MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Mary Lou Ramey began working the sewing rooms 28 years ago in the heart of textile country, certain she would always be able to find work.
When she was laid off two years ago from Tultex Corp., she quickly landed a similar job with a knitting company an hour south in North Carolina. A year later, she was laid off again and was still able to find a job at another mill.
Now, VF Imagewear, her current employer, is closing its local plant, laying off 2,300 people as part of wave closures that have crippled what was once one of the pillars of the South's economy. This time, Ramey knows there's no going back to a job in textiles.
At 46, Ramey is starting over. And, like her hometown, she is facing a future that does not include the hum of the loom.
"It's like all we've ever known is textiles; it's all we've ever done," Ramey says, the pain evident in her huge brown eyes.
"It scares me to know that I've got this facing me, and I don't have a clue. I do not have a clue as to where I'm gonna go and what I'm gonna do."
The story of Martinsville, which once billed itself as the Sweatshirt Capital of the World, is in many ways the story of an industry gone bad.
After years of steady decline, the U.S. textile and apparel industries are in their worst crisis since the Great Depression.
Textiles - three-quarters of which are produced in the South - have lost 220,000 jobs in the last decade, a third of the work force. In apparels, the toll has been more than 400,000 jobs, a 40 percent reduction. The last year alone has seen employment free fall, with a combined 148,000 jobs lost, more than 100 mills closed and some once-mighty companies forced to seek bankruptcy protection.
Modernization accounts for some of the cuts, but most put the blame on a devaluation of Asian currencies that led to a flood of cheap imports and the shift to lower-wage production to Latin America and the Caribbean following adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The next big challenge is coming in a few years, when tariff and quota restrictions are lifted on China, and that country begins flooding the American market with textiles stitched by workers making about 69 cents an hour.
In Martinsville, where the newly unemployed had been making around $14 an hour, officials put the direct blame on NAFTA for the loss of 9,500 local manufacturing jobs since 1994. Unemployment in the city of 15,000 currently stands at 11.2 percent, more than triple the state average.
"You have found the poster child for NAFTA," says Tom Harned, Martinsville's economic development director. "We're losing jobs by the thousands and replacing them by the hundreds."
Without the tax revenue from the VF plant, the area's biggest employer, the local board of education was forced last month to close four schools. The county is also stuck with a $30 million bond debt for the wastewater treatment plant built almost exclusively for VF.
"I know hundreds of people that have been impacted by this," says Henry County Administrator Sid Clower, who voted himself a 10 percent pay cut. "The human suffering in this community that has come from the textile industry, and directly related to the trade policy of the United States, is immeasurable."
The line forms a half hour before the doors open at the Virginia Employment Commission's Martinsville office. Kathy Tatum has come to look at the job board and see if she can extend her unemployment benefits for a couple more months.
Four months ago, the 39-year-old single mother of three was laid off from a part-time apparel packing job at Sara Lee Corp.'s Martinsville distribution center. Things were tolerable until November; then her 18-year-old daughter Kavanda lost her Sara Lee job, too.
Now, mother and daughter ride the roads together in search of work, five or six hours most weekdays. After gas, rent and groceries, there is little left. Over Christmas, there was no money for presents - not even for a tree.
Just a few months ago, the agency's two bulletin boards would have been crammed with 300 listings, many in the textile and apparel fields. But this day, there are barely 80 white slips for the 250 people who come by daily.
Most are for low-skilled work at minimum wage or just above. Only two advertise jobs in textiles or apparel.
"Much of nothing," says Tatum, looking disgustedly toward the job board. If something doesn't turn up soon, she may move to Tennessee to be closer to relatives.
"I'm praying," Tatum says, nervously jingling her keys as she clutches the extension application. "That's all I can do is pray."
Joyce Snead, who runs the Martinsville unemployment office, says the inability to find jobs for people is taking a toll on her staff.
"It's not like we have a choice of where we can send them," she says. "So I think a lot of these people really need to look at training as an option."
