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  Monday  December 2  2002    10: 39 AM


Levi Strauss and the Price We Pay
The cost of apparel has declined for a quarter century, helping make Americans the best-clothed people in history. Just don't ask how it happened.

Brenda Pope sits at the kitchen table and stares sadly at her work-hardened hands. Inside one wrist is the purple welt of a surgical scar that runs halfway to her elbow. Twenty years at a sewing machine gave her the carpal tunnel injury. That scar and $15,000 in severance is what she has to show for those years. Near the edge of Blue Ridge, Ga., the Levi Strauss plant where she once worked now sits empty, a glass- and-brick shell overlooking acres of empty parking lot. Bored security guards stroll the grounds to protect what no one any longer values. A factory dies an honorable death when it falls apart from hard work and time. This one was cut down in full productivity.