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N. Carolina torn over CAFTA on eve of Bush visit
Associated Press
Posted Friday, July 15, 2005

BELMONT, N.C. - After suffering through thousands of job losses when textile plants closed after the North American Free Trade Agreement, the people of North Carolina's mill towns can't be expected to rally behind another free-trade deal.

But President Bush is coming today to ask for their support anyway. Faced with a threat from Chinese manufacturers and grasping for anything that might turn around the struggling textile industry, some members of his audience may be willing to take a chance.

"There's no doubt textiles came out on the short end of trade deals that have gone before this," said Harding Stowe, president of R.L. Stowe Mills Inc. "We can't undo any of that. We need to live in the present and look to the future and that means competing against China. And CAFTA will help us do that."

That's the Central American Free Trade Agreement, passed last month by the Senate and facing a close upcoming vote in the House. While both of the state's senators voted in favor of the pact, House members from North Carolina are divided. So are leaders in the state's textile industry, some of whom invited Bush to Belmont.

"The industry overall is divided and he has work to do to get it through Congress," said Stowe. "I'm sure this is what this trip is all about."

Bush plans to tour Stowe's yarn mill, which ships about a third of its products to Central America.

U.S. officials signed the agreement a year ago with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua as well as the Caribbean nation of the Dominican Republic. But Congress must approve it before it can take effect.

Charles Saunders, president of Gastonia-based Saunders Thread Co., said CAFTA can only lead to the continued exporting of American jobs.

"Without NAFTA, we would not have had this mass exodus of companies to Mexico," he said. "Now those jobs are being shifted from Mexico to places like China and India. The whole thing is about chasing cheap labor."

Since NAFTA was adopted in 1994, North Carolina's textile and apparel industry has lost more than 160,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Earlier this year, Wachovia Corp. economist Mark Vitner estimated as many as 20,000 more textile workers could be laid off this year.

Since 1997, more than 140 textile plants closed in the state, according to the National Council of Textile Organizations.

Among them: the massive Pillowtex Plant No. 1 in the heart of downtown Kannapolis, a town of 37,000 about 35 miles east of the college where Bush plans to speak after touring the Stowe plant. When Pillowtex shut down in 2003, 4,800 workers were left without a job - the largest mass layoff in state history.

Republican Rep. Robin Hayes, heir to the family fortune earned by the company that became Pillowtex, is usually a reliable supporter of Bush. But, he said this week, there is no way he can continue to support free-trade agreements like CAFTA.

"Every time I drive through Kannapolis and I see those empty plants I know there is no way I could vote for CAFTA," Hayes said.

But GOP Rep. Sue Myrick, whose district includes Belmont, recently decided to endorse CAFTA.

"The majority of the textile people in my district are supporting CAFTA and so are most of the employers," she said.