After the Factory

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The first thing you notice in Sixto Castro’s apartment are the pictures: smiling men and women in union T-shirts and hats, lounging on folding chairs at a Labor Day picnic, marching to protest NAFTA, or congregating around politicians. Their faces fill poster-size frames that line the walls of his narrow hallway. Three more frames are crammed with yellowing newspaper articles, with headlines like “Jobs to Mexico” and “Protest at Swingline.” Inside, the cramped living room is covered with more of the same.

Castro, a compact 39-year-old whose curly hair is beginning to gray, shrugs when asked about the pictures. Taking pictures was a hobby, something he used to do on his days off from his job working the machines at the Swingline stapler factory in Long Island City. An active member of the Teamsters’ local that represented workers there, he fell into the role of unofficial union photographer, memorializing their celebrations, their demonstrations and, unwittingly, their demise.

Last spring, after 10 years as a machinist at Swingline–the first job he found after arriving in the U.S. from Ecuador in 1989–Castro was laid off. Swingline was moving its factory and more than 450 jobs to Nogales, Mexico, a small border town just south of Arizona.

Castro no longer has time to take pictures. He now works as a janitor at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town and, because he makes half the salary he did at Swingline, spends his days off doing odd jobs like painting and window-washing. It is not work that Castro much enjoys. But it does cover the rent on the small Jackson Heights apartment he shares with his cousin, and, just barely, the mortgage on the home he bought for his family when he worked at Swingline. His estranged wife still lives there with their 15-year-old son, receiving child support payments from Castro. She left him last summer, not long after Swingline closed; their relationship could not withstand the turmoil.

Castro, and the people he worked with and photographed, lost more than just a familiar landmark when the huge neon stapler came down off the rooftop of the red brick factory that had housed Swingline for 50 years. For the many who labored there 20, 30, even 40 years, the departure of Swingline meant the end of an era.

Mostly immigrants, Swingline’s workers had found jobs at the factory when they came to New York from Central and South America, Eastern Europe, China, and the West Indies. They stayed on, while they married, raised children, and settled comfortably into middle age. When relatives arrived in the city, there was often a place for them at Swingline. Brothers, sisters, cousins, husbands and wives worked side by side.

Though no one got rich doing factory work, even the least skilled workers–the ones who pieced together or packaged the staplers–earned around $10 an hour, plus overtime, after a few years. Tool and die makers and machinists could earn close to $20 an hour. Accompanied by health and pension benefits they all received through their union contract, the money was enough to eventually land them middle-class accoutrements like a home, a car and the debts that came with them.

When it closed, the Swingline stapler factory, which at its height employed over 1,200 people, left 487 jobless workers in its wake. For most, the options have been few, the frustrations many. Some, like Castro, have found new jobs cleaning buildings or making deliveries. Many more remain adrift, taking training courses in office work and English and trying to make sense of a strange new world of resumes, word processors and business correspondence. There are government job-training programs for workers like these. But the courses’ minimal offerings only go so far for workers who have limited English and education.

There are still manufacturers out there, of course. One has even moved into Swingline’s former space. Kruysman, a company that makes accordion-style envelopes, has moved its operations and 250 nonunion employees from lower Manhattan onto one of the building’s three floors. With funding from the city and state, it has used the latest technology to streamline operations and boost productivity without having to hire any more workers. Those there earn about $8 an hour after eight years.

As far as anyone knows, no ex-Swingline employees work there now. Many say they wouldn’t even consider it. They have their dignity, and they are not going to return to the building where they toiled for 20 years for a job that starts at minimum wage. Some suspect the company wouldn’t even hire former employees of Swingline–“because they’ll bring in the union,” says Nancy DeWendt, a former Swingline factory worker. They’ve been burned once. Who’s to say this new company won’t pack up for Mexico six months from now? When one’s working world suddenly disappears, trust is just the first thing to fall apart.


Swingline’s decision to leave should have come as no surprise to the people who worked there. Indeed, many had been regulars at union protests against the North American Free Trade Agreement, the treaty that ultimately convinced the company to move. Negotiated in 1994, NAFTA reduced tariffs and made it easier for factories to leave the U.S. for Mexico or Canada. It delivered as promised. Between 1994 and 1998, more than 440,000 U.S. factory jobs were lost, mostly from companies lured by NAFTA’s promise of lower wages and higher profits. In New York City, 70-year-old Swingline was the largest and most visible casualty.

