SALISBURY — When Cone Mills closed its Salisbury plant in 1999, Debbie Long was one of the more than 600 jerked from the familiar routines of employment.
Long decided to make the best of it, she said, focusing instead on parenthood. She then searched for a half-decade before landing a full-time gig at Tuscarora Yarns in China Grove.
“When I went back into the workforce it took me about five years to land this job; something that was full time with benefits. It’s hard to find a decent-paying, full-time job with benefits,” Long said. “To be honest, my family has struggled financially because of my lack of full-time employment. This job is a godsend.”
But a proposed new trade pact — the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement — could halt that blessing.
Critics say provisions in the agreement could significantly damage a textile industry that has only recently began to show signs of recovery.
In a July 10 letter addressed to United States Trade Representative Michael Froman, 167 congressional members argued that the agreement — which would allow Vietnam to source textiles from China and export finished garments to the United States tax-free — could fold as many as 500,000 American textile jobs.
And hundreds of them could come from Rowan County.
As machines roared outside a break room in one of the Tuscarora Yarns mills recently, employees didn’t notice an empty petition lying on one of the lunch tables.
Many of them, including Long, had already signed it.
Tuscarora administrators are fostering employees’ efforts in the petition, which aims to convince lawmakers of the need for a “Yarn-Forward” protection for American textile companies.
At a National Council of Textile Organizations meeting this spring, Tuscarora Yarns President and CFO Ervin Johnson said, industry leaders were warned about the significance of the agreement.
“This would be the death knell of the industry if we don’t stand up and fight,” Ervin Johnson said. “Now the question becomes: How do we stand up and fight?”
The proposed agreement would create a free trade bloc among 12 countries in Southeast Asia and North and South America.
But critics say the agreement would remove all trade barriers, including the elimination of import tariffs.
With a yarn-forward requirement, key production steps like yarn spinning and fabric formation would actually take place in the affected region in order to get trade preferences.
Without the rule, countries outside the region, like China, could supply textile components to countries like Vietnam for simple assembly of products that are subsequently shipped tax-free to the U.S.
Vietnam is second only to China in terms of textile exports to the U.S., according to the most recent Major Shippers Report, released by the U.S. Department of Commerce on June 28.
Low wages and regulation, opponents say, make it impossible for U.S. manufacturers to compete with countries like Vietnam if the current agreement goes through.
Free Trade Agreements with North and Central American countries — known as NAFTA and CAFTA-DR — also could keep those international workforces from competing with duty-free exporters like Vietnam, opponents say, costing more than 1.4 million jobs.
Long has been working to educate her fellow workers and even took some petitions to local businesses in hopes of increasing the voice of American textile companies.
“I’ve already went through one plant closing because of NAFTA and CAFTA. I’d hate to see that here,” she said. “It’ll send a message to Congress that we want some protections in place.”
More than 1,200 workers scurried about the grounds of China Grove Textiles when David Shaver first came to the plant in the mid-1980s.
Shaver, now the plant’s manager, said the facility’s employment has held steady at about 180 since Tuscarora purchased the mill in 2011.
Part of that loss is credited to advanced machinery that needs little hands-on work and minimal supervision.
But the migration of textiles to Central America and Asia also hollowed out the demand for American-made garments.
Employees said they’re working to boost awareness through shared petitions and word of mouth.
“What we’ve done at the plant level is we’ve been taking the petitions — the employees are in charge of gathering names,” Shaver said. “We’ve got our whole workforce excited about trying to save jobs here.”
One of those employees is Johnsie Wilhoit, a 64-year-old spinner with more than 40 years at the plant.
Wilhoit joined China Grove Textiles in the booming mill days of the late ’60s.
She held onto her job when HanesBrands later bought the plant, but in 2008 Hanes dropped several branches, including the China Grove company, as North Carolina’s then-second-largest employer began moving manufacturing jobs to Asia.
“Whenever they shut down I stayed here ‘til they kicked me out,” Wilhoit said, wiping wisps of fiber from her face and worn, gray China Grove Textiles T-shirt.
“That was the first time I had ever been laid off or lost a job. It’s not fun.”
Wilhoit said she made ends meet after getting a job as a dietary aide at Big Elm Retirement on West A Street in Kannapolis.
A company called Sustainable Textiles bought the old mill shortly after HanesBrands left, but the operation was shortlived.
