The decline of the textile industry

by Eric Ginsburg

With a double-digit unemployment rate in Guilford County, a grassroots movement about economic inequality called Occupy Wall Street growing around the country, a recent city council campaign and a presidential election approaching, everyone seems to be talking about jobs.

 On Oct. 18, President Obama spoke in Jamestown to promote his American Jobs Act.

A week before, Congress passed a free trade agreement with South Korea in a rare show of bipartisan unity, with supporters claiming the agreements would increase exports and jobs. Obama said the agreement, known as KORUS, would create 70,000 US jobs.

The department of commerce’s International Trade Administration stated that the decreased tariffs would boost North Carolina’s computers and electronic, manufacturing and agricultural industries.

But the textile industry doesn’t buy the hype, and many people connected to textiles are saying the free trade agreement will deal a heavy blow to the industry and could cause massive job losses.

“The administration and congress are saying job creation is the No. 1 agenda item, and then they turn around and pass this jobs-killing act,” said Auggie Tantillo, director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition. “There’s a massive disconnect, in our opinion.”

Tantillo and other textile representatives aren’t the only ones who think the industry will take a hit. Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, says nearly 58,500 North Carolina textile jobs will be threatened by KORUS — far more than any other industry in the state — and that the biggest losses would be in reps. Howard Coble and Brad Miller’s congressional districts in and around Greensboro.

The evidence of the textile industry’s long arc of decline can be found throughout North Carolina, especially in Greensboro, which was once considered the nation’s textile capital. Smokestacks still loom against the skyline, though many mills have been reduced to rubble. What happened to this industry, the lifeblood of so many communities throughout the region, the people and equipment that used to grow old in the mills together?

The early history

The textile industry dates back to the Industrial Revolution in England, with jobs eventually being relocated to the colonies in pursuit of lower labor costs, initially settling in the Northeast. When workers began to unionize and fight for better conditions, the industry was lured to the “new South” after the Civil War by a low cost of living, unorganized workers, a plentiful source of cotton and a network of streams and rivers in North Carolina’s piedmont that could power the mills.

Though they weren’t the first to build textile mills in Greensboro, the Cone family created a textile empire in the city beginning with the Proximity plant in 1896 and Revolution Mill three years later. In 1912 the company opened its fourth mill, and by 1920 it was the city’s largest employer: One out of every seven residents worked in Cone Mills.

The industry continued to grow. Burlington Mills moved their headquarters to town in 1935 and Guilford Mills, founded in 1946, opened a plant in 1950. The massive growth came at a price for North Carolinians, especially those working in the mills.

“We’ve used a history of coerced or poorly compensated labor as a drawing card for industry [in North Carolina] forever,” said Guilford College history chair Alvis Dunn.

The industry followed a pattern of what many critics call a “race to the bottom” for wages and standards, helps explains why many manufacturing jobs later moved overseas.

Mill owner Ceasar Cone would have strongly disagreed, as he did to the state’s labor commissioner in 1898.

“We believe the cotton factory employees are all well satisfied and about the best paid people in the state,” Cone said. “Just let the mills and their employees work together as harmonious as in the past and present.”

The relationship between plant owners and workers was anything but friendly, though many of the conflicts came later. Six mill workers were killed during a violent strike in Marion and others in Gastonia in 1929. In 1934, 400,000 workers heeded a nationwide textile strike called for Labor Day, but with many across the state living in company housing like at Cone Mills, workers were evicted en masse and the strike went down as a failure.

Decades later, a 1958 strike in Henderson was marked by bombings on both sides of the conflict.

The conflict was in Greensboro, too. Klansmen and neo-Nazis killed five organizers connected to a textile organizing push in 1979, but struggle between labor and Cone Mills long predated the massacre. Many employees believed that Ceasar Cone would close any unionized plant and evict and blacklist anyone involved. In 1925, James Evans led a successful walk- out at the White Oak plant after their workload was doubled and pay remained unchanged. Five years later he was one of hundreds of workers who created a chapter of the United Textile Workers of America, and he was amongst 40 who were fired immediately.