The move was part of a drive toward corporate efficiency, says Anne Bannister, Marketing Director for ACCO, the company that took over Swingline in 1990. “The reality is, manufacturing in the United States can’t compete.” Although Swingline has long dominated the U.S. stapler and staples market, with $100 million in sales in 1997, the company’s competitors manufactured in the Far East, where wages are far lower than in New York. Swingline figured it could cut close to $12 million of its $14 million payroll simply by moving. “The company had to move in order to stay competitive and not lose market share,” says Bannister.

For the people who labored there most of their adult lives, maintaining market share seemed cruel justification for destroying what had become their second home. On three daily shifts they kept the factory going 24 hours a day, spitting out staplers at the main building and rows of tiny steel wire staples at a second, smaller one. Many spent more time with their coworkers than with their own families.

The job was more than a reliable paycheck. The crew worked surrounded by friends, and on days off they congregated with their families for picnics, football or baseball. Despite the grueling monotony of factory work, the clanking of machines and smells of solvents and molten metals, former employees describe an almost joyful atmosphere at Swingline. “I feel happy there,” recalls Magdalena Bubanj, who came from Croatia and inspected staplers for more than 27 years. “We talk, we make fun.”

Sal Melendez, a gregarious 48-year-old who met his wife in the company cafeteria 21 years ago, echoes the sentiment. “We didn’t make a lot of money there, but we were happy. I don’t know why, but we were.” DeWendt, who rose from piecing together staplers on the assembly line to become a production leader, shares the fond memories: “Basically, it was a sweet place to work for.”

Swingline became an even better place to work in 1981, after the workers replaced their ineffectual union. Their new union, Teamsters Local 808, led them in a three-week strike that won a much-improved contract. Workers won 50 percent pay increases over three years, a plush benefits package that included medical, dental, optical and life insurance, and an enhanced pension.

So while workers weren’t getting wealthy, most felt fairly rewarded. The result was a loyal workforce dominated by long-term employees. They knew the company, knew their jobs, knew their coworkers, and thought they knew that they could stay at Swingline until they retired.

In 1997, Swingline announced it would move to Mexico, breaking that unspoken pact. Outraged workers demonstrated in front of City Hall. Local 808 beseeched politicians to offer inducements to the company to keep it in New York–after all, the city has offered other companies more than $2 billion worth of tax incentives since 1994 to stay.

But Mayor Giuliani insisted that Swingline’s departure would be no great loss. “The City of New York can’t keep businesses that want to take advantage of wages that are way below what people should be paid,” the Mayor said after the company announced its plan to move. Swingline’s workers, he added, would easily find better jobs in the city’s thriving economy.

Those workers now recall his statements with bitterness. “Giuliani said, ‘Let them go,'” recalls DeWendt, who was a shop steward. “But the majority of people didn’t have an education, no diploma. Can he get them the same wages, the same medical?”


Ever since she arrived in New York City from South Carolina in 1978, Nancy DeWendt worked Swingline’s assembly lines. A large woman with a powerful presence, she welcomes visitors into the tidy Jamaica, Queens apartment that she shares with her 11-year-old son. No longer working, she spends hours vividly recalling the bitter breakdown of a place she calls “a big family thing.”

As a shop steward, DeWendt had sat at the table at contract negotiations in October 1996, where union officials and management discussed workers’ wages and benefits. Management never even mentioned the possibility of Swingline shutting down. In recent years, the company had mechanized the staple making, stapler assembly and packing parts of the plant, laying off increasing numbers of workers. DeWendt and the union officials thought those concessions to productivity would protect their jobs. They were not prepared when, the following May, managers in each division rounded up their employees and broke the news.

The immediate reaction was a stunned silence. Then came tears. “I cried,” says DeWendt, reclining on her living-room couch. “Everyone was crying.” Layoffs–about 20 people at a time–began in October 1997 and continued until the last workers closed the shop in March 1999. From an atmosphere of camaraderie, the scene soured. Coworkers who’d counted on keeping their jobs began to cast suspicious eyes at one another, wondering who would be next. Some people were laid off, then called back to fill in temporarily when the company realized it couldn’t complete production with a skeletal workforce. Many workers complained to the shop stewards and union officials, wondering why the Teamsters couldn’t do anything to halt the process.

