At a N.J. flag factory, job takes on new meaning

Production triples at nation's oldest and largest such plant

October 07, 2001|By Julian K. Barnes | Julian K. Barnes,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

VERONA, N.J. - In a corner of the Annin & Co. flag factory here, 19 miles from where the World Trade Center once stood, Kishawn Carter, 24, a New Jersey native, works beside Samy Yousef, 45, an immigrant from Egypt, talking about Osama bin Laden, the Middle East and war.

While they talk, they use wooden blocks to tap yellow plastic tips on the top of black 10-inch plastic poles, then drop the completed staffs into a box. At the pace of 200 an hour, Carter assembles one small part of one small flag. Carter once considered his job boring and monotonous. Now, snapping together two pieces of plastic feels like an act of patriotism.

"The country needs flags," he said. "The more I can put out, the better. It makes me feel good to be in a line of work where I can help out, at least in a small way."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the oldest flag factory owned by the oldest and largest flag company in the United States has tripled production. Managers have extended production by more than two hours a day and added a Saturday shift. All eight workers laid off in August have been called back, bringing the work force to 228. And many employees have gained a different perspective on their work.

Americans started buying flags hours after the attacks. Wal-Mart sold 116,000 flags on that Tuesday and 250,000 on Wednesday, compared with 6,400 and 10,000 on the same days a year earlier. By Friday, Sept. 14, Wal-Mart was running out, but still sold 135,000.

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, calls and orders to Annin, a 180-year-old company still owned by descendants of its founding family, began swamping the company's headquarters in Roseland, N.J., about six miles from the Verona factory. Retailers desperate to get through began calling Joseph Vallone, the manager of Annin's Verona plant, where by late Tuesday the number of calls had topped 70 an hour.

Vallone gathered his workers, and after a moment of silence, he told them he would be asking them to work different jobs, to be flexible and to put in overtime. "We are going to be asked to make a lot of flags," he said.

Vallone took workers from teams that make nautical flags, golf course pennants and made-to-order state and foreign flags and started them making tens of thousands of 4-inch-by-6-inch American flags. As he did so, he recalled his father's stories of working in a General Motors plant in Linden, N.J., immediately after Pearl HarBor was attacked in 1941.

Joseph Vallone Sr. was a tool-and-die maker. When war was declared, he put aside the metal stamps used to make Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs and began retooling to produce Grumman F-4F Wildcat fighter planes. Making the warplanes was one of his proudest accomplishments; he was buried with a model of the Wildcat.

Now, at the flag factory, the son feels some of the same energy his father talked about. "It's a wartime atmosphere," he said. "This is much bigger than the bicentennial or the Persian Gulf War. There is a different feeling; it's more intense."

Annin's plants in South Boston, Va., and Coshocton, Ohio, have switched to making only American flags. The factory in Oaks, Pa., which usually makes most of the American flags, has added shifts. Before the attack, the company made about 20,000 3-foot-by-5-foot flags a week; now it is turning out 100,000.

Annin's competitors are doing much the same. Valley Forge Flag in Womelsdorf, Pa., whose flags fly above the Capitol, is producing 40,000 3-foot-by-5-foot flags a week, up from 10,000. Production of 4-inch-by-6-inch flags has doubled to 200,000 a week. At Eder Flag Manufacturing in Oak Creek, Wis., the demand is 10 times what it was during the gulf war.

"The volume now is unprecedented," said Brad Evans, the operations manager. "I can't cover my orders. As soon as we make the stuff it is gone."

In the days after the attack, Eder's small retail shop was besieged. The police were called to control traffic and to stop people from parking on the lawn, and the wait for checkout stretched to two hours. In the five days after the attack, Eder Flag sold 3 million cloth flags and flag-shaped lapel pins to retailers and consumers.

About 2.3 million American flags were imported last year, almost all of them from China and Taiwan. But many retailers will sell only flags made in America, and many Americans will pay more for a flag with a "Made in the USA" label.

Some companies, like Emerson Flag in San Francisco, had largely abandoned the American flag business because of labor costs. But they are now converting their factories so they can make more.

Timothy O'Donnell, the managing director of Emerson, said demand for flags during the gulf war dropped as soon as that short conflict ended on Jan. 17, 1991. But he predicts that this time demand will continue for at least three months.

"I think everyone wants a flag," he said. "There are still a lot of homes that don't have flags."

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