Textile industry continues to tumble

By Thomas Wilson

   With private companies sending thousands of manufacturing jobs out of the United State for cheaper labor, the U.S. textile industry continues to hang by a thread.
   The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor reported Friday that U.S. textile manufacturing employment experienced 39,000 job losses over the 2003 calendar year. Overall, 14 percent of textile manufacturing jobs were lost in the United States from December 2002 to December 2003.
   The Labor Department gauged textile employment in the states of Alabama, California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The seven states accounted for two-thirds of workers in the textile industry in December 2003.
   Five states had double-digit percentage declines in textile mill employment over the year. North Carolina recorded a 16.1-percent drop in its job count, followed by Alabama (-15.6 percent), Virginia (-14.9 percent), South Carolina (-10.4 percent), and Tennessee (-10 percent). Declines in the other two states were also substantial, as employment fell 8.7 percent in California and 7.6 percent in Massachusetts. Still, of the seven "textile" states, only three had losses exceeding the 14-percent drop in jobs set nationally.
   With more than 120,000 workers combined, North Carolina and South Carolina employ over 40 percent of U.S. workers in the textile industry. North Carolina's textile industry continued to lead the national decline with more than 12,500 job losses in 2003. South Carolina also experienced 4,500 job losses.
   The outlook remains bleak for textile wages and employment in the coming years. Wage and salary employment in the textile mills and products industry is expected to decline by about 31 percent through 2012, compared with an increase of 16 percent for all industries combined according to the BLS.
   While labor costs are frequently cited as catalysts to send jobs overseas, a study released by the National Association of Manufacturers in December contends that regulatory and legal costs place major competitive burdens to U.S. manufacturers competing globally.
   Economist Jeremy A. Leonard's study "How Structural Costs Imposed on U.S. Manufacturers Harm Workers and Threaten Competitiveness" contends that American trade is increasingly at a disadvantage with developing countries where production costs are considerably lower than in the United States. Leonard's study states, "Our corporate tax burden is heavier than in eight of our nine largest trading partners, and pollution-abatement costs are significantly higher than in most other developed countries, including the so-called 'green' economies of Western Europe."
   This report contends that costs including corporate tax rates, employee benefits, tort litigation, regulatory compliance and energy make up approximately 22 percent of the price of production for U.S. firms relative to our nine most important trade competitors. The study was funded by EMERSON, a major manufacturer of industrial equipment based in St. Louis, Mo.
   Textile and apparel manufacturing fueled the economy of the South throughout the 20th century. Thousands of Elizabethtonians and Carter County residents made their living manufacturing rayon material at North American Rayon Corporation and American Bemberg. The Levi Strauss & Company once employed hundreds of Johnson County workers who made blue jeans exported around the world. Those companies once so prominent in Southern Appalachia are long gone. The BLS' report released Friday found almost 50 percent of the industry's workforce -- over 237,000 jobs -- had been lost since December 1993.
   A report issued in 2001 by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development estimated employment at yarn and thread mills, narrow fabric mills and knitting mills would drop 10 percent between 2000 and 2010 based on a 1 percent job loss rate each year. Undergarment product employment is expected to drop 50 percent over the same period. The state Labor Department based their figures on a report called "Industry Employment & Projections" from 2000 to 2010.
   The BLS reported in a Nov. 2001 industry review that national textile-related employment fell from 642,000 jobs in 1996 to just over 475,000 jobs in 2002 -- an average annual decline of 3 percent each year. The construction and real estate industries also are important users of textile mill products.
   Textile production also ranks high under industries with the largest wage and salary employment growth and declines between 1996 and 2006. The BLS predicts the textile industry will lose another 103,000 jobs by 2010 -- the U.S. economy's third largest source of declining employment.