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Navasew – Navajo sewing cooperative

By Bob Mailander

An entire sewing facility, complete with sewing machines, and a highly skilled work force of Navajo women has been sitting idle in a small community on the Navajo Nation in Western Utah. Not any longer.

The community of Montezuma Creek has only 300 residents, and the sewing plant had been one of the major employers along with the public schools, oil companies, and government agencies. Beginning in 1993 until spring of 2000, Bula, Inc., a manufacturer of ski and active wear based in Durango, Colo., operated the sewing plant in Montezuma Creek.

The plant employed 60 to 70 Navajo women and produced a high quality line of fleece, cotton and canvas hats, caps, tops, shorts and vests. Bula moved its operations to Asia (boo) and the Montezuma Creek workers were laid off, delivering a severe economic blow to this small Navajo community. Unemployment on the Navajo Nation hovers near 50 percent and with few job opportunities within a reasonable commuting distance, many of the former Bula workers are still unemployed.

In 2001, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Co-op Development Center began working with the unemployed workers to help them explore what they could do to facilitate the reopening of the plant— including consideration of a worker-owned cooperative to operate the plant, or other forms of participation in the business.

The effort was awarded a USDA grant of $19,000 in October 2001 and the ICA Group of Brookline, Mass., was engaged to conduct a market study to assess the feasibility of developing a new apparel sewing operation. The study found that the U.S. apparel industry is in significant decline, with domestic producers struggling to cope with slowing growth, eroding profit margins and rising numbers of imports made with cheap foreign labor. Despite this difficult business environment, ICA identified three potential niche markets that favor domestic producers – government contracting, U.S. customers committed to domestic sourcing for ideological reasons, and smaller niche customers for whom a Native-owned entity might enhance the brand image.

The concept was to partner with an established prime contractor in order to gain experience and build a successful performance record that would open the door to direct government contracting in the future. At the same time, it was recognized that achieving sufficient sales volume would likely require some commercial business to supplement the military orders. During the feasibility study phase, three prime government contractors expressed interest in doing business with the proposed company, and discussions with them proceeded toward the goal of securing enough orders with one or more of them to justify the capital investment needed to launch operations. Ultimately, Omega Apparel in Smithville, Tenn., emerged as the lone contractor willing to share its contracts and mentor the group.

Omega Apparel is a privately-owned business that has supplied the military with pants and skirts for some ten years. The proposed subcontracting relationship will both build on the Navajo workers’ experience in producing quality apparel and benefit from Omega’s expertise in government contracting, bidding and marketing that Navasew lacks. The contracts available for subcontracting by Omega are multi-year, assuring a minimum level of sales while the new company learns how to sell to the government and pursues additional military and commercial business for the future.

A second USDA grant of $45,000 was secured to assist in the development of a business plan that would focus on one particular option. That plan has become the basis for the current initiative.

Navasew, organized as the legal entity, has a dual mission. First it must successfully compete as an ongoing supplier of quality apparel to the U.S. government and private sector manufacturers, and secondly to provide steady employment and greater economic security for many of the skilled Navajo workers. Structured as a cooperative, the company also aims to help workers increase control of their economic lives through ongoing skills development and worker participation in managing and building the business. The workers will have a say in making strategic decisions about the company’s future, and a direct stake in its long-term financial success.

As of December, the dream of opening the sewing plant in Montezuma Creek is reality.

The first six sewers have been hired by Omega and there are plans to hire additional sewers early in 2004.

There is a growing enthusiasm among the former sewers to participate, not just as workers, but as entrepreneurs in building a successful, local company.

During the first six months of operation, Navasew will focus on meeting its efficiency and quality goals for the government line of business. At the same time, it will signal its readiness to accept small orders from a few commercial customers and coordinate these to begin production in the near future. Navasew will pursue additional sales opportunities that are complementary in terms of skills, equipment and timing.

Pam and Jim Dyer are field coordinators for the Navajo Sewing Plant project. Cliff Tohsonni, the local economic development coordinator, is working with the Utah Navajo Trust Fund to provide economic development and business investment for this small business start-up.

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