Workers cool to trade pact
By JIM NESBITT, Staff Writer
HAMLET — For ex-mill workers retooling their skills at Richmond Community College, the latest free trade pact up for congressional approval boils down to one thing:
More lost jobs of the very kind they used to have.
"That’s right — more plants will be closing," said Beverly Chenoweth, 49, who lives in nearby Rockingham. She spent most of her working life in textile mills and just lost her last stopgap job when the local Winn-Dixie grocery closed.
Mention the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which President Bush will pitch during a speech today at Gaston College near Charlotte, and Kathy Keys thinks of the promises of an earlier free trade deal, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"You get tired of getting lied to," said Keys, 38, who lost her mill job when a Rockingham hosiery factory shut down in 1993, the same year NAFTA was signed into law. "It was supposed to help us, then they shut us down."
When it comes to CAFTA, that same pessimism can be found across the economic spectrum of Richmond County, which centers on Rockingham, about 98 miles southwest of Raleigh.
The proposed trade pact has deeply divided North Carolina’s textile industry. Larger operators say they need CAFTA to help create a free-trade compact in this hemisphere to stave off competition from the Chinese, whose cheaper apparel products and predatory trade practices are blamed for more than 65,000 North Carolina textile jobs lost since January 2001.
Such sentiment is hard to find in Richmond County, with a May unemployment rate of 7.5 percent, higher than the statewide average of 5 percent. From textile mill owners and chamber of commerce officials to county commissioners and college administrators, they have firsthand experience with the economic impact of free trade deals — little of it good, they say.
They point to the loss of an estimated 4,000 jobs in the county since NAFTA eliminated or lowered tariffs on a broad range of goods traded among Mexico, Canada and the United States. That estimate includes 1,730 jobs lost in layoffs and closures at nine textile plants and apparel factories from 1993 until now, according to state employment figures.
They fear that CAFTA — which would create another duty-free zone that covers the United States, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica — would cost the remaining 1,500 jobs in the four textile mills the county still has.
"If CAFTA passes, it’s going to strike the final blow to these surviving textile and manufacturing jobs," said state Rep. Melanie Wade Goodwin, a Democrat who represents all of Richmond County and part of Montgomery.
Richmond County Commissioner Jimmy Maske said, "We’re still heavily dependent on textiles, and the thought of losing another 1,500 jobs scares everybody to death."
The CAFTA deal, which narrowly passed the Senate with the support of both of North Carolina’s senators, Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, faces a stiffer challenge in a House vote expected in the next few weeks.
Supporters point to the $1.4 billion in exports North Carolina shipped to Central America last year, a figure that has nearly tripled since 1999 and is second only to Florida and Texas.
"It’s the right thing to do to preserve what’s left of the textile industry," said Allen Gant, president and chief executive officer of Glen Raven Inc., a Burlington textile company.
Smaller operators say the big outfits just want to tap a far cheaper labor market.
"They want to ship jobs to one of these Central American countries," said Bart Van de Woestyne, president and chief executive officer of UCO Fabrics Inc., a 300-employee Rockingham plant that makes high-end denim fabrics.
Worried by loopholes
Van de Woestyne also worries loopholes in the CAFTA deal will allow apparel makers in Central America to buy fabric and yarn from somewhere other than American mills, as mandated by the current trade deal with Central America, which expires in 2008.
"It will just shut us out," he said.
Mike Freeman, UCO Fabric’s manufacturing manager, is a textile gypsy — he’s worked for four companies in 18 years; three are closed. He sees CAFTA as another knife blade pointed at manufacturers.
"We all can’t be Wal-Mart greeters," he said. "We all can’t be Web designers. We all can’t be doctors and lawyers."
Although free trade deals have devastated North Carolina’s textile and furniture industry, other manufacturers are also feeling the pinch.
In February, officials at Rockingham’s Trane Industrial Sheet Metal plant said they’d close in September because of competition from Mexico and Canada. About 126 employees work at the plant, which custom-builds air conditioning and filtration systems.
Richmond adds jobs
Richmond County has tried to stem the tide of job losses with an aggressive economic development program. In 1996, voters approved a $3 million revenue bond for an industrial park that has four tenants. Between those companies and the construction of a Progress Energy gas-fired power plant, the county has added 884 jobs since 2003, said Maske, the county commissioner.
"Every rural county in the country is going through the same thing," he said. "We’re all fighting for a piece of a smaller pie — there’s just not as many of these manufacturing jobs left."
The broken legacy of Richmond County’s textile heritage can be seen in a drive through Rockingham’s Mill Village community, where the brick towers of the long-shuttered Safie mill stand guard over the rubble.
On the eastern edge of the village, Clyde Williams, 53, acts as a caretaker of the TNS Mills Inc. plant, where he once worked as a mechanic. He works for the company that bought the plant’s machinery and escorts prospective overseas buyers from Indonesia and other countries.
"I walk into a ghost town when I walk in there," said Williams, who spent more than 30 years in the mills working for four different companies.
He doesn’t like CAFTA.
"That’s just more plants closing down and more people out of work," he said.
(News researcher Denise Jones contributed to this report.)
Staff writer Jim Nesbitt can be reached at 829-8955 or [email protected].
News researcher Denise Jones contributed to this report.
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