A stunning day for N.C.
For Rowan and Cabarrus counties, the Great Recession started July 30, 2003, the day Pillowtex closed. The community’s reaction was reflected in the face of mill worker Donald Auten at the news conference where the closing was announced. Looking worried, Auten put his hand to his mouth.
Oh, no. What now?
Economists and labor experts can spout statistics about the 6,450 jobs Pillowtex shed that day and the impact on Rowan, Cabarrus and other communities where the company operated. The demise of Pillowtex was part of a massive shift in the state’s economy. Manufacturing jobs migrated to cheaper labor sources and the suddenly unemployed were just left to deal with it.
That was what hurt — the dealing with it.
Thousands of dependable, hard-working people like Donald Auten suddenly had no jobs. Layoffs and plant closings always hurt, but the magnitude of this one made it especially shocking. And the shock waves reached far — hurting local businesses and tearing up the plans of countless young people who thought they’d be able to get a job at the mill.
The response from local agencies was just as huge. Rowan-Cabarrus Community College geared up to train workers for new careers. Even before the announcement, Rowan County United Way had started holding meetings at the Civic Center for employees at local plants that had been idled.
Thanks to David Murdock’s vision and several universities’ research, Kannapolis is recreating itself and has a bright future. Education and technology are paving the way.
But give the former employees their due. They were part of the largest layoff in state history, hit by the demise of a company that was not too big to fail — so it failed in a very big way. To this day, many families have not recovered from the loss of pay, benefits and stability that textile jobs gave their lives. A generation was knocked off its feet.
But many pushed on, determined to survive and adapt. Their history should be recorded, too.
People joined hands and prayed in the park outside the mill after the closing was announced that day in 2003, and Donald Auten was among them. After the group broke up, a reporter interviewed him. Auten said he’d start looking for another job — and keep praying.
“The Lord’s looked after me this long,” he said, “and he’s gonna still look after me.”
Daughter Stephanie Thomas says Auten went back to college, but he didn’t finish. “In 2006 he went on to heaven,” she said in a Facebook message. “… He was a wonderful man.”
Auten was 55.