Once Tuscarora purchased the property in January 2011, Shaver called his longtime coworker with a job proposition.
She was the first person he re-hired for the plant.
“Let’s face it, there’s not too many industries that are willing to take a chance on a 62-year-old broad like me,” Wilhoit said.
But now she’s afraid the impending agreement could force her to walk away from the plant for a second time.
“I’m for anything that’s going to keep jobs here in this country. I also understand that, if I can be perfectly frank, that what the little man wants oftentimes doesn’t happen,” she said. “I hope our representatives both in this state and in the rest of the country realize that we need to keep as many jobs as we can in this country.”
Since 1899, Tuscarora Yarns has adapted to meet market demands, administrators said during an interview last week.
But the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, they indicated, is a different animal.
Johnson, the Tuscarora president and CFO, said because of the broad industry spectrum more jobs outside the textile industry would be affected than inside.
“It would be like a 10-year final death,” Johnson said. “It would change a lot of business models, no doubt.”
When asked about the impact on Tuscarora’s model, Johnson said the agreement could be “devastating.”
“If it does what this study says, certainly it would prohibit growth. Number one, we want to grow; that would be the first thing,” Johnson said.
“Secondly, it would probably test our business model here like we want it. We’re a 24/7 operation. If we’re not a 24/7 operation, I don’t know that it even makes sense to exist. I don’t know that we can exist on a constant five-day type business model. It can be definitely devastating to us.”
Tuscarora’s brass has been gleaning support from local boards since they launched an effort to petition Washington in mid-June.
China Grove Town Council, Salisbury City Council and the Rowan County Board of Commissioners have approved resolutions supporting “yarn-forward” protections in the agreement.
The resolutions and proposals are being forwarded to D.C. legislators, Johnson said.
Of the 167 House members who signed the letter opposing the agreement, several were local representatives.
U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson (R-08) told the Post in a phone interview Friday he would continue opposing the proposal as long as American jobs were at stake.
“Our part of North Carolina has lost more textile jobs than any other part of the country in the last 20 years. I’m deeply concerned about this,” Hudson said of the agreement.
The trade proposal, he said, will not lead to free trade if China and Vietnam can skirt the system.
But supporters of the agreement, he said, argue for the benefits that an accord with other regional countries, like Australia or Chile, could bring.
“These are all huge markets. We need to open up these markets to potential exporters,” Hudson said. “They make a compelling argument. But for me, if we’re going to let Vietnam insist on rule changes and take American jobs, then it’s not something I support.”
Rep. Mel Watt said the NAFTA and CAFTA agreements have had “devastating impacts” on the state’s textile industry and he also would not vote for the current agreement.
“When the agreement facilitates trans-shipment of goods to a third country through the country that you’re trying to help and in the process undercuts U.S. jobs — you at least understand that we’re trying to help Vietnam — we’re not trying to help China in the process,” Watt said. “That’s been our concern with a number of these agreements.”
Watt said he’s supportive of the global economy, but not at the expense of local jobs.
“It’s hard to be supportive of the economy of Vietnam at the expense of someone who lives down the block from you,” Watt said.
Still, local textile officials said the industry has plenty of fight left.
“There’s a demand for the goods that we make at this point in time,” Tuscarora Yarns Vice President of Manufacturing Doug Merritt said. “But if we continue down the road that some would like to see us go, the product demand is not going to be in this part of the world.
“We’ll be a service nation and not a manufacturing nation. We have a good story. We make a good product and we’d like to see … users demand our product. We’re fighting hard for it.”
Hudson said he doesn’t think Froman, the trade ambassador, will brush off last week’s letter.
“I think it’s pretty hard to ignore 170 members of Congress,” he said.
Johnson, Tuscarora’s president, said provisions to protect the American textile industry would allow companies like the China Grove plant to expand.
Shaver said his plant could expand another hundred workers if “yarn-forward” policies are enacted.
Moreover, workers like Long and Wilhoit said they believe local textile plants can continue their recovery with a hand from D.C.
“I believe it’s coming back in this industry. As long as we can get a fair shot, I think we can come back even stronger,” Long said. “We do need some help in Washington to give us a fighting chance to keep our jobs.”
For more information about the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, go the website of the United States Trade Representative at www.ustr.gov/tpp
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.