As China sews, few US mills left
With a bedrock US industry on the ropes, quotas on imports could follow.
The town of Erwin once proudly proclaimed itself the "Denim Capital of the World."Skip to next paragraph
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Workers stamped "Hong Kong" and "Tel Aviv" on bolts of high-grade denim as two mills supplied the world with overalls, bell-bottoms, and hip-huggers.
Times certainly change with the fashion.
Today, the looms have fallen silent. Textile jobs here have fallen from a peak of 2,500 to zero. And as this North Carolina town struggles to define its future, its plight suggests a harsh reality: One of America's bedrock industries appears increasingly near extinction, threatening a way of life that has allowed blue-collar communities to stitch together a patchwork of prosperity.
The decline of textile jobs, while familiar, is generating fresh concern this year thanks to a flood of newly legalized imports from China. The Bush administration, responding to industry complaints and a tripling in the rate of mill closures, said this week that it will investigate whether Chinese imports are disrupting the US market. The move could result in reimposed quotas.
But as that process moves forward, the case of Erwin is a reminder of the nearly inexorable nature of the challenge. The last mill here closed five years ago, long before China's competitive potential was unleashed on world apparel markets. The threat from Shanghai and Souzhou now adds to worries that many of America's remaining 677,000 textile and apparel jobs - down from 1.6 million in 1994 - could face a similar fate.
"Ten years ago when NAFTA and GATT [free-trade agreements] were implemented, there was a feeling of, 'We're going to fight it,' " says Mike Walden, an economist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "Now there's a changed view, a mixture of resignation and reality. Young people know they don't have a future going into the textile mills, and the big question is what will those towns morph into and what will those people be doing 10 years from now?"
Indeed, the end of global textile quotas in January has already prompted apparel imports from China to more than double - in both volume and value - from last year's pace. Americans bought some $1.4 billion in Chinese apparel in January and February. Cotton shirt imports alone are up more than 1,200 percent - a number that reflects China's small but fast-rising share of the market. The Asian nation accounts for 2 percent of cotton-shirt imports, versus 23 percent for Honduras and 13 percent Mexico.
With the US importing some 400 million garments in 60 days, which on average sell 78 percent cheaper than what a Piedmont loomshop can manage - Erwin's plight takes on a new resonance.
The orderly and tight-knit "mill hills" that defined the South's densely populated rural areas became some of America's first planned communities.
In essence, this is where the Southern middle class began, as modern towns with theaters, newspapers, and conveniences cropped up around the mills, and where residents mortgaged cows to buy sewing machines.
E.M. Barefoot, now a trucking supervisor, was the last employee to walk out of a 100-year-old mill when it closed.
As he brushes his dog, Dusty, the a third-generation mill worker explains that his paycheck has fallen by $20,000 a year at his new job. "Nine out of 10 people would go back to work at the mill in a heartbeat," he says.
To be sure, ever since manufacturing employment began waning after World War II, workers have been assured that new jobs and industries would replace the looms and dye rooms. Hiring by government, tourism, and biotech firms has picked up much of the slack of some 176,000 lost textile jobs in North Carolina.