Remember Paris

When Emerson pulls out of this small southern town, it'll leave bitterness and broken promises behind. That's what happens when a marriage ends badly.

Emerson vigorously denies Sears' allegations and has filed a counter-claim; spokespersons for Home Depot, which isn't named in the Sears lawsuit, did not return calls.

In Paris, however, the corporate mudslinging doesn't mean much. Emerson and Home Depot, which four years ago were praised for preserving American jobs, have decided to move production of Ridgid products out of the U.S. to where people are willing to work for less.

Operations at Emerson's plant in Paris are winding down.

The biggest deal in Paris, Tennessee, is the annual fish fry.
Paris Post-Intelligencer
The biggest deal in Paris, Tennessee, is the annual fish fry.
Paris Mayor Larry Crawford says the Sears-Emerson flap involves "a corporate divorce" -- not something that concerns him.
Jennifer Silverberg
Paris Mayor Larry Crawford says the Sears-Emerson flap involves "a corporate divorce" -- not something that concerns him.

Employees and residents of the small southern town, who four years ago bought into Knight's pep talk, say they feel betrayed.

"They got up there and told a bunch of lies," says Pearl Webb, a recent retiree.

Paris is situated in a sparsely populated corner of Tennessee, just west of Kentucky Lake, where land is cheap and Baptist churches plentiful. Giant white crosses dot the landscape, billboards proudly proclaim "Jesus Saves."

Smooth, freshly paved two-lane highways carry commuters and logging trucks through a rolling countryside. In the morning, before the heat sets in, a thick mist hangs just above the lush, green grass and brilliant fields of yellow goldenrod. Kudzu, a fast-growing vine that blankets the South, is pervasive in these parts; folks in Henry County are accustomed to the creeping killer and pay it no mind.

But Paris is also more than scenic roads and Sunday prayer services.

It has a Super Wal-Mart, Goodies and Peebles. It has a 60-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower. And each year it has a fish fry. It's a tradition that draws close to 100,000 people. They gather in makeshift dining halls and consume 13,000 pounds of fried catfish. There are games and a parade that snakes past the courthouse and the monument to the soldiers of the Confederacy. Businesses and schools shut down for a Friday in April.

The community has also historically been a haven for manufacturers. With no state income tax, lax pollution laws and enforcement, cheap land, weak unions and a low cost of living, Tennessee was a popular place to a move a factory up until the 1990s.

Emerson was no exception.

"They came here for cheaper labor," Chadwick says. "That's why they left St. Louis and came here, for cheaper labor."

Chadwick's husband was hired as a factory hand in 1964, shortly after the plant first opened.

Four years after opening, Emerson and Sears struck their deal.

Emerson supplied the motors and labor; Sears supplied design drawings, the dies and the tooling -- equipment used to stamp out parts -- for products such as hand drills and bench saws. Sears claims that it spent about $35 million during the 30-year period on the dies, tooling and special machinery. After the tools rolled off the line, they were sent to Sears stores.

In 1973, Janice Chadwick joined her husband at the plant. She had moved to the Volunteer State from Collinsville, Illinois, married and settled down into the Southern worker's way of life.

In the summer, the plant operated from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The couple would be in their car by 3:30 a.m., making the dark 45-minute drive. Before starting their shifts, they'd buy breakfast -- typically, a sausage biscuit -- in the company cafeteria.

It was a good job -- and that was especially important after her husband died of a heart attack in 1982, making her the sole bread-winner in her family.

"They had a reputation in this area, you could be proud," Chadwick says. "They were about the best-paying plant in Paris."

So in 1992, when Emerson announced it would combine production at its plants in Paris and Murphy, North Carolina, and close one of the factories, employees weren't the only ones who worried.

Paris and Henry County officials mobilized to save nearly 300 jobs at the plant and put together a $1.2 million package of incentives in the form of grants and tax breaks. Taxpayers paid for a wastewater pre-treatment plant for Emerson, installed ventilation and air pollution controls, and installed a water recycling system for the die-casting operation. During the next ten years, if Emerson employed the same number of workers, the city agreed to pay for security lighting. And as an extra bonus, the local industrial bond board, the entity that owned the plant property, agreed not to charge the annual $10,000 lease fee. At the end of ten years, Emerson was also given an option to purchase the proprety.

The Henry County Executive, Henry Jackson, told the local newspaper, the Paris Post-Intelligencer, "We have every reason to believe the company will view this as a tremendous indication of community support."

Emerson's threat to close the Paris plant not only allowed the company to get government subsidies, it also strengthened its bargaining position with the International Association of Machinists, whose contract was set to expire. The Machinists weren't exactly a strong factor at the plant -- only about 55 percent of the plant's workforce paid dues (Tennessee is a Right to Work state), and wages were in line with the region's non-union plants. But faced with a possible closing, the union squeaked instead of roared and in March 1992, agreed to a five-year extension of its contract.

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