Working in a Southern Wire Factory

By Curtis Price

Posted November 19, 20

It’s change of shift and SK has walked into the break area. She is a woman in her mid-60s, with a white-haired, grandmotherly look, complete with granny glasses and page –boy hair-cut. But when she talks, SK speaks with a toughness and resilience that belies her appearance.  Her co-worker, N, has also come in, but N doesn’t make much small talk. Instead, N curls up in a chair to play online casino games and plot her next trip to the Tunica, Mississippi gambling palaces, perhaps an unintentional comment on the state of working-class consciousness these days. Both are rural, working-class Southern white women used to doing unskilled labor.

SK and I have settled into the type of easy informality that leads to good conversations. She worked for 35 years in a wire factory outside Hartselle, a small town of ten thousand about a half-hour away from Decatur, Alabama. Although Morgan County – where both Hartselle and Decatur are located – is mainly rural, there’s a large swath of heavy industry in Decatur and over 27% of the population work in factories, everything from Wayne Farms poultry to GE and rocket fuel processing. In fact, the Decatur area is number two in the U.S. for the percentage working manufacturing jobs, according to a recent report, a factory town bucking the trend toward deindustrialization. This concentration of industrial jobs even spills over into the rural areas surrounding Decatur such as Hartselle, where small industrial parks dot the flat expanse of cotton, corn, and soybean fields.

SK applied to the Hartselle wire factory when she got out of high school but they told her they didn’t have any openings. However, SK knew they did from friends who worked the line inside and was convinced they didn’t want to hire her because she was a woman. Instead of giving up, she went back and demanded they give her a chance. She got the job.

SK had to deal with the sexism of the men, mainly from the maintenance crew that was key to keeping up production, because if a machine broke down, maintenance could pick and choose how quickly they would get the line up again. To avoid being victimized, SK learnt to do her own maintenance. After a while, she got so good that the maintenance crew would ask for her help in resolving problems.

I asked her if the work was repetitive, thinking of a typical assembly line, and she said it was actually more varied because the nature of the contracts changed. Sometimes she would be spinning thin wire, other times thick cable. SK learnt how to maneuver spools weighing several hundred pounds by herself and described how she would have to monitor a line a hundred feet long. She talked passionately about different aspects of the work, how she learned to tame the wire and make the machines do her bidding. You work the machine, the machine doesn’t work you.

For her, working was a sense of mastery over an impersonal process and she went home every day confident she had won out. This sense of mastery as personal accomplishment and creativity gives her a work ethic that is unusual in this era of bullshit, abstract labor, email-caste jobs. Management tried to promote her, but she couldn’t stand the office politics and demanded to be sent back to the line.

Like most Southern working-class women of whatever race, her life has been full of hardship. She survived two husbands dying young and an accident with an 18-wheeler that left her in the hospital for weeks. She told me about her son, an electrical contractor working unstable gigs, and how, when his wife became pregnant while he was unemployed, had a nervous breakdown because he couldn’t provide for the family. He signed himself into a mental institution after a suicide attempt. When SK went to see him, the staff had him so doped up he could barely respond. She signed her son out on the spot. He recovered when SK got him a job at the wire factory, where he’s now been working for over twenty years. As Langsdon Hughes wrote:

“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair

It had tacks in it and splinters

And boards torn up

And places with no carpet on the floor…bare

Don’t you fall now

For I’se still goin, honey.

I’se still climbin,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”


We never talk politics, but it wouldn’t surprise if SK is a Trump supporter, although I don’t see her fist-pumping at a rally screaming “lock her up!” But she knows instinctively that “big-city types” look down on people like her and in this assumption, she is absolutely correct. A rootless, middle-class, hobbyist left focused on posturing, therapeutic expressions of “rage,” and “transgression” just simply has nothing to offer. Instead, SK embodies that sense of “common decency” Orwell rightly pointed to as so characteristic of working-class culture, a culture of “common decency” crossing racial boundaries that still hangs on in many areas of the South even as it has frayed elsewhere. This culture of “common decency,” I am convinced, will be the basis of any future politics of genuine emancipation, should such politics ever arise.

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