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Holding the Line
After Fire Wrecked His Mill, Aaron Feuerstein Didn’t Let His Workers Down
Known for producing Polartec, an insulating fabric used in everything from underwear to jackets, Maiden Mills had long been a regional bulwark, thriving while other manufacturers in the Merrimack Valley declined. As textile mills go, Maiden offered a generous salary scale, beginning at $10 an hour—about $3 an hour more than at similar plants—with full benefits. Now 3,200 employees stood to lose their jobs
Three days after the fire, at a local high school gym, he made a stunning announcement to several hundred employees: Not only would he rebuild his factory, he would also continue paying their salaries and benefits for at least another month—at a cost of $1.5 million a week. (A month later, Feuerstein would extend the arrangement into late February.) The mill workers roared in appreciation, and many of them wept.
Feuerstein’s beau geste made him America’s newest overnight folk hero, captivating a country shadowed by corporate downsizing—witness the massive layoffs at AT&T. Thousands of letters have poured into Feuerstein’s firm, many bearing checks totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars for his idled employees. President Clinton phoned the mill owner, brimming with praise, and last week he invited Feuerstein to the State of the Union address as his guest.
Feuerstein, for his part, seemed genuinely nonplussed by the accolades. “What?” he said at one point. “For doing the decent thing?” An orthodox Jew who never works on the Sabbath, he is quick to paraphrase a 2,000-year-old aphorism of the Jewish sage Hillel: “In a place where there’s moral depravity and no feeling of moral responsibility,” Feuerstein says, “do your damnedest to be a man.”
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