Hannah and I have been photographing the exterior of the Britex plant, closed since 2004, in different seasons. It is not the first time I have photographed defunct factories and again, taking the Britex pictures gave me the same sense of unease, as if I were recording something surreal or too private to be recorded. Curious to know more about the history of the plant I recently had a conversation with Burt Messenger (Retired Manager of Materials).
The factory started out in 1960 in a one-story building as branch of United Elastic Limited based in New York. It manufactured elastic textiles used in a large variety of garments produced in other factories, at the time mostly in Canada. It expanded its operating area in 1964, 1968 and 1970 to reach a total of 144,000 square feet suggesting healthy growth and potential. In 1970 approximately 240 people were employed. An unintended effect of the employment opportunities was that many farmers stopped farming and worked in the factory sometimes with their wives and even children. The plant also employed the wives of fishermen from Port Lorne and Hampton on the Bay of Fundy. During the first decade the company continued as United Elastic Division of J. P. Stevens and Company Inc. a New York holding company.
In the course of the second decade the plant slowly declined in productivity mostly as a consequence of limited investment in innovation and modernization as well as international marketing. The new owners, J. P. Stevens and Company Inc of New York, recognized the remote location of the plant from markets and suppliers as well as energy costs and were not interested in taking on the risks of making serious investments in innovation in production processes, marketing and new machinery. By 1980 the holding company declared that the enterprise was not sufficiently profitable and prepared for closure at the same time as closing similar plants in Belgium and Mexico thus concentrating exclusively on its United States operations.
However, the general manager of the factory, Sandy Archibald and his managers, developed a take-over proposal by managers and employees. They shared a conviction that the plant could be turned around by creating a sense of common purpose among all, by innovation in production methods, marketing, better labor-management relations and by taking advantage of government industrial assistance programs.
Archibald and his team developed a business plan and negotiated a $1.1 million incentive grant with the federal Department of Regional Economic Expansion (DREE) toward the acquisition of the plant and job retention as well as an initial 10 year loan of $1,7 million from Industrial Estates Limited. The remaining finances to secure a through start of the company came from personal loans by the managers mostly as mortgages on their homes. In August 1980 they were back in business with all of the old employees in their jobs after only 2 weeks having been shut down.
The ownership structure of the new company Britex Limited included that management hold 80% of stock and employees could buy 20%. In addition there was a profit sharing plan for all employees. Initially employees received in profit-sharing only 10% of pre-tax annual earnings to make sure that most profits were re invested in improving the plant’s profitability through innovation of production processes. About half the staff signed up as shareholders.
A joint labor-management committee was established to ensure input into policy from the employees. Initially the committee had equal representation of management and employees and was chaired by an independent chairman recommended by Canada Manpower. Later the committee was entirely made up of employees with an elected chairman. One of the first initiatives of the committee was the development of an income protection plan.
The company grew by significant improvements in productivity, profitability and labor relations. It became a shining example of how a company can be managed under a more democratic management system where respect for employees’ knowledge and experience is being tapped to improve production, think up innovations as they did for example in converting the heating systems from oil to wood chips.
In the first year of its existence it won the Nova Scotia Export Achievement Award for the greatest increase in exports in a year. It made the finals in the federal government’s Canada Awards for Excellence in Productivity, Innovation and Design. The company also became a significant benefactor for civic projects in Bridgetown and surrounding areas, these projects being recommended by the employees. Sandy Archibald also gave guest lectures on the company’s transformation at Acadia University Business School.
Yet against this very positive background, an attempt was nevertheless made by the United Steelworkers Union of America Local 9181 to unionize the factory. In June 1987 all of the 159 hourly paid workers voted but defeated the application. Newspaper articles reflect the surprise by management that there were employees who wanted a union They felt that there were adequate venues for serious employee input into the working conditions and innovation processes and that management was receptive to dealing with any issues. But “The Britex Concerned Workers Group” did not see it that way. They said that “they were not prepared to share their “many grievances” with the media but that they had lost confidence in management…..”
The company continued to be successful until:
1. the United States government created trade legislation that said only garments sewn outside the USA but made entirely of American produced parts and cloth could enter the country without duty
2. The rapidly growing imports of finished garments from Asia began to cause the closure of many Canadian garment factories.
The company thus lost many customers and it needed loan guarantees and other financial support to bridge a period in which it could develop new markets. These initiatives had promising success but the loan guarantees provided by governments did not hold out long enough to save the enterprise and it closed in 2004.
The Britex story illuminates the vulnerability of a branch plant economy in the force-field of globalization especially when it is the only major employer in the area. In a sense the story of Bri Tex could be the story of any of the many single industry communities in Canada. Yet it is different in that the initiative to take over the plant by management and employees in 1980 was successful for 20 years only to be undone by conditions entirely outside of its own control. I guess that my unease comes from the confirmation that communities are not abstractions but real people with very little apparent control over their livelihood.
Note: Burt Messenger loaned sources for this summary mostly as newspaper clippings to me. I am very grateful for that. Unfortunately there are gaps in the newspaper record and I especially missed Mr. Archibald’s “lament” mentioned in the letter “A question of trust” by the Britex concerned workers group to the editor of The Mirror in June 1987. My own sense is that the amazing story of this factory would be worthy of being published as a serious piece of history research.