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As China sews, few US mills left

With a bedrock US industry on the ropes, quotas on imports could follow.

(Page 2 of 2)

But as telecommunications and tech jobs collapsed in 2001, the promise of the new jobs faded, economists say.

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"Wherever you have a mill community relatively intact, the promise is there of reknitting it back together," says Lynn Rumley, the director of Textile Heritage Center in Cooloomee, N.C. "But the question is what's going to be the anchor - or will there even be an anchor?"

In embattled North Carolina towns like Kannapolis, Cliffside, and Erwin, the only thing growing in the textile business appears to be historical reckoning of a trade that defined the rural South for nearly a century. The daily rites of mills were defined both by the crows of roosters and dependable bursts of factory whistles.

"There are misconceptions in Washington and nationally that these are yesterday's jobs, that better jobs are on the way," says Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations in Washington. "But there's been a realization in the last five years that if someone loses one of these jobs, they get a worse job, lower wages, and less-satisfying work. It's no longer a good bargain."

Yet the larger picture is not so simple, say economists pushing free trade. Unlike Japan in the 1980s, China is importing nearly as much as it's exporting today - which means many American textile firms have been able to flourish as middle men even as they close mills. And lower prices on imported goods are helping millions of American consumers.

What's more, the seeping of mill jobs is part of a global commoditization of labor that began in the mid-1800s when New England began undercutting European mills, and turning tissue de Nimes - fabric from Nimes - into American "denim."

China's rising role as a clothier is disrupting jobs in many developing nations, not just the US. "These industries are inherently mobile over a long period of time," says Will Martin, lead economist at the World Bank. "China's done wonderfully as it's moved to a market economy and has managed to lift 400 million people out of poverty."

A US interagency panel on textile trade voted Monday to launch investigations regarding China in three clothing categories: cotton knit shirts and blouses; cotton trousers; and underwear made of cotton and man-made fibers. At the same time, Congress will soon start debating a new Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA. While some say this deal will help American firms compete with the Chinese, critics say it won't level a playing field tilted steeply against American workers, both internationally and the homefront.

In the US, despite state offers to retrain laid-off "lintheads" for new jobs - finding good matches isn't easy, especially for older workers. One of Mr. Barefoot's colleagues from the mill went back to school to become a machinist but never found work. Barefoot hired him last month to work in the trucking department he now manages. "He hadn't had a job since the mill closed."

Some mill towns have been bulldozed, others are slums. But in Cooleemee, drug stores still "carry" customers who are short on cash.

Some who left for other jobs when mills closed are starting to return home. Many older residents never left, even though they lack jobs. "The last thing you could persuade them to do is to move," says Reno Bailey, a former millworker in Cliffside, N.C. "It's a dilemma."