COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina textile mills lost 4,000 jobs last year as a decade-long trend appeared to pick up steam.
Thousands of mill workers in the state and region continue to worry about their job security, and observers continue to worry about when the decline will taper off.
"I'm very concerned about what the bottom is," said Harris Raynor, assistant Southern regional director of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.
Textile companies have modernized and done everything possible to cut costs and remain competitive. "There is not a lot of room for much more improvement," said Jim Morris, executive vice president of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, a trade group.
"I'm surprised the number is that high," he said, referring to 1997's job losses. "I keep thinking we are at or near the bottom."
But already this year, mass layoffs are surging in the textile and apparel industries.
Springs Industries Inc. plans to cut 480 jobs at a Rock Hill mill. Delta Woodside Industries Inc. will either sell or close plants employing 110 people in South Carolina and about 900 in North Carolina. Umbro International Inc. said this week that it would cut as many as 540 apparel and administrative jobs in Greenville.
In the last quarter of 1997, South Carolina's textile mills had 76,400 employees, down from 80,400 a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
South Carolina and North Carolina, which lost 6,400 jobs, accounted for more than half of the 17,500 Southeastern textile mill jobs lost last year. The eight-state region had an average of 431,700 people working in textile mills during the fourth quarter, down from 449,200 in the year-ago period.
The South Carolina job loss represented about a 5 percent cut in total textile mill employment from 1996 levels.
On a percentage basis, Kentucky fared the worst. Textile mill employment fell by 26 percent to an average of 6,300 during the quarter. Most of the losses can be traced to Fruit of the Loom, which cut 3,000 jobs between August and January.
The U.S. apparel industry is in a slump, meaning less demand for U.S. textile makers, Raynor said. But international monetary problems in Asia are making products made overseas cheaper.
"You're beginning to see the dumping of goods to get (U.S.) dollars," Raynor said.