Working at the Company (this article doesn’t use its real name) in the colder months was not comfortable. A sewing shop was set up in an old grange hall in Highgate, Vermont. A cold winter and the poorly heated building was hard on Elise and the people around her. “There wasn’t heat enough to warm you at all so I wore a ski suit myself to sew in,” she said.
I sat down with Elise Burton at her newly built camp on Greenwood Lake in Woodbury, Vermont. Elise used to work for this Company, a Vermont/New York ski shop. Today she wore a long purple jacket that hung down to her shins. We sat in rocking chairs that pointed out upon the snow-covered lake. The sun shined through the glass french doors. As I interviewed Elise she mimicked heating up her hands with her mouth like one would do after they came in from working in the snow, just as she did years ago at the Company. Working at the Company not only came with frigid temperatures but came with many other problems.
She started there in the spring of 1982 after she had moved up from Louisiana. “I love to sew,” she said, “and I was always a good seamstress.” She found this job in the newspaper. It looked like a good fit. Sewing fluorescent ski suits with many others, it wasn’t bad at first.
Elise describes it as a sweatshop. “It was a very labor-intensive job,” she said. She would sit there and sew all day, just pushing the ski wear through the machine–All day long. She would get only a lunch break. She says it was tiring to do that all day and that it was mentally stressful. The seamstresses had to make sure they were getting it just right and not having to undo their work, which would happen occasionally. Very time-consuming, it required very careful work. She’s glad she had the boss she had at the time. “I can’t say anything wrong about her, she did what she had to do and made sure we were doing ok, but the Company, not so much.”
All throughout her time working in the old grange hall, Elise had to do something that challenged her morals. The Company would send out designs and material to Sri Lanka to be made. This way the suits would be manufactured at a much lower price. The idea of the Company using cheap labor across seas made her uncomfortable. Even she wasn’t being paid enough and now seeing even cheaper labor being used was hard for her to go through. She knew that the women making these suits in Sri Lanka were underpaid and the circumstances and environment werewas unsuitable. These women were working in real sweatshops.
One real difficulty for Elise was taking credit for the women in Sri Lanka. She and many others were required to tear out the “made in Sri Lanka” tags out of the necks and backs of the suits and replace them with “Made in the USA” tags. “This didn’t make me happy from the beginning,” she says. When the first batch came in she just did what she was told. New batches would be coming back all the time and when one came in, it was just something the whole shop would have to sit down and do. Elise would sit there all day and carefully tear out these tags. Putting new tags in was hard to do as well but it was even harder for her to deal with what she was doing. “I realized it was a fraud after I went out of there.” She was putting out a product that was wrong. It wasn’t the ethical thing to do. But does this mean she would quit her job or keep supporting her family?
“You can’t treat workers like that”. The Company was large at the time and was fully able to provide for its worker’s needs. Because of the poor conditions, Elise soon started asking for a better job in the offices. The Seamstress sat in long rows with their sewing machines and supplies. She sat in the outside row by the back doors, a place where cold air rushed in when others exited. Every time the big guys came through she popped her foot out and asked them for a better job. “I just kept at it,” Elise said. They would answer her with, “we don’t need anything” over and over again.
Starting as a seamstress she slowly climbed the business chain fighting for a better job, becoming a salesman and then getting a job in accounting. In time she made her way into the offices across town in Hygate proper. She moved from the “sweatshop” as a seamstress to getting a job in the sales department. Now that her fingertips were warmer, she had lost the kindness from her old coworkers and boss from the grange hall, and harassment slowly peeked its way into her life. Elise had a boss that came in intoxicated, just about every morning. “It was a tough way to start the day,” Elise said. This boss made things unproductive and unpleasant for all the employees. Now working in the sales department, her job looked a little different. Coworkers would go to Vegas trade shows to get clothing designs approved so they could soon be made in Sri Lanka.
The Company was a very sexist environment. Of course in the sweatshop, there were only women sewing. Thankfully, A woman was their immediate boss, who watched them work each day. This loosened the tension, not making it so much of a male-dominant working place. Of course, there were some women in higher positions working in the offices as well but that did not change the way the men acted. Some men in higher positions created an uncomfortable setting for women. Elise was put into multiple situations where she had to keep her head down ignoring comments from men walking by, especially the “big bosses” as she called them. One day Elise was working in a filing closet, pulling out some things. The same Big Boss came into this closet and approached her, “and it wasn’t proper,” Elise said.
“I just wanted to get out of there, and he wouldn’t move where I can get to the door,” she asserted. Elise had to convince this man that she was going to rat him out to the other bosses for this action. This man blocked the door and made multiple inappropriate comments and suggestions. Once the man came to his senses he backed away and let Elise out of the room, but it was a struggle to do so. When Elise told me this she expressed clear discomfort as she rocked in her chair, that I too felt hearing this.
“So the environment was not good in a lot of ways. If I was a male in the office I would be treated much differently.” Elise says the pay was under scale for the type of work she did, and how intense it was, especially in the old grange hall. She thinks that if she was a male in the office she would have had a larger pay increase when she switched jobs in the Company, which she claimed with passion.
Elise was soon moved from sales to accounting. Changing her job moved her away from her alcoholic boss but right into new problems. She now was in charge of collection: Sending out bills to large New York City companies like Saks Fifth Avenue. Elise’s job was to write reminders to companies to pay their bills every 30 days and mail them out. Her new boss didn’t exactly like the idea of Elise “messing” with these large companies. She wanted her to leave the large companies alone and allow them to pay when they wanted to. There were multiple companies that would not pay on time so she would send many letters a day, or so she thought. One day she went down to the receptionist to send out another bundle of letters. “All my letters were in the garbage,” Elise said. Her boss didn’t want the letters going out, and Elise learned that this had been going on for quite a while, but didn’t know why.
“Once again this was fraud. Mail fraud for one, and just fraud and general.” Soon after Elise addressed her boss about her work not being sent out there was a Company meeting held about this problem. “We were told that everybody has to be a team player, or they would let us go.” The next day her boss came in and told Elise she wasn’t a team player. For being angry about her well-accomplished work not being sent out she was fired. Fired for not being a team player. The real reason of why they didn’t want the letters being sent out is still unclear. So to Elise, she was fired without reason.
After Elise left, new troubles arise in the Company. The Company was busted for transporting drugs. It had scheduled shipments going up to Canada in big trucks filled with ski wear. “They planted drugs in the boxes and got caught for it.” Elise said. Soon the company went down. This brought a smile to Elise’s face. The Company was corrupt. “It was just a company doing everybody and everything wrong,” Elise said, “I moved right up to the top, and they didn’t play nice”
How can we balance our morals against the need to support a family? When do we know we should follow our morals?
How does a workplace become such a sexist environment? How can it be changed?
How else could Elise have handled her moral dilemma? Was there a better way?