TOPICS > Economy

Textile Jobs in Decline

September 23, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: At 8:00 in the morning, Janet Patterson would normally be heading out for work. But recently, she lost her job.

JANET PATTERSON: Okay, you all go where you’re all supposed to go.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So she now spends that time walking her grandchildren to school.


ADRIAN: I don’t know…

JANET PATTERSON: You don’t know where your class is?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Patterson had a good job at Pillowtex, a textile mill in Kannapolis, North Carolina, where she hemmed sheets for 38 years.

JANET PATTERSON: I started five days after I turned 18. I was the first black hemmer in the sheet department, and I made good money, even to the point I used to make enough money, they had to pay me in two checks.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Patterson was able to support herself and five of the grandchildren she’s raising. But in July, after several years of losing money, Pillowtex finally declared bankruptcy, putting Patterson and nearly 5,000 other textile employees in Kannapolis out of work.

That’s one-sixth of the entire population in this town of 30,000. Since 1994, 138,000 jobs have been lost in the textile industry in North Carolina alone. Recently, more than 18,000 textile jobs have been lost nationwide. Many of the people who have lost their jobs are older workers like Patterson, who didn’t finish high school.

JANET PATTERSON: It’s like they took everything from us. And going to try and fill out applications, the only thing you can put on there is “Pillowtex, 38 years.” And at my age, they aren’t hiring unless you are young or you got experience in some other trade. And I haven’t experienced any other job outside of, you know, Pillowtex. It hurts.


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Just days after the shutdown, workers lined up at this church, just blocks from where they used to make sheets and towels, to hear their options for the future.

EMPLOYMENT SERVICES WORKER: We’re setting up appointments right now that will start on Wednesday.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Thirteen different state and local agencies have laid out extensive programs to help the laid-off workers get health insurance, new job training, and, assistance with unemployment insurance. But many of the Pillowtex workers have more immediate problems.

VOLUNTEER: He’ll take them.

VOLUNTEER: Thank you.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So community organizations have come to their rescue.

WOMAN: Give me two more composition books.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Some didn’t have enough money to buy school supplies for their children.

VOLUNTEER: Just help yourself, and…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Others needed clothing or food.

DELORES GAMBRELL: That is the last one. $800-something dollars we got to pay in tax.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And some, like Delores and Robert Gambrell, couldn’t pay their bills, including their property taxes and the next month’s mortgage.

DELORES GAMBRELL: Don’t have the money for it. And even if I went back to work tomorrow, I’m so far behind now, till… I don’t see any way out but probably bankrupting and… and hopefully I can bankrupt and hold onto my house. I doubt it.

I probably don’t owe but five or six more years on my house. And now I can’t even get somebody to talk to me about refinancing it, because I don’t have a job.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Another big worry is health insurance.

BERNETHA BROWN, UNITE: Have you gone to your doctor?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bernetha Brown is head of the local Union of Need Trades , Industrial, and Textile Employees, also known as UNITE.

BERNETHA BROWN, UNITE: There are a lot of people that are going to have to reschedule their surgery. There were a lot of people on medication who actually cannot afford to buy the medication. There is just one story after the other.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What can you do for them?

BERNETHA BROWN: You know… you know, to actually be direct of what we can do, I… you know, I don’t know. We are actually just trying to find ways as we go along.

HELP CENTER WORKER: Go downstairs.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mainly, Brown is directing them to these help centers, where, to qualify for some programs, there are mountains of paperwork, and often confusion about where to get help, as Patterson found out when they informed her that because she lives in a different county, she cannot get assistance at that crisis center.

JANET PATTERSON: So what does that mean, I call this number and they’ll set up an appointment.


JANET PATTERSON: That hurts my feelings. People ain’t got gas to way up there.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Pillowtex was once Cannon Mills, one of the country’s leading brands for sheets, towels, and pillowcases.

COMMERCIAL: Cannon touches your life.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It was founded in 1906 by James William Cannon, who not only built the mills, but a main street and a town. He even built houses for the workers to live in. In those days, when you were old enough, you went to work at the mills, just like your parents and grandparents did. As the company grew, so did Kannapolis, and over time the two became economically and culturally intertwined.

The interconnection is so strong that when word spread of the Pillowtex shutdown, the whole community came to help. Residents came together for a prayer service for the laid-off workers, and raised over $7,000 in just one night for their aid programs.

REP. ROBIN HAYES: Thank you very much.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Congressman Robin Hayes has strong family ties to the mills. He is the grandson of Charles Cannon, who ran the company for over 50 years. He says it’s been a painful experience to watch the demise of an industry that was so much a part of his family, and he says longstanding flawed federal government trade policy is at fault.

REP. ROBIN HAYES: Instead of increasing markets, they created massive incentives for American companies to cut costs by going overseas and using cheap labor. We have taken our white-collar jobs and we are in the process of destroying our middle class to create a middle class in other countries. It shouldn’t be done; doesn’t have to be done.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: This is what Congressman Hayes is talking about: American companies moving their operations to third world counties like Bangladesh, where they can pay workers 80 cents a day to do the same jobs they would have to pay an American worker $100 a day.

The trend started in the 1970s, when American companies, facing higher labor costs at home, were lured overseas. Textile companies claimed the cheaper labor would keep prices lower for consumers.

In the last ten years, global trade has increased significantly. Both the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and the formation of the World Trade Organization in 1995 have gradually removed trade- protectionist barriers and encouraged free trade. In fact, advocates of free trade say that these two events have dramatically increased the economic growth of both developing countries and industrialized nations.

SPOKESPERSON: Let’s welcome Mark Vitner. (Applause)

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But economist Mark Vitner says there has been a negative human effect to opening up these global markets.

MARK VITNER, Economist: We have 130,000 folks working in the textile industry today, down from 350,000 in 1972. We figure that we’re going to lose 100,000 of those jobs by the end of the decade. So we’re going to… we’re going to be going through this on a continual basis over the next ten years.

And it’s hard enough to make this adjustment for the 5,000 workers that just lost their job. We’ve got 100,000 more that are going to follow them in the next ten years.

GOV. MIKE EASLEY: How long have you been here?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: North Carolina Governor Mike Easley says his state is taking the biggest hit, as textile workers are losing their jobs faster than he is able to bring in new employers. He says the administration’s trade policy is moving too fast.

GOV. MIKE EASLEY: We’ve been very specific in what we’ve asked the administration to do. First, slow down; don’t give away so many jobs so rapidly. Take for instance the Vietnam agreement. I wish we would rescind that. That allows the equivalent of 164 million shirts, 84 million pairs of pants into the country immediately. It increases by 7 percent every year. We’re having to find 7 percent more jobs every year in order just to keep up with that one.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The United States Trade Representative’s Office declined our request for an on-camera interview for this story, but insisted that the recent trade agreement with Vietnam protects the textile industry from foreign competition by imposing strict quotas on textiles from that country.

A senior trade official also said that textiles and apparel are the most protected industries in the United States, with the highest tariffs and quotas in place. While thousands of laid-off workers line up out side the old plant for meetings with the state about unemployment and medical benefits, the governor and the union leaders say they are still hoping someone will come in and buy the mills. But so far, none have come forward.