Early Days of Dalton's Carpet Manufacturing

U.S. Border Town, 1,200 Miles From The Border

By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 17, 2006

DALTON, Ga. -- Jerry Nelson steered his grocery cart out of the Wal-Mart on a recent night, fuming about globalization, Southern style. "Another great night at the Mexican Wal-Mart," he groused to no one in particular.

The mass migration of Latinos to this corner of northwest Georgia known as the carpet capital of the world has changed the character of everything from factory floors to schools to superstores. On this night, Wal-Mart's ubiquitous TV monitors alternately promoted arroz and rice, aparatos and electronics.

Like many working-class natives of this once lily-white area, Nelson blames the changes on the carpet industry, which he insists lured the Mexicans -- and more recently, other Latinos -- to keep down wages and workers' leverage in this nonunion region. "We all know who the culprit is: Big Business. That's who's running our country," he said.

But the immigration-driven transformation of work in the United States is not simple, and Nelson played a role in the story, too. For decades, displaced farmers were the backbone of carpet mills. Nelson's mother left a farm in Appalachia to work in one until age 82. But Nelson didn't follow her. Neither did his wife, Georgia, also a mill worker's daughter. "We wanted more than our parents," said Jerry Nelson, who spent most of his career as a heating and ventilation contractor.

Another indispensable force was a federal immigration system that went limp in the face of urgent demands for labor, whether in the Vidalia onion fields 270 miles to the southeast or the Atlanta Olympic Village 90 miles to the south. Both drew thousands of illegal workers, many of whom ultimately found their way to Dalton through another important force: the amazing Mexican jobs grapevine.

And then there was the longest economic expansion in American history. As buildings rose and homes kept getting bigger, Americans carpeted almost a billion more square yards of floor in 2004 than in 1994, a 50 percent increase. With more than three-quarters of America's carpets made in and around Dalton, a shrinking workforce and 10,000 jobs to fill in a decade, the region was in the grip of a labor vacuum.

And immigration adores a vacuum. Today 40 percent of Dalton, 61 percent of its public school students and half of this region's carpet factory workers are Latino.

"A lot of people used to come here from Tennessee when there were no jobs there," said Shirley Silvers, who has worked 30 years for Dalton carpetmaker J&J Industries. "I guess it's the same now for Mexicans."

Reaching Past Dalton

Dalton may be 1,200 miles from Mexico, but it is in many ways a border town, whipsawed by every twist in the immigration debate. Its business and civic leaders call Latinos saviors of their one-industry economy, while its state and federal lawmakers are in the forefront of efforts to seal the border and block a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

And U.S.-born workers at Mohawk Industries Inc., the nation's No. 2 carpet manufacturer and a major Dalton employer, have filed one of several class-action lawsuits around the country alleging that the hiring of illegal workers constitutes federal racketeering -- a legal strategy that, if successful, could subject Mohawk to huge fines. Mohawk says it obeyed all applicable laws and is trying to have the suit dismissed. But the forces that changed Dalton are not easily reversed. The carpet industry always has relied on migrants. It took off in the 1950s, drawing people throughout Appalachia to the steadiest paycheck in the hardscrabble region.

"Men left farms, stayed in boarding houses for $7 to $10 a week and worked in the mills until they saved enough money to bring their families," said Shaheen Shaheen, an industry pioneer who in 1954 started World Carpets, now part of Mohawk.

So began a cycle of carpet companies depending on workers from well beyond Dalton, and Dalton staking its future on carpet companies. Whitfield County Commission Chairman Brian Anderson said that the area's 150 carpet factories pay 70 percent of county taxes and that nine out of 10 jobs depend on them. And as in the 1950s, industry executives praise the new arrivals' work ethic and appetite for overtime -- only now they cross national instead of state borders.

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