Plants close, and Springs workers talk of life, death

FORT LAWN -- This morning, the clocks at Springs plants in Lancaster and Fort Lawn will strike 8 a.m.

Joyce McDonald, 59, at work since 11 p.m. with an hour for lunch, will punch out. Her 40 years of sewing rooms, card rooms and dye rooms will end.

There will be no cake or barbecue or balloons.

Just tears.

Her job will no longer exist. By the end of the weekend, no sewing jobs in the two huge plants will exist. Some people will hang on in the finishing department on the Lancaster side of the Catawba River. But by next month, Springs, which was the textile king of this area and South Carolina at one time, will not make, dye or bleach another sheet, towel or pillowcase in this state.

Ted Matthews, the Springs spokesman who has had the thankless job of telling the world for years about closings, confirmed that more than half of the 750 people at these last two plants already are gone or going out as of this weekend. By Labor Day, the day the nation sets aside to recognize people who worked to build this country one brick and one sheet at a time, no sewing will be done in Chester County or Lancaster County.

The sewing already died in York County.

There is only tomorrow for Joyce McDonald and so many like her. A tomorrow where there are few manufacturing jobs. She said she will go to school, learn computers and see what a 59-year-old woman, who has worked hard in a mill since 1967, can do until retirement.

'So sad'

She will go home and open the mailbox, and there will be bills.

"I never thought I'd be there with the plant closing," she said. "This morning (Thursday), we had a meeting about unemployment. It was so sad.

"But I guess when I am done I'll just walk out, and go home."

Her ex-husband, Steve McDonald, a man in suspenders and a smile, worked at the Springs plants that are closing for 35 years in all. He retired before the noose swung.

I asked Steve McDonald what the word Springs meant.

"I would say life," he said. "Springs gave the jobs that fed the families, that people depended on. They gave life."

The working people, the card roomers, the weavers, the ink carriers, the maintenance men. In Fort Mill, where Springs headquarters remains, there were two plants. Lancaster had a huge plant in the city. Chester had two mills. Fort Lawn got plants. The Lancaster Grace Bleachery near the Catawba River, filled with so many dreams of kids going to college so they wouldn't have to work in those mills, employed thousands.

Other towns in South Carolina had Springs manufacturing plants, too.

No more.

No dancing

With a slow death, a quiet burial, these places died. There was no dancing at the funerals of the plants, no Celebration of Life service.

Springs will have some distribution employees after the mills lay silent, but that will be it.

Springs is called Springs Global now. The company merged with a Brazilian textile giant, and the cheap cost of foreign labor in Brazil and China pushed the privately held company to decide to manufacture products overseas.

The company was called Springs Industries forever before it was global. It is that name, Springs Industries, that four people eating lunch together used at a Fort Lawn restaurant Thursday. The table was Springs, and this part of South Carolina. Black and white, man and woman, together.

All ate a last supper. Cornbread and spinach, chicken or fish or beef, with unemployment for dessert.

At the table sat one lady who had been with Springs 33 years, since age 17. The lady next to her had 31 years. She said the people at that table were her social workers, friends and co-workers. She said she loved them.

The guy said he'd been there 30 years and his father was at Springs longer than that before him. The fourth, a lady, was the newcomer to the plant. She only had 29 1/2 years.

"Sad," is how one lady described Thursday, and the past two months, after employees found out that today was the end of jobs for most of 750 people.

Springs held onto those jobs in Lancaster and Fort Lawn as long as it could, Matthews said. But sheets cost half as much now as a decade ago, he said. Employees did receive a severance package.

Springs was a place that had its own resort at Myrtle Beach, a railroad and more. The company employed thousands and gave so much to them and others who never set foot in a mill. The hospital in Lancaster is called Springs. The recreation complex in Fort Mill is called Springs. There are foundations with the Springs name that do so much good for so many people.

Springs' legacy will live forever, and it should. But jobs lost to Brazil are a bitter pill to swallow, even with all the sugar of recreation and goodwill that comes with that medicine. The bottom line is clear: The cost of labor was too much here, the place where Springs made its fortune.

I asked Steve McDonald what he gave Springs in those 35 years, when he worked as many as six or seven days a week, with overtime when he could get it, in those mills.

His answer was simple: "I gave them my best."