September 7, 2011: Cheering for God in the Reagan Library
In my last paid job, at a Quaker peace project next to an enormous military base during the height (or better, the depths) of the Iraq-Afghan wars, I spent a lot of time looking for spiritual resources for that work, and the life that went with the job. For a long time it seemed pretty hard to find any. I read a lot of academic theology and other “spiritual” works. With a few notable exceptions (to be dealt with in future posts), for a long time it seemed pretty hard to find more than an occasional nugget; too much was weak tea or thin gruel.
But then, in early September 2011, after watching a televised Republican presidential candidates’ debate, hosted by the Ronald Reagan Library in California, I abruptly realized that in fact I had found some, and they had crystallized into convictions.
United Furniture abruptly shuts down Triad operations. Hundreds of workers affected.
Winston-Salem NC-United Furniture Industries Inc. has stopped production abruptly at its five Triad facilities — where it was reported to have had between 530 and 600 employees — as part of what appears to be an overall shutdown of the business.
Multiple media reports say employees in Winston-Salem, Verona, Miss., and Victorville, Calif., as well as delivery drivers, received emails from United’s board of directors late Monday and early Tuesday.
United, based in Okolona, Miss., makes promotional to mid-priced upholstered furniture in the U.S. under its brand and the Lane Home Furnishings brand, which it acquired in November 2017 from Heritage Home Group. The manufacturer also imported wooden bedroom and dining furniture.
According to Lane’s website, it had two facilities in Lexington and one each in Archdale, Trinity and Winston-Salem.
The most recent workforce count had a combined 245 employees affected in Archdale and Trinity, along with a combined 220 in Lexington and between 50 and 70 in Winston-Salem at its 401 E. Hanes Mill Road facility.
United had about 360 employees in Winston-Salem at its employment peak when it had 10 full production lines.
Company officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
As recently as July, United had about 3,000 employees in 18 plants, offices and distribution centers in California, Mississippi, North Carolina and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
WXII reported it was forwarded two emails sent to employees, the first at 11:49 p.m. Monday and the second at 12:42 a.m. Tuesday.
The first email read “we ask that all employees not report to their work locations tomorrow November 22, 2022.”
The second email informed employees that “your layoff from the company is expected to be permanent and all benefits will be terminated immediately without provision of COBRA.”
The company ended the memo citing the “difficult and unexpected situation” that industry analysts said likely includes inflation, high gas prices and the war in Ukraine as key factors.
Trade publication Furniture Today reported that in June, United fired its chief executive, chief financial officer and executive vice president of sales. It named former Standard Furniture president Todd Evans as chief executive.
Cottam said the board is likely to file for either Chapter 7, which signals the liquidation of its assets, or Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection with the intent of staying in business.
Cottam said it’s possible that Big Lots, which was among United and Lane’s top retail customers, may attempt to acquire the finished-goods inventory, if not considering buying the production assets in a potential bankruptcy proceeding.
“Many furniture manufacturers were having gang-buster sales in 2021 with the pandemic,” Cottam said. “But, when those inflationary factors hit hard, it really put a squeeze on the discretionary spending of those who purchase promotional furniture.”
First WARN notices
United filed on June 30 separate WARN notice for its Winston-Salem and High Point plants.
United general counsel Andrew Payne said in the June WARN notice to N.C. Commerce that both Triad plants had been affected by United business customers that chose not to buy home furnishings they had already ordered and which had already been made. The company cited a similar reason in the Mississippi WARN notice.
The end of manufacturing in United’s 850,000-square-foot plant at 401 W. Hanes Mill Road, formerly known as Hanesbrands’ Weeks plant, affected 199 of 272 employees at that location. Production was slated to end July 29.
Multiple Mississippi media outlets reported the Winston-Salem facility would be converted into an East Coast distribution center.
Meanwhile, United’s High Point plant at 315 Kettering Road was shut down, affecting 72 employees.
At that time, United was listed with about 880 employees in the Triad.
Cottam said he understood that United “had been winnowing down” the Triad workforce to the 600 range.
United filed a similar WARN notice in June for operations in Amory, Miss., affecting another 220 jobs.
