By Gail Russell Chaddock writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Charles Hayes never changed his small office, even after he made it to the top of Guilford Mills Inc. He liked hearing the din of the big knitting looms on the other side of the wall as he worked. And he hated shutting them down.
"This is what Congress and the strength of the dollar has done to our industry," he said, shrugging off a tear as he walked through a nearly empty mill for the first time since closing it last March.
Now, as President Bush presses Congress for authority to negotiate new free-trade agreements, Mr. Hayes and the industry he represents are becoming an increasingly vocal force in opposition.
More than 74,000 US textile jobs have disappeared in the past 12 months alone - the biggest period of job loss in the industry since the demobilization after World War II. While the trend is a long- term one, the sped-up pace worries industry insiders, who say a lot more cuts are on the way.
Here in Greensboro, N.C., Guilford Mills now employs 600 workers, down from 1,600 in January 2000. By one local study, fewer than half the laid-off workers have found new jobs.
The silent looms signal the problem the White House is having convincing Congress and the public that more free trade will create more good jobs.
"This is a very tough time for the textile industry, and it's been tough for the last few years," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Lowering trade barriers is good for the economy overall, but some people suffer severely on account of it. And the textile industry is right there at the top."
The industry that virtually dictated US trade policy in the 19th century has lost most of its political clout in an economy increasingly dominated by services. Until recently, the Congressional Textile Caucus - down to a handful of representatives from a few Southern states - rarely met.
For one thing, even lawmakers with a big textile presence in their districts could point to jobs created by incoming foreign firms to offset the losses in textiles.
But with the US economy at a standstill, cries for protecting manufacturing jobs are making inroads in Congress.
When Republican leaders in the House tried to get a quick vote on President Bush's request for trade-promotion authority (TPA) last July, they found they did not have enough support.
By some estimates, the measure remains too close to call as a fall vote approaches.
One reason is people such as Hayes.
Currently president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, the industry's main lobby group, he has been a longtime supporter of free trade. He worked out details leading up to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with US trade officials over his dining room table in Greensboro, N. …