work without pay?

 

TB: Oh, we had several in the beginning. But really in the beginning we didn’t have but six people. So all those six had agreed to do whatever was necessary to keep us going, to be growing. As we brought in some, some of them would be willing to work some time without pay and that kind of thing and some weren’t. Some could see the concept. Some didn’t. So it was kind of some came to work because they needed a job. Some came to work because they were willing to help make the thing go and looked at it as a chance to become owners. Of course, we had motivational meetings. [Interruption] So what we did, we just began to figure out how we could make this thing work. I was farming, and I had some corn. I looked if we could get this corn crop out, and we could invest that money into the operation and might could move up a little further. And we did. I remember one or two occasions that we didn’t have payroll money. Didn’t know where the money was going to come from. They had one farmer in the neighborhood who committed himself to go and harvest enough corn to get our payroll money. He harvested it, and the machine broke down maybe eleven o’clock at night. But he had got enough to meet our payroll. And rain stopped him and the machine broke down, too. We experienced some tight times, some close times too.

 

KH: You grew a corn crop, didn’t you to 8 (a)?

 

TB: Yeah, I sow the corn crop and hogs to infuse in the operation to keep it going. That’s how we got started.

 

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