Everett, others fight NAFTA

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 19, 1999

to preserve jobs here


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Published Sept. 19, 1999

Russell Athletic’s change in operations that will result in the loss of nearly 200 jobs is no accident, some officials believe.

The opening up of free trade in North America has made it less expensive for many manufacturers to move their operations outside the boundaries of the United States, thanks in large part to the North American Free Trade Agreement, says U.S. Rep. Terry Everett, R.-Enterprise.

Hardest hit in South Alabama have been textile and manufacturing jobs relating to the garment industry.

According to Everett, 28,000 Alabama manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1993.

Lining up with Russell Athletic in recent years have been Phillips Van Heusen, Vanity Fair, Champion, and Warner’s Inc.

Each of those companies has closed Alabama plants, resulting in the net loss of nearly 28,000 jobs.

"While NAFTA isn’t the only factor, it is a major factor," said Mike Lewis, press secretary for Everett. "We’re gradually seeing the effects of the agreement."

NAFTA makes it cheaper for North American countries to trade with one another, resulting in lower import tariffs. What that means for Americans, Lewis said, is that because plants in other countries don’t have to adhere to the same labor and health and safety laws that the U.S. plants do, it has become cheaper to produce goods outside the United States.

"In other countries, employees can work longer hours than they do here and they don’t have the same quality in their work conditions as we do here," Lewis said. "That makes it very expensive for some plants to compete with others when it comes to cost."

Cost factors are what drove the United States to approve the agreement in the first half of the 1990s. Proponents argued that the economy would improve due to a lower cost of goods and services. Opponents said what Everett says – that the opening of free lanes of shipping between countries will result in a net loss of jobs for some regions of the United States.

Now, Everett finds himself with odds again with the presidential administration and other groups and people who seek to expand the boundaries of free trade to Africa and other areas of the world.

This year, the House of Representatives passed the African Growth Opportunity Act, despite heave opposition from the Alabama members of the House.

"Under this legislation, third party countries with manufacturing plants in Africa only need to add 35 percent of the value of their textile exports to qualify for quota-free and duty-free access to the American market," Everett said. "It would be totally legal for the Chinese to use their own yarn, fabric and possibly even imported Chinese labor to add only 35 percent of the final value in Africa."

And Lewis said that is a real possibility.

Everett’s concerns center around the idea that Chinese labor and work conditions both come cheap.

"The United States cannot compete against the low-paid workers in Asia and Africa," Lewis said. "Those other countries don’t have OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), or the Environmental Protection Agency to adhere to. And these businesses must be competitive, so they go elsewhere for a labor force."

The departure of jobs has hit Alabama hard. In 1994, Champion closed its Slocomb plant. In 1995, 1,050 jobs were lost when Van Heusen announced layoffs in Opp, Clayton, Hartford and Geneva.

Vanity Fair closed a plant in Monroeville that same year, bringing the loss of additional employees. And in 1996, Warner’s, Inc. in Dothan saw a workforce of 300 lose their jobs.

Now Russell has announced the downsizing of the Brundidge operation along with closures in Wetumpka, Slocomb and Greenville for a net loss of 4,000 workers distributed through Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

With the African Growth and Opportunity Act before the Senate, Everett is hopeful that it will be shot down. In the meantime, he and his staff are conducting an education campaign to help curb the loss of jobs in Alabama and other states due to free trade agreements.

Lewis also said there is some hope that Alabama can replace jobs in the future through the aviation industry that has been favorable in the past toward southeast Alabama.