There had been industry speculation since the filing of the June WARN notices that United was in negotiations with its lenders that may have led to the abrupt decision to shut down operations.
“Retail, especially at low- and lower-middle price points, has really slowed” among home-furnishings stores, said Ken Smith, director of furniture services for High Point-based Smith Leonard PLLP.
“I don’t know for sure, but I would guess maybe some standing orders may have been canceled.
Payne said in the June WARN notice that “although United would have preferred to have provided more notice of this plant closure and mass layoff, United was not able to do so before now due to an unforeseen business circumstance.”
“Specifically, major customers of United’s unexpectedly decided not to purchase from United a substantial amount of inventory United manufactured pursuant to those customers’ forecasts,” he said.
Payne said those decisions set off a domino effect “that led to a significant financial crisis that United believes cannot be realistically addressed without implementing the plant closure and mass layoff described above.”
The fact that United expanded rapidly to 17 domestic factories and fixed contracts with five Asian factories meant “it couldn’t slow (production) down quickly, said Jerry Epperson, managing partner of financial-services firm Mann, Armistead and Epperson of Richmond, Va.
United’s production decision “is really a demand issue, not a supply chain issue,” Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, an economics professor at Winston-Salem State University, said in July.
“We are starting to see a major reduction in consumer sentiment, and the first goods this tends to impact are expensive discretionary items, such as furniture.”
The production and workforce cuts come about three years after United said it planned to add 500 employees companywide, including 70 to 90 in the Triad, to meet heightened demand for its products.
In 2017, United said it was dedicating 281,700 square feet to distribution at the Winston-Salem plant, 217,600 square feet to manufacturing and 127,600 square feet to storing furnishings kits from Chinese suppliers.
It also has production and distribution facilities in Lexington and Glenola in Randolph County.
The federal WARN Act requires employees to notify state economic officials and the mayor’s office of the affected community of mass layoffs of more than 50 employees or a complete operational shutdown.
The act requires companies that are planning large job cuts to notify affected workers at least 60 days in advance.
The act provides certain benefits to laid-off workers, such as 60 days of pay and benefit contributions if the closing is immediate, as well as access to COBRA insurance benefits for 60 days.
It also triggers emergency employment and job-training services from N.C. Commerce.
However, the act lacks enforcement teeth.
Several studies have shown that it has lots of loopholes and virtually no enforcement authority from federal, state and local officials.
Employees must file a lawsuit in federal court to assert WARN rights, which has produced occasional success, such as in 2016 when former employees of the closed Yadkinville hospital were able to secure a settlement with the hospital’s for-profit operator.
One recent local example involved Alpha Aluminum, whose operators shuttered the plant
The shuttered Alpha Aluminum LLC plant in Winston-Salem has been put up for sale by its owner.
Trade publication Furniture Today has posted the memo sent early Tuesday by United Furniture Industries Inc.’s board of directors to employees. It reads as follows:.
“At the instruction of the Board of Directors of United Furniture Industries Inc., and all subsidiaries (the “Company”), we regret to inform you that due to unforeseen business circumstances the Company has been forced to make the difficult decision to terminate the employment of all its employees, effective immediately, on November 21, 2022, with the exception of over-the-road drivers that are out on delivery
“Your layoff from the Company is expected to be permanent and all benefits will be terminated immediately without provision of COBRA.
“Over-the-road drivers that are out on delivery will be paid for the balance of the week.
“Whether or not you have completed your delivery, please immediately return equipment, inventory and delivery documents for those deliveries that have been completed to one of the following locations: Winston-Salem, N.C., Verona, Miss., or Victorville, Calif., location. To be clear, do not complete any additional deliveries.
“We regret that this difficult and unexpected situation has made this necessary. Additional information will be provided shortly.
“If the 20th century AD were dated at the same resolution as the 20th century BC, the two World Wars would be indistinguishable in time; and the Montgomery Bus Boycott might post-date the release of Mandela.”
So wrote the ECHOES team of palaeohistorians at Groningen University in the northern Netherlands — and then they fixed the problem.