Cynthia Rivera, who handles Local 808’s benefit plans at its Long Island City office, remembers the scene after the announcement. “I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anything that was as sad,” she recalls. “They were so angry. Some of them would come here and say, ‘I don’t have anything to do.'” Pedro Cardi, the Teamsters business agent who represented Swingline workers, remembers how difficult it was to face them, particularly when a husband and wife were both laid off. “People came up to me in tears–What am I going to do? Who’s going to pay my bills?”

Cardi soon suffered his own trauma. He was laid off by the union because, with Swingline gone, it had lost hundreds of dues-paying members and couldn’t afford to keep him. He lost his apartment, his marriage broke up and he was briefly homeless, sleeping on a park bench on the Grand Concourse. Cardi finally found a place to live by working as a superintendent at a building in the South Bronx; eventually, he found a new job with a Teamsters local in New Jersey.

The Long Island City chapter did manage to find new jobs for some Swingline workers, mostly janitorial work at large apartment buildings where Local 808 has contracts. But that took care of only about 20 of the strongest and ablest of workers.

Many others couldn’t even look for work. Years of repetitive assembly-line work had left them with carpal tunnel syndrome, or bad backs and permanent neck injuries from the heavy lifting, made worse by the escalating pressure to step up production in the factory’s final years. Some had never complained or filed for workers’ compensation–they wanted to keep their jobs.

DeWendt went on disability leave in November 1996, shortly before the company announced it was closing. She had injured her back lifting a heavy box of staplers. “I knew I shouldn’t have done that,” she told me recently as we sat in her cramped living room.

DeWendt’s back injury has creeped into her legs, swelling her ankles and making it difficult to walk. Steps are almost impossible to navigate now, so she stays home most days. Between a weekly check of $140 in workers’ compensation and survival benefits from her husband’s death in 1995, she gets by, although she’s racked up credit card debt spending money on her son because she feels guilty she can’t take him places.

Being stuck at home all day has been difficult. Now 49, she’d like eventually to work again, maybe as an x-ray technician, if she can get back on her feet. In the meantime, she tries to keep cheerful. “I’ve got Jerry Springer, Divorce Court, Montel Williams, Judge Judy,” she says with a wry smile.


Just a few blocks from the Skillman Avenue factory stands LaGuardia Community College, a large modern complex of buildings. In room C-145, Jerry Stoermer sits, waiting.

Originally from Hamburg, Germany, the tool and die maker came to Queens with his family in 1970. Soon after, he got a job at Swingline. “As soon as we came, we had a better life,” Stoermer says. His blond hair now graying, he describes how he spent 30 years making the machines that mold the different components of a stapler, working his way up the union salary scale, until he lost his job at the factory last year.

Stoermer found another job for a few months doing the same kind of work in Brooklyn, but it didn’t work out. “The guy wanted me to be the tool and die maker and the engineer and everything else, for the same money I made at Swingline. I told him I couldn’t do it.”

Stoermer’s English as a Second Language class is about to begin. While others joke in Spanish, he sits quietly on the side. He’s been speaking English a long time, and indeed, you might guess he was a native speaker. “I don’t need to be here,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s just for the benefits.”

The classes, and long-term unemployment benefits, come courtesy of the NAFTA Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, the one concession Congress made to workers whose jobs move to Mexico or Canada. Besides job training, the program also offers unemployment checks–about half of former wages–for up to two years.

Most former Swingline employees applied for the classes, and many landed at LaGuardia, which offers a mixture of ESL, office skills and basic computer training for laid-off workers. Stoermer says he’d like to learn to use a computer, but the only program available required that he also spend two of the four days a week in an ESL class.

Stoermer is the exception; learning English is a serious challenge for most of these workers. Roslyn Orgel, director of the school’s adult literacy program, says the average student’s age in these classes is 50, and many have had little more than a second- or third-grade education. “It’s a long way to go,” she admits, particularly since they spend just 12 hours a week at LaGuardia. Many end up dropping the ESL and computer courses midway through to take jobs as cashiers or grocery baggers, because they cannot afford to live on unemployment benefits or because their benefits are about to expire. Says Orgel, “They take what they can get.”

On this bright February morning, Geesa Johnston is teaching an advanced ESL class to about 20 students who range in age from late twenties to mid-sixties. All but four worked at Swingline.

One of her main goals, and a critical part of the Computers, Office Skills, and Job Training Intensive Program, is to teach them office skills, like how to answer phones, write a memo or draft a business letter. Johnston uses an overhead projector to display an office memo on a blank wall. “What do you notice about this memo?” she asks, then walks them through the concepts of indentation and alignment.

Shifting to dictation, Johnston rattles off sentences extracted from mythical office memos, on matters as alien to most of the students as stapler assemblies would be to a secretary. It’s clear they’re still struggling to grasp the material.

“We do not know whether the committee’s decision will go into effect this calendar year,” she reads from the page projected on the wall. “What did she say?” asks a woman in the back, and students repeat the words for one another.


At first, most workers were skeptical about the training program; they enrolled for the extra unemployment checks. “The main thing was the money,” admits Luis Valencia, a small, dark-haired man sitting near the front of the class. “That’s why we came here.” But after a few weeks, many were surprised to discover they were actually learning.

Alba Jimenez, in her third semester of ESL, appreciates the opportunity. “I learn to speak a little more English here. I learn computer.” Jimenez wants to begin working towards a GED this spring, and then find a job. “I would like to work in an office,” she says.

Jimenez and her fellow students won’t get much help from their school, though. Started four years ago in response to the flight of manufacturing from Long Island City, the LaGuardia skills training program does not provide job placement or counseling services; the labor department funding doesn’t cover them. Program directors also acknowledge that they do not make an effort to coordinate the training with the jobs that are actually available. Admits Orgel, “The number of people who actually go out and get a clerical position is probably low.”

Johnston seems earnest in her desire to help her students, and cares about where they go next. But she is also uncertain about what skills they actually need at this stage of their lives. Most of all, she’s puzzled by what looks to her like the workers’ lack of ambition. Johnston recalls how her own parents, from Brazil, were intent on blending in and moving up socially and economically. She says she can’t understand why many of her students have not assimilated, even after 20 or 30 years in the U.S. “Why are some more motivated to move beyond, and others will settle for less?” she asks.

For those who spent most of their working lives at Swingline, the answer is fairly obvious. Mostly from poor countries–this class hails from Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, India, Bangladesh, and China–they came here not to get rich, but to survive.

Luis Valencia was one of them. An immigrant from Colombia who worked his way up Swingline’s ladder over 23 years from minimum wage–then $2.40 an hour–to $10 an hour, Valencia pieced together and packaged the staplers, ran the machines and, finally, moved up to product inspector. Then he was laid off.

“I knew almost every job in the factory, and I knew the people. I knew what I had to do,” he says. At Swingline, he was among friends and family who knew his language and his culture. “We didn’t care too much about money, because we felt comfortable over there.” Most of those now studying English worked for decades alongside others who spoke their native language, and they lived in tight-knit immigrant communities where English was neither necessary nor easy to learn.

But the factory is gone now, and their experience on the assembly line simply does not translate to the workplace today. “I didn’t learn a single thing over there. None of us did,” says Valencia, shaking his head bitterly. “Unless Swingline comes back, I can’t use any of it.”


Today’s economy is a far cry from the one Valencia and his contemporaries found when they arrived in New York. Despite record employment rates nationwide, New York City faces the worst jobs gap for low-skill workers in the nation, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The Conference predicts the city will generate 33,870 low-skill jobs between 1998 and 2002 but that the number of people looking for those jobs will jump by more than 217,000. Already, unemployment for the city’s unskilled workers is almost 13 percent–close to three times the national rate.

Not only are jobs less plentiful, but unskilled workers who do find a job often make pitiful money. A 1996 Russell Sage Foundation study found that 30 percent of working New Yorkers made poverty-level wages. Over the past decade, many manufacturing jobs have been replaced by lower-paying service work, leading to a corresponding decline in the city’s median wage–more than 11 percent.

“Our society isn’t as forgiving as it was 30 or 40 years ago,” says Chris Silvera, secretary-treasurer of Local 808, who tried to find Swingline workers jobs after they were laid off. While industries like printing are thriving, they are increasingly computerized and demand complex skills. Silvera is skeptical that these industries will serve his former members. “To take someone who’s worked on an assembly line for 20 years, and turn them into a computerized graphic artist is a stretch.”

In 1998, Congress responded to just such skepticism with the Workforce Investment Act, or WIA. The law is supposed to help anyone unemployed, from welfare recipients to laid-off factory laborers, find work. WIA establishes “One-Stop Centers” to provide job counseling, information and the opportunity to enroll in training programs.

The potential for WIA to fund meaningful job training in the city is vast: New York State will receive $81.5 million annually in WIA funding for adult training, and $142 million to help dislocated workers. But even though the program is supposed to start up in July, the city Human Resources Administration has yet to reveal most details about how it will work.

The evidence, however, suggests that HRA will be turning to the “work-first” initiatives it has already relied on to shrink its welfare rolls. Job trainers expect that the city will use WIA funding the same way: to set up programs that emphasize job placement over training, and require job-seekers to first look for work with whatever skills they have before they can qualify for training.

Critics say the city should instead be trying to help businesses develop stable, well-paying jobs and create a skilled workforce to fill them. “They need to take a more strategic and comprehensive approach,” says James Parrott, chief economist and director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a budget watchdog group. “They need to have a good sense of what the needs of industries are.”


The gap between jobs and job training has already been troublesome for the Swingline workers. Although unemployed ex-factory workers qualified for free training under NAFTA-TAA, many have found their new skills unmarketable.

Originally from Barbados, 39-year-old Oswyn Boxill worked the night shift at Swingline, running a packaging machine for seven years; he was earning almost $14 an hour when he was laid off in November 1998. Lacking a high school degree and eager to improve his prospects, he enrolled in a seven-month intensive program to learn air conditioning and refrigeration maintenance and repair.

But the work is seasonal, and despite diligently searching the papers and calling the phone number from every refrigeration repair van he saw, he couldn’t find a job in his new field. So he earns around minimum wage making deliveries to help support his wife and two children. “It’s okay,” he says tentatively, trying to be optimistic. “But it’s not really what I was at school for.”

Other workers find it just as hard to play catch-up. Maria Duque worked for 20 years as a machine operator at Swingline, where she met her husband, Angel, a toolmaker. Angel used to make $18 an hour, but his eyes aren’t good enough any more for toolmaking, so he got a commercial driving license last year. Despite constantly checking the newspapers, he can’t find a driving job. “They all want minimum one year experience,” he says.

Maria would like to do office work, but she’s caught in a training trap. First, she has to learn to use a computer. And before she can do that, she needs to learn English, because computer training is all in English. But the beginner’s English class she’s taking at LaGuardia is focused on teaching students how to apply for a job. “I can’t learn if the English class is mostly to learn to fill out applications,” she says, exasperated.

Moving beyond such vicious circles takes superhuman ambition. Sixto Castro might seem to have it. Employed and determined, he is theoretically a Swingline success story. But the year since he left Swingline has been grueling.

He originally hoped to enroll in a NAFTA program to improve his English and learn a new skill. But a labor department official told him that because he already had a job, he would have to pay almost half the tuition. Castro couldn’t afford it. “The government is not going to help me,” he says now. “They spit in our faces.”

Castro’s resolve led him to work two full-time jobs–one at Swingline and the other at Stuyvesant Town–during his last few months at the factory. It was the only way he could secure his current position as a janitor. But that experience, and his need to continue working side jobs on top of his regular hours, have taken their toll. His voice falters as he explains how his marriage crumbled. Now, he struggles to keep in contact with his teenage son. “I can’t handle the situation,” he says, his gaze shifting toward the floor as he leans against the doorway of his small kitchen.

At Stuyvesant Town, Castro occasionally runs into other former Swingline workers who, like him, got cleaning jobs there through the union. But Castro doesn’t intend to remain a janitor forever. He has a plan, hoping to piece together the odd jobs he does on his days off into a business of his own: scraping, sanding and refinishing floors.

Though it won’t provide him the community he had at Swingline, and he won’t be attending union rallies anymore, he will have more control over his own destiny. “I think that’s better for me,” he says, somewhat uncertainly, as he pauses briefly between his day and night jobs to contemplate the future. “I need to work for myself.”

Daphne Eviatar is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.

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