Industry in decline

While workers like Evans lost their jobs for organizing, many others have seen their jobs disappear over the years for less straightfor- ward reasons. “When companies become publicly traded they become profit driven, and they’re not above shedding workers to protect the bottom line,” said Roxanne Newton, author of Women Workers on Strike: Narratives of Southern Women Unionists. “Unchecked capitalism and unregulated industry is causing all of this.” Newton, the dean of humanities and fine arts at Mitchell Community College, noted that other factors contributed to job loss in a num- ber of industries, such as mechanization and computerization. In the late 1970s, Cone Mills closed the Proximity and Print Works plants, followed by Revolution Mill in 1982. The closures were part of a national trend and came just a few years after the mills underwent modernization, efforts to compete with cheap imports.

“Those decreases that took place in the ‘70s are more tied to the emergence of several Asian suppliers that became major players in the US market,” Tantillo said. South Korea was one of the four primary countries import- ing the competition.

The textile industry continued to decline, with a significant drop after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, particularly over the last 10 years. Burlington Industries, for example, employed 43,000 people in 1987. By 2002, the number was down to 11,000. “[NAFTA’s passage] does quite neatly cor- respond with the exodus of the industry,” Dunn said.

Much of the state’s textile businesses haven’t closed altogether, but rather moved abroad. When Dunn was touring an artisan textile mill in Guatemala 10 years ago, he was told their equipment had come from North Carolina. Guilford Mills picked up its headquarters in 2005, but moved east to Wilmington. Cone Mills kept the White Oak mill operating in Greensboro, while it moved its other oper- ations to Mexico, Nicaragua and China over the years. After NAFTA passed, Newton said some own- ers used the threat of moving to Mexico as a way to keep workers in line. Tantillo said the nation’s textile workforce has been cut in half over the last decade, costing half a million US jobs. “Look at the number of jobs NAFTA cost us,” said Bret Kelley of the US Industrial

Fabrics Institute. “Look at the number of jobs China cost us since it became a [World Trade Organization] member in 2001. We haven’t created a single trade agreement that has net job creation for the United States.”

Greensboro resident Marcelle Campbell worked in a textile mill in Wagram for more that 30 years until it closed in 2007. The company changed hands a number of times during its final six years and workers started being laid off and repeatedly sent home early.

“As we would see other plants closing, you’d kinda have a feeling,” Campbell said. “Part of you had the feeling that a company this big can’t close. Part of it is denial.”

Campbell never intended to work in the mills for so long, but the years slipped by and with a family to support, she wasn’t sure what else to do. In a way, she said, the closing was a blessing because it presented an opportunity, and she went back to school.

“The company actually didn’t go out of business, it just moved overseas,” she said, remembering that employees were told people abroad — she thinks it was China — would do the same work for a fraction of the pay. “The actual day that they tell you that you’re closing, you just feel devastated. It’s like being hit.”

The hardest part for Campbell, and likely many other longtime textile workers who were laid off en masse, is handling the unexpected economic fallout.

“You’re an adult, you’ve worked your whole life and you’ve taken care of other people and now you’re not independent,” she said. “I’ve tried to look at this as temporary. I am very fortunate because I have family support.”

Campbell is far from alone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people employed in the textile industry in Greensboro and High Point fell by nearly 6,000 from 2004 to 2011.

At the same time, over half of the statewide jobs in the industry were cut, and the number of textile jobs in North Carolina today is less than a third of the number 10 years ago. By 2009, Cone Mills Corporation, the primary employer in 1920, was the 14th largest employer, and Guilford Mills Inc. wasn’t far behind.

As far as some are concerned, the free trade agreement with South Korea couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The KORUS trade agreement

Opponents of the agreement with South Korea say that the removal of tariffs on Korean goods would allow Korean companies to flood the US market with goods, but because of the size of South Korea, few new markets would be opened to US-based businesses. The textile industry is particularly concerned that the agreement lacks necessary enforcement mechanisms to ensure other countries, namely China or Vietnam, don’t take advantage of the agreement by sending their products to the US via Korea. The tactic, known as “transshipment,” could enable countries with significantly lower labor costs and environmental regulations to undercut US textile manufacturers, they said.

Proponents say the agreement will open new markets for US exports and create a net job gain, but nobody seems to argue that the agreement will create clear winners and losers based on industry.

The KORUS negotiations began under the Bush administration and have been held up over congressional debates about including more funding for a Trade Adjustment Assistance program aimed at helping those whose jobs are displaced by the agreement. Opponents point to the hold up saying it indicates that Congress acknowledges there will be job losses.