Their new method for dating events in the distant past immediately got my attention because the first problem they solved was the exact date of the first European settlement in the New World. It was the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows at the very northernmost tip of Newfoundland and the year was 1021 AD.
I was always interested in the Norse because I grew up in Newfoundland and that was already seen as the likeliest location of the region they called Vinland. I read the sagas (Erik the Red and The Greenlanders), which were rip-roaring tales of triumph and treachery but distinctly short on geographical and chronological detail.
Then, in the 1960s, Norwegian archaeologists discovered the remains of eight Norse longhouses on the L’Anse aux Meadows site. So, the location was known, but still not the date. The explorers came from the new Norse settlements in Greenland, which had been founded in 985 AD, but nobody knew how much later they arrived in Newfoundland.
So, what the hell! Let’s say it was the year 1000 AD. The Newfoundland Museum declared that the year 2000 was the millennium of the Viking settlement, the local tourist authorities went into high gear — and somebody at the museum contacted me to write the script for the exhibition, because … well, because I was a journalist and a Newfoundlander.
I swallowed my doubts, named my price and did the job. Not a bad job, actually, because I could play with the fact that the Norse in Newfoundland had both peaceful and violent contacts with the local Indigenous people.
Those people, probably related to the extinct Beothuk of Newfoundland or the modern Innu of Labrador, were very distant descendants of the modern human beings who left Africa around 100,000 years ago, turned right, crossed all of Asia, and finally arrived in North America when the glaciers receded about 14,000 years ago.
The Norse, on the other hand, were the distant descendants of those who turned left when they left Africa, settled Europe and eventually island-hopped across the Atlantic.
After all those millennia, the two streams of migration finally met up again in Newfoundland. So, I called the exhibition Full Circle and slid past the question of exactly when it happened.
But now we know. The ECHOES team (it stands for Exact Chronology of Early Societies) figured it out by examining bits of wood found on the L’Anse aux Meadows site that had clearly been cut with iron (European) axes. A huge solar flare in 993 AD left a spike in that year’s tree rings, so just count rings out from there to the bark. The trees died in 1021.
The specific date of L’Anse aux Meadows doesn’t really matter, of course, but the technique does. Cosmic ray-induced surges in atmospheric radiocarbon concentrations are another new tool for figuring out the past and that is now important work.
Two centuries ago, our knowledge of the past barely reached back past classical Greece and Rome: say, 3,000 years. Now, scientists are working hard to puzzle out past climate states ranging from hundreds to billions of years ago because understanding the patterns of the past may help us through whatever happens next. Every scrap of information may be valuable.
All very well, but why didn’t the Norse settlement last?
They abandoned their exploration of northeastern North America because the cash crop they were looking for in Vinland turned out to be much closer to home: ivory from the abundant walrus population that they could hunt in Disko Bay, only a thousand kilometres up Greenland’s west coast.
They could feed themselves by farming and fishing, but it was the ivory that paid for all the things they needed to import from Europe (timber, iron and bronze, stained glass, etc.). Up to 5,000 people lived in the Greenland settlements for more than four centuries, apparently quite happy to ignore Vinland — and then they disappeared.
Where they went or how they died has been promoted as a great mystery, but the real reason is probably that the bottom dropped out of the European market for ivory in the early 15th century as abundant new supplies became available from Africa and Russia’s new Arctic settlements.
The climate had also turned against the Greenland Norse (the Little Ice Age), so they most likely just upped stakes and moved back to Iceland, or even to Norway. No massacre, no famine, just a change in the trade routes.
It’s not always dramatic.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “The Shortest History of War
Look closely, though, and there’s one thing that’s strikingly different from how Thanksgiving worked in the long-lost world of November 2019 — and it’s something to be grateful for: A lot of stores will actually close.
Back in the before times, one of the long-festering trends of the fourth weekend of November was the steady encroachment of that bigger holiday scheduled for December. Not long ago, Black Friday didn’t even have a name; by 2019, the signature kickoff event of the Christmas shopping season had bled into Thanksgiving itself.
The National Catholic Reporter runs a cartoon strip about pope Francis. I hope the winsome character the strip portrays reflects the real character behind it. And here was their contribution for the holiday, which just popped up: