EASLEY, S.C. — AS sewing machines whir and needles bob up and down along brightly colored floral cloth, Joanne Cater explains what she thinks of the new global trade pact approved by Congress.
``I'm scared of it,'' says the supervisor of Foothills Manufacturing Company, a small firm here that makes women's dresses. ``I'm afraid it will take our jobs - and I can't go to Mexico, Europe, or elsewhere to work.''
Ms. Cater's boss, however, is more optimistic. ``I feel in the long run that GATT [the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] will benefit this country'' because it will encourage competition and slash prices on goods, says Richard Blackwood, the firm's owner.
Such mixed reactions are common in Easley, S.C., a town of red-brick storefronts and gas lamps, where 35 percent of the 15,000 people work in the textile and apparel industries.
The needle trades are expected to be among the most heavily impacted by the sweeping new trade pact. Thus, it is not surprising to find strong views - even within the same company - over what it will mean to this town in the heart of the nation's textile belt.
There are, of course, plenty of people along Main Street who don't give a stitch about GATT. ``I haven't heard one comment about it,'' says a woman who only identifies herself as Mary, as she pauses in front of the Christmas lights at Bill's Taxidermy.
A few storefronts down, Alfred Robinson, owner of Robinson's Apparel, an upscale store for men and women, thinks GATT will be beneficial - as long as the negotiations were done in the best interests of American citizens, which he has his doubts about.
``We've always been suckers in dealing with other countries,'' Mr. Robinson says. ``I think people in America don't trust how the government negotiates.''
GATT slashes tariffs by an average of 38 percent on thousands of goods worldwide, though the reductions on textiles and apparel will be less dramatic. This is one reason some in the industry have supported the treaty. The pact also, however, phases out over a 10-year period the quotas erected by the US and other industrialized countries to limit imports from developing countries.
As quotas disappear, other countries will be able to flood the US market with textile and apparel goods. Some analysts say these sectors will be hit hard because they won't be able to compete with cheaper labor overseas.
Apparel workers in other countries, particularly Southeast Asia, ``work for 25 or 35 cents an hour as opposed to the US textile and apparel wages which range from $8 to $10 to $12 an hour,'' says Walter Montgomery Jr., president of Spartan Mills, a textile company in Spartanburg, S.C. ``There's just no way someone paying those kinds of lower wages cannot have a tremendous advantage over someone buying labor in this country. I'm concerned GATT will mean a continual exodus of jobs.''
The US textile industry employs some 670,000 in the US, and about 60 percent of the workers are concentrated in Georgia and North and South Carolina. South Carolina alone has 91,000 textile workers. The apparel industry has 1 million workers, with the highest numbers in California and New York. The Southeast also employs many apparel workers, with 37,000 in South Carolina.
The textile industry is expected to make out better than apparel under GATT because it is more capital-intensive: It uses machines and computers to produce the fiber that is made into clothes, home furnishings, and car upholstery. Although initially the increase of imports could cause job losses, some in the industry see a bright spot because other markets will now be opened.
``We have an advantage over a lot of competition because we are the most productive textile industry in the world,'' says Carlos Moore of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute.
``Textiles are very profitable, automated, and it's a world-class industry,'' says Laura Jones, executive director of the United States Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel. ``They should have no problem competing anywhere.''
The apparel industry is not expected to fare as well. Many more job losses are predicted because it is a low-wage, labor-intensive industry. Thousands of apparel jobs have already moved overseas during the past decade, and GATT will simply accelerate this trend, says Frank Hefner, an economist at the University of South Carolina. ``I don't think there's any way they can make it more mechanical,'' he says. ``They'll just keep losing jobs in this state'' and throughout the US.
But at Foothills Manufacturing, Mr. Blackwood doesn't see any job losses in his shop. He says they serve a specialized market. The 30 women he employs sew together ``style'' dresses - garments that customers have decided they want. That's different from ``standard'' clothes, such as jeans or shirts that the customer doesn't specifically ask for.
Joanne Cater, however, isn't convinced. ``All I know is what I see on TV, and they say there will be a lot of job losses,'' she says.