The temperature Monday afternoon on the nearby bank clock read 91 degrees. The sun was as merciless as the profit motive. Dozens of striking workers walked in front of the New Era Cap Co. plant on Route 5 in Derby. Passing drivers blared car horns in support, but there was no escape from the heat. And no escape from the hard reality pounding down.
The family-owned company, which makes caps for sports teams and fans (including sole rights to Major League Baseball), wants what amounts to more work for the same pay. About 300 workers walked out last week.
Anybody who has ever pulled a weekly paycheck feels their pain. But no matter how or when this thing is settled, the winds of change aren't blowing their way.
There aren't many Americans these days stitching sweat liners for an average of 12 bucks an hour. From Liz Claiborne to Nike, clothing companies have left the United States for countries where $12 is a week's pay, not an hour's.
Companies are in business to make money. Cheap labor, wherever you can find it, pads profits. It's capitalism, and sometimes it's not pretty.
New Era, with its stateside plants, is among the last holdouts. It sells its caps for about $27, not cheap, and hasn't raised prices in three years. It competes against companies with overseas labor; it's looking for an edge; it's looking to Derby to get it.
It might have left years ago, if not for local ownership and the five-year baseball deal (which cost the company $80 million). It'd be bad for the image of folks running the national pastime if caps bearing the MLB logo were stitched in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia.
Instead, New Era found the closest thing stateside to a Third World backwater -- in Alabama. The company opened two factories there in '98, the year after Derby workers unionized with the powerhouse CWA.
Workers in Alabama's non-union plants make half the top wage in Derby. Though nobody admits as much, more work is logically headed south -- or overseas, where New Era gets nearly 10 percent of its product.
"There are cost structure advantages (in Alabama)," said New Era's human resources director, Tim Freer.
"We're trying (with the proposed contract) to stave off the move of the plant," said Freer, "or whatever the case will be."
Workers at the Derby plant are an endangered species. No matter how and when the strike is settled, 125 recent layoffs and a stripped-down contract offer should sound the alarm. Anybody not going back to school or contemplating a career change has a bad case of blind faith.
Some have seen the stitching on the ball cap. Tim and Debbie Kron have worked at New Era for 12 years. Married, with five kids, they have a lot of eggs in a fraying basket.
"Even if we go back, I want to get out," said Debbie Kron. "It's like monkey work. A 10-year-old could put eyelets on caps."
She wants to go to school for nursing.
"It's got," she said, "more long-term potential."
The fewer skills, the more you're at the mercy of a global economy that pits Americans against Third World workers -- or in this case, lower-paid Alabamans.
It's not easy carving a new life out of an old groove. Tina Erdley, 29, started at New Era when she was 21. She's married, and her kids are 9 and 3. New Era was steady work, close to home, for decent money. The owner lived nearby and cooked hot dogs at the company picnic. It looked to her as if it would last forever.
"We don't have the money for me to go to college," she said. "Even if we did, it's hard to study at night when you've got kids. They need you. So you just keep doing it. You don't think of any other way."
The world changes underneath your feet. Free trade and the global economy were storm clouds to low-skilled American factory workers. The thunder has come to Derby.
Joanne Ellison has worked at New Era nearly half of her 61 years. She says she has had enough, and can't go anywhere else.
"I don't know anything," said Ellison, divorced with three adult children, "other than what I did here."
She'll get by on Social Security and savings. But it's not where you want to be: out of work, and out of choices.