Politics & Government

Little-known bill heaven sent for laid-off textile workers

NORLINA, N.C. — A few blocks from the restored antebellum homes that draw tourists to rural Warren County, wooden shacks sink into the sandy soil, their tin roofs bowing low, walls askew. Clothes hang on lines outside, limp under a stifling, late-summer sun.

Young people and factories have long been known to leave Warren County. Not much new comes in. So when the last local textile plant announced last month that it would bring back its third shift, word spread quickly.

The textile mill had 38 jobs available, paying $8.50 an hour and up.

Fewer than 20,000 people live in Warren County. The unemployment rate hovers above 11 percent. Not everyone here has a high school education, or a car, or a telephone.

Company owners say complex forces converged to allow the Glen Raven textile firm to hire right now.

Glen Raven president and chief executive officer Allen Gant calls the new third shift in Norlina the result of a combination of small things, including good inventory decisions on the part of the company and a growing retail market in boat cushions, convertible car tops and upscale patio furniture.

Among the reasons, Gant acknowledges, is a little-known but massive piece of legislation that Congress passed in late July after more than three years of dickering.

The Miscellaneous Tariffs Bill, as it's known, contains hundreds of provisions to erase or reduce the tariffs that companies spend on raw materials imported from foreign countries.

Glen Raven's plant in Norlina spins bales of brightly colored, European-made, acrylic fluff into spools of yarn. The yarn is shipped to Anderson, S.C., where it's woven into fade-resistant outdoor fabric under the brand Sunbrella.

With the legislation passed this summer, Glen Raven alone could save several million dollars over three years in the cost of its specially dyed imported acrylic fiber. The legislation's provisions were written specifically for Glen Raven by Rep. Howard Coble and Sen. Richard Burr, both North Carolina Republicans.

One morning last week in Norlina, workers inside the Glen Raven plant moved among humming machinery, switching out spools of fiber with names such as Pacific blue, celadon and buttercup.

There are just about 100 working here now, after a layoff in March 2009 that wiped out a shift. Employees were called into the office, and those with more years had the opportunity — and the curse — to bump out less senior workers.

"Sometimes, someone would make the best decision for themselves, and their brother would lose their job," recalled Todd Wemyss, the plant manager.

It's the same story across the country. From 2005 to 2009, the U.S. textile industry lost 163,000 jobs, according to the National Council of Textile Organizations. About one in five came from North Carolina.

At the Warren County unemployment office last week, counselor Warren Bridges ticked through the factories that have shuttered in the past decade: three textile mills, a crate maker, a tobacco processor and an air filter company.

Week after week, the unemployed sit in the chair in his cubicle and tell their stories. Many quit school in the 1960s to work in the mills, where it seemed that work would always exist. Now, those same mill jobs require basic computer literacy.

He remembers how the county responded a few weeks ago to the Glen Raven hiring news.

"Oh Lord, it was — hooo!"

Busy, he said. Things got busy.

North Carolina isn't known for wielding congressional heft around Capitol Hill, but the state has found its niche in the Miscellaneous Tariffs Bill.

In a House Ways and Means Committee spreadsheet released in July, one of every seven tariff suspension requests comes from North Carolina — more than 120 in all.

The breaks come primarily on textile imports and chemicals — many of those on dyes that are used in the textile industry as well. Others benefit the state's pesticide and herbicide manufacturing sector, whose parent firms are largely foreign-based.

The undisputed king in the House of Representatives was Coble, submitting 49 bills — 43 of them successfully. His tariff suspensions benefitted a host of companies, along with the National Council of Textile Organizations. Most of the firms make textiles, and most are from North Carolina.

"I've been a lead dog on this," Coble said in an interview. "When you realize how many additional jobs are created, it does make sense. Anything you can do to create job capacity is a good thing."

The first day applications were accepted in Warren County in early August, job-seekers arrived at a staffing agency at 6 a.m. to be the first in line.

The queue snaked up a sidewalk and around the corner. People waited up to five hours for an interview. Someone fetched water so no one would faint in the heat.

Standing in line was Thelma Carter, 55, who was among those whom the plant laid off in 2009.

"It was so many people," Carter recalled last week, sitting in her living room. "Some people got tired of waiting. They left. I wasn't going nowhere."

Frances Sondgeroth, who runs the Industrial Staffing job agency, interviewed 345 people — 54 just on that first day — one after another, inside her tiny office, before the company stopped accepting applications.

Job-seekers, some in tears, told her about having their lights cut off, about trying to support their families.

Some thanked her for the chance just to interview, just to have a few moments of hope.

In total, 400 people put in for the 38 open positions.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the U.S. Treasury will lose about $300 million through 2015 because of the suspended duties.

Lawmakers and company leaders, however, say this is money the treasury shouldn't have had in the first place.

Tariffs exist to protect domestic suppliers from foreign imports. Before the International Trade Commission signs off on each request, it must certify that no American company makes the same product.

Wemyss, the Norlina plant manager, said the last American supplier for the fiber his plant needs closed years ago. Now, he said, Glen Raven is unfairly penalized for importing its raw material.

The National Association of Manufacturers said the costs add up. It told Congress in July that the Miscellaneous Tariffs Bill would increase U.S. production by $4.6 billion and support almost 90,000 jobs.

The bundle of tariff suspensions was renamed the Manufacturing Enhancement Act by Democratic leaders and passed the House in late July by 378-43.

Some Republicans opposed it after their leadership claimed the tariff suspensions amounted to earmarks, which the party had pledged not to support this year. In North Carolina, only GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx voted no.

"It was extremely painful," said Jim Chesnutt, president and chief executive officer of National Spinning Co. in Washington, N.C., which also benefitted from tariff suspensions. "We had to overcome the politics."

In Warren County, Thelma Carter's single-wide mobile home is just a seven-minute drive from Glen Raven.

Going back to Glen Raven would be so convenient, she said. And days after standing in that long, hot job line, the mill called.

She was given an apron, some earplugs and a seam ripper. She was told she'd return to her old task, on her old shift, working with a clutch of women she's known for years.

"Thank you, Jesus!" Carter laughed, clapping her hands in prayer. "I'm ready."

She starts work Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, at 8 a.m.


AFL-CIO president: We need a second stimulus program

Unemployment rate rises but private firms ratchet up hiring

Survey: Employers still shifting insurance costs to workers

Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington

Related stories from McClatchy DC