“There’s not enough money in TAA to fund the amount of people who are going to lose their jobs,” said Kelley, who is also the director of sales and marketing for Highland Industries in Greensboro. “It’s going to create a few services jobs and it’s going to suck out many good paying manufacturing jobs.”

If Congress really wanted to open up markets for the textile industry and others, Kelley said, why not sign free-trade agreements with European countries?

Highland Industries employs 700 people total at their three locations in Greensboro, Kernersville and Cheraw, SC.

“We compete with South Korea day in and day out; this agreement just gives us a disadvantage,” he said. “We are 100 percent in favor of fair and equitable trade, but this is not fair and balanced. If we want to create jobs, our trade policy needs to reflect that. It just makes it that much tougher to survive.”

“The idea that there would be any exporting of textiles to Korea is preposterous,” said Rep. Brad Miller, who represents part of Greensboro. “Liberalizing trade with less developed countries has only accelerated [inequality].”

Miller said the agreement was the most significant trade deal since NAFTA, and was a continuation of a foreign trade policy that has meant job loss and a “downward pressure on wages” for North Carolinians. He met with textile workers in his Greensboro office and other people in the industry before voting against it, but said there was strong lobbying support in favor of the deal from the pharmaceutical, agricultural and financial industries.

“They see the world filled with markets,” Miller said. “Most of manufacturing sees the world filled with competitors.”

Out of North Carolina’s 15 congressional representatives, only Rep. David Price (D) and Sen.

Richard Burr (R) voted in favor of the KORUS agreement. In a statement, Price said the TAA was a precondition of his support and that he has opposed unfair trade agreements in the past.

“Our manufacturing and textile industries have been hammered by China’s unfair trade practices and the sweatshops of Southeast Asia,” Price said, pointing out that the US doesn’t have free-trade agreements with those countries. “I will stand with President Obama and support his efforts to expand fair trade because they will make our economy stronger, create jobs… and protect our workers from unfair trade practices.”

The agreement passed with overwhelming Republican support, yet all six Republican representatives from North Carolina voted against it, out of only 21 who did so nationwide.

“I cannot support KORUS because it will do real harm to the North Carolina textile industry,” Rep. Howard Coble (R) said in a statement. “It provides Korean textile exporters with instant, duty-free access for virtually all textile and apparel products, while giving US producers no time to adjust.”

American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition Director Tantillo spent the last few years meeting with representatives about the agreement.

“[Coble’s] been just a tremendous leader on this,” he said.

Like other industry representatives, Tantillo predicted the agreement would displace textile workers.

“Job losses are a very distinct possibility, unfortunately,” said Mike Hubbard, vice president of National Council of Textile Organizations. “Our export opportunities are far more limited because it’s a smaller country whereas their export opportunities are huge.”

Hubbard, who works in Gastonia, said his organization collected over 26,000 signed letters in the Southeast petitioning against the free trade agreement, with the most coming from North Carolina. A spokesperson for Rep. Virginia Foxx (R) said they received hundreds of letters against the agreement.

The mills today

A plaque near the corner of Green Street and West Friendly Avenue downtown commemorates Mt. Hecla, the first textile mill located inside city limits. Some of the factories have moved, and a number of the companies have been bought out — in 2004, the International Textile Group bought Burlington Industries and Cone Mills Corporation. Six years earlier, VF Corporation moved its headquarters to town after acquiring Blue Bell in 1986.

Like a few mills in the state, Revolution has been turned into studio apartments and office space. The namesakes of the two other Cone Mills plants, Proximity and Print Works, live on in a local luxury hotel and its bistro — there’s even a Bluebell garden between them.

Some former employees like Campbell, who thought they’d never leave the mills, are now turning to higher education and other career paths. She’s unsure of the future, but so are Kelley and many others who still make a living in the industry and preparing for the possible negative impact of KORUS.

“The industry’s not going away quietly,” Tantillo said. “What you have left are some of the best competitors and efficient companies you will ever find.”

Those companies don’t plan to go down easily, but some said significant changes in trade policy were necessary to ensure the continuance of the industry nationwide.

“We welcome competition on a level playing field,” Kelley said. “Just give us a fighting chance.”