Ellen Taylor came to that conclusion in November, when VF laid her off after 20 years on the job. With her truck driver husband on disability, she was the family's sole breadwinner.
The 39-year-old mother of two is going on the obligatory two job interviews a week, making notes in the little blue booklet provided by the state. But she has her heart set on the nursing training program at the community college.
"If worse comes to worst, yeah, I would go back into textiles, but ... things don't look good for ANY textile company," she says. "I would be scared to go back right now and get into textiles and then knowing that I would get laid off again."
The massive seal above the school board members' heads enumerates the three pillars of Henry County: Church, industry, education.
Industry is on the ropes. And several hundred residents have turned out this drizzly December night to pray the board won't close their schools.
An outside consultant's report is bleak. The VF closure will cost the budget $290,000 a year. Sales taxes, of which the schools get 1 percent, are off by a half million dollars. Within two years, the system can expect a reduction of $1.9 million in state and local revenue.
Superintendent Sharon Dodson has recommended the board close five of the county's 21 schools, consolidating four high schools into two. It would save the district $3.4 million a year.
But the plan has divided the community, pitting blacks against whites, east against west and poor against wealthy.
Cynthia Jeffress returned to the county after earning her teaching credentials. Wearing a jacket from an alma mater slated for closure, she accuses officials of conceding defeat too soon.
"I have faith that our county will not stay in a bind," she tells the board. "It is better to be safe than sorry."
Andy Parker is peppered with catcalls and jeering when he stands up as "one of the lone rangers" to support the board.
"We're faced with an economic crisis in this community not seen since the Great Depression," he says. "We need to get our house in order. And in a few years, when our population increases thanks to the new business that, hopefully, we've attracted because of responsible actions, we can build new schools to accommodate our prosperity."
Parker doesn't have to tell Jan Harrison how textile industry losses have devastated the community. She was laid off from VF after 20 years.
The mother of two begs the board to explore alternatives, apply for federal grants - anything.
"How are we going to entice the industry to come back into this area if we don't have schools to offer them?" Harrison asks.
For four long hours, the board listens mutely as residents call the consolidation irresponsible - and them everything from incompetent to evil. Timekeepers mercifully limit each assault to just three minutes.
Three days later, the board voted to close four schools.
As the rain comes down on Horseshoe Bend, a lone worker sits in a machine atop a pile of rubble, moving bricks and other debris around with a metal claw. He is shoving around pieces of the DuPont Co.'s Martinsville plant, once the largest nylon factory in the world with a work force of nearly 5,000.
According to a local history, DuPont decided to make its "miracle fiber" here in 1940 after site seekers "found in the local people a desire to work, preferably in an area where they could live in quiet peace."
For Mary Lou Ramey, there is too much quiet - and no peace.
Just a couple of years ago, she was making the last payments on her family's brick ranch house and planning an early retirement. Now, there's a possibility they might have to relocate.
Ramey feels too old to go back to school, and Tultex colleagues who were laid off two years ago are still unemployed. With her 19-year-old daughter, Michelle, leaving for college this summer, the family needs the extra income.
As the DuPont plant slowly recedes into history, Ramey sits in a Pizza Hut a couple of miles away and ponders the future - hers and the community's. In a way, she is already living with that future.
About a month after she was laid off from Tultex, her husband, Bruce, was also let go - after 28 years. He eventually landed a job in Eden, N.C., at a small startup that makes fleece sweatshirts and T-shirts for Adidas and others.
Now, every other week or so, Bruce Ramey kisses his wife and daughter good-bye and catches a plane to Honduras, Mexico or the Dominican Republic. His job is to get offshore sewing plants up and running, and to make sure they keep running as they should.
The Rameys met at Tultex and worked together there most of their 25 married years. As hard as the separations are, Mary Lou Ramey knows she's one of the lucky ones.
"At least he has a job," she says. "And as bad as it is to say this, he's in a perfect position as long as the company survives, because he's where the action is, so to speak.
"He's where it's all being done."
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Allen G. Breed is the AP's Southeast regional writer, based in Raleigh, N.C.
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