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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 67/No. 29August 25, 2003

lead article
North Carolina textile giant
closes, 7,500 out of a job
Textile workers who lost jobs because of Pillowtex shutdown line up outside Kimball Lutheran Church in Kannapolis, North Carolina, August 4. Many are trying to find answers about their future from their union, UNITE.

KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina—Pillowtex Corp., one of the largest U.S. textile manufacturers, announced July 30 that it was closing 16 plants in the United States and Canada. The closures will throw more than 7,500 workers onto the rolls of the unemployed. The textile giant filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and plans to liquidate all its assets.

Pillowtex, known for the brand names Fieldcrest Cannon and Royal Velvet, filed for bankruptcy in 2001. At that time, it closed several mills and laid off thousands of workers. Leading up to its emergence from bankruptcy protection in May 2002, the bosses carried out a reorganization that forced fewer workers to produce the same number of commodities and for lower wages. Company executives claim that from that time until its current liquidation Pillowtex lost $29 million.

For several months Pillowtex was actively seeking buyers and negotiated with several of them, including many rivals. During this period, workers suffered short weeks and multiple layoffs. Some employees had been laid off for two months before the shutdown.

The Pillowtex closings register the biggest layoff in North Carolina’s history and, according to the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, the largest ever in the U.S. textile industry. The company’s main production facilities were in the Kannapolis area. The mills in Rowan and Cabarrus Counties alone employed more than 4,300. Many of these workers are looking toward their union, UNITE, for information and guidance.

These workers scored a victory for all labor four years ago when they won representation by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (now UNITE). After waging a 25-year fight to get the union in, workers won their first contract in 2000.

After months of sporadic employment the workers now have no jobs to return to. The UNITE hall in Kannapolis has been flooded with workers calling and stopping in, first to receive information on whether the company had been sold and then questioning what steps they could take next.

Talking to the Salisbury Post, a local newspaper, 58-year-old Leonard Chapman, president of UNITE Local 1501, asked, “Should I go to school? Or should I file for unemployment or re-train? Re-train for what? I don’t know.” Another worker told the Post, “I hope that I can find a job and hope that I don’t lose my house.”

Cynthia Haynes, president of UNITE Local 1506, stated that the after the 25-year fight to bring in UNITE, “The union is still all that workers have.” She worked at Plant 6 for more than 20 years. A big problem workers face today is lack of health-care coverage, Haynes said. “Workers can’t get the medicine they need to live.” People are volunteering to buy necessary drugs for displaced workers, she said.

When Pillowtex announced the closing it immediately terminated the medical insurance of all laid-off workers.

A number of bourgeois politicians have used demagogy, taking advantage of the plight of these workers to bolster their electoral chances in 2004.

Democratic Party politician Jesse Jackson, for example, spoke to a crowd of about 100 workers in downtown Kannapolis August 6, at an event widely covered by the press. “Bush gives the top 1 percent a tax cut, and working people get a job cut,” he said. Jackson told the crowd that he would organize a march and rally to protest the plant shutdowns.

Other capitalist politicians have joined the fray, most blaming foreign competition, imports, and U.S. government trade policies, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for the Pillowtex downfall.

North Carolina state governor Michael Easley, for example, sent a representative to the UNITE office in Kannapolis to make a videotape to send to U.S. president George Bush to show how these trade policies have hurt the workers, he said. The governor’s emissary interviewed a dozen workers. “While he’s over there fighting to save other people, people in America are suffering and losing jobs because of unfair trade deals,” said Delores Gambrell, a longtime union activist who worked at Plant 16 in China Grove for over 30 years, referring to Bush and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. “I’m ashamed that I’m a Republican, and my party’s not helping. I think it’s time for him to bring his tail back over here and do his job, be a president in the U.S. and not overseas. And if he’s not he can take his butt back to Texas and keep it there.” Her remarks were typical of many whom the governor’s envoy interviewed.
Related article:
Fight for jobs for all!

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