It takes 7 1/2 minutes for Maggie Goin, pushing and pulling two big needles with her bandaged fingers, to hand weave cross stitches around the top of a black loafter on her work table.
Tossing it on the pile of finished shoes to be carried to the sole-making section of the Craddock-Terry Shoe Corp. factory here, Mrs. Goin grabs another shoe, measuring by eye a length of thread long enough to make an unbroken line of stitches around the loafer.
For each pair she sews, she gets 80 cents. Working quickly and without interuption she can complete four pairs in an hour. As a semiskilled worker Mrs. Goin makes close to the top wages here - about $3.20 an hour plus some 60 cents in fringe benefits.
"This is what we depend on for our living," Mrs. Goin says, talking as she sews. "I've depended on this job for 17 years." But, she adds, "If you don't have shoes to sew, you don't work."
Last year assembly line workers averaged $120 to $150 a week (there was some overtime when retailers stocked up needlessly in anticipation of the imposition of tariffs by President Ford). This year they are averaging $90 to $100 a week.
The shoes they make sell from $30 to $60 a pair in retail stores.
Each week there are fewer shoes to sew at Craddock-Terry's eight plants in Southside Virginia. The week before last, Mrs. Goin worked only two days. Luckier employees, working in other, busier sections, may get in as many as 28 to 32 hours a week.
Like other American shoe firms, Craddock-Terry is undergoing hard times, brought on by the massive shift to foreign-made shoes. Seven years ago imports accounted for 22 per cent of all shoes sold in America. According to the latest January-February figures, says Craddock-Terry president Robert S. Lockridge, foreignmade shoes now have 52 per cent of the market.
Lockridge estimated Craddock-Terry will sell 4.5 million pairs of shoes this year "if things keep up as they are going." Two years ago the firm, the only manufacturer of shoes in Virginia, sold 7 million pairs.
Lockridge wants higher tariffs and quotas clamped on imported shoes. "We don't want pie in the sky," he says. "We just want to survive. When an industry is penetrated 52 per cent, that's too much."
Lockridge says the tariff-quota recommendations of the National Trade Commission - rejected two weeks ago by President Carter - would result in a cut in imported shoes' share of the market to 43 per cent.
"That's all we're asking for," Lockridge said "If we were talking about cutting down to something like 5 per cent that would be protectionism."
The 360 workers at Craddock-Terry's Farmville factory are not versed in the complexities of international trade, the issues that preoccupy their company's president, Lockridge, and other officials.
What they talk about is stretching the $100 of less a week they make to pay for groceries, gas for long trips to work, babysitters and the whopping energy bills from the cold winter.
"I can't hardly buy anthing," says Darlene Brooks, who glues crepe soles to the upper part of the shoes. She has been cut down to 23 hours of work a week.
"I've had a big doctor bi11 $200 since fall," says Betty Perkins, who has been working 28 to 32 hours a some workers wear bandages to protect their fingers from needles and fast-moving machines. "I pay a little bit, when I can, needles together. "I pay a little bit, when I can."
She has reduced her grocery bill from about $60 to $65 a week to $40 to $45. "You cut out a lot of meats, snacks, drinks."
One indication of employees' problems is the latest report from the company credit union. For the last six months $34,210 has been borrowed during the previous six months.
Even working full time, Craddock-Terry workers - who are paid by piecework, the traditional practice of the shoe industry - would earn only $6,656 a year. But the workers complain that they can't possibly complete with foreign workers paid wages as low as 40 cents an hour in countries like Taiwan.
Craddock-Terry says labor accounts for about 35 to 40 per cent of the wholesale cost of its shoes, which are marketed under the brands Contempo, Adiamo and others.
For Craddock-Terry workers who are either unskilled or semiskilled, there are few other employment opportunities in the area. They are eligible for unemployment only when they have their work week cut down to about 21 hours a week. Federal retaining assistance could mean relocation - something that the employees, most of whom have been deep roots in Virginia's rural Southside, vehemently oppose.
Virtually all of the eight Craddock-Terry factories are scattered in small Southside communities like Farmville, where the company can tap pools of unskilled and semiskilled Iabor, and avoid strikes. Althought Chaddock-Terry has a union, only a fraction of the employees belong. Virginia has a law that prohibits compulsory unionism.
Even at the new Farmville factory, shoemaking is a complicated, sometimes chaotic business. The plant is equipped with the latest machinery from England. Denmark and West Germany, but still a shoe has to go through about 140 steps before it is put in a cardboard box.
The last, the wooden or plastic form around which the shoe is constructed, takes as long as two days to travel around the U-shaped assembly line. Besides leather, there are 39 other materials used in the production of shoes - various plastics, rubber, wax tailings (the dregs of the petroleum-refining process), cloth, steel tacks, thread. Much of the material is invisible to the eye.
The new tacking machine is a great labor saver. But a thounderstorm can create a magnetic field that turns the thousands of tacks upside down, bringing the operation to a halt.
Carddock-Terry's Lockridge is a high school graduate who began with the company 40 years ago in the mail room. He is a big, energetic man who is seldom off his feet as he makes the rounds at his factories.
One day he is on the assembly line, poking a ccurious finger in the newest machine or asking a worker, whom he addresses by his first name - if he's been feeling any better since he got out of the hospital. The next day he is in Washington, maybe at the White House, talking protection with "(trade negotiator Robert S.) Straus or (Treasury Secretary Michael) Blumenthal and those other people."
Lockridge scoffs at the notion that he is an opponent of "free trade." He says shoe-exporting countries themselves put heavy restrictions on shoe imports, and even grant rebates to their manufacturers on shoes the companies send abroad. "This kind of trade isn't free" he said.
He also scoffs at the fear that there would be retailations against America by other countries if it imposes higher tariffs or quotas on imported shoes.
"There isn't anybody in the world who buys a damn thing in America that they can buy anywhere else for cheaper."
While Lockridge says the American shoe industry has "terminal cancer, and the end is in sight," his own company, despite lower sales volumes, is making money. The company's earnings on $75 million in sales in 1976 was $1.4 million - a figure he termed "lousy."
Lockridge sees the issue in terms of survival, not only for his company and the industry, but for America as a producing nation.
In his rapid-fire, grandiloquent way, he says, "We've got 6 per cent of the population and we sit on top of the pyramid, and everyone else is trying to pull us down or blow us from the middle. Nobody likes us . . . we've got to look out for ourselves. Look at Britain - that's what we can look like in 20 years."