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‘Like a tomb’

HARRISVILLE — Barbara Ratliff hugged her arms around her and stared at her shoes. Cool autumn air poured through the open loading dock where she stood.Behind her, the interior of Safety Stitch, the plant where she toiled for the past six years, sat dimly lit and quiet.“The garment industry is the only thing I’ve ever worked at,” Ratliff said, breaking the silence.Outside, a few leaves skittered across the vacant gravel lot, and in a yard nearby, a white dog trotted from one end of his run to the next and back again.Another name on the listRitchie County was once home to as many assix garment factories, full of humming sewing machines, churning out clothes for some of the nation’s leading retailers.Safety Stitch was the last to go. It closed Aug. 1, ending a futile pursuit for clothing contracts in the face of a mass exodus by the U.S. garment industry.Hundreds of thousands of U.S. textile and apparel jobs have been lost since the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.In West Virginia, companies such as McDowell County Apparel (in Bradshaw), Reidbord Brothers (Buckhannon), Connie Sportswear (Franklin), Spenco (Glenville) and Kellwood (Spencer) have all pleaded foreign competition when they shut their doors.In 1990, when McDowell County Apparel advertised for sewing positions, 2,000 applications rolled in from as far away as Texas. Hundreds of applicants lined up to wait in a cold March rain for their chance to interview.Today, McDowell County Apparel is just another name on the long list of companies whose workers applied for trade-related unemployment benefits. ‘We just couldn’t compete’On a recent day, Safety Stitch owner Don Mossor, 68, stepped onto the factory floor, surveying the remains of his livelihood. He wore the look of defeat.“It’s like a tomb in here,” he announced.
Mossor graduated from high school on a Friday in 1953. The following Monday morning, he started at Harrisville Garment, one of 35 employees.By 1969, the factory had about 400 employees and was producing 800 dozen “shirtwaist” dresses a day for a New York company.Mossor seized on the clothing boom by joining with nine other workers to start a new company called United Manufacturing. They built the Harrisville building that would later become Safety Stitch and went to work, employing 120 by the mid-1970s.The company changed hands a few times, but Mossor always stayed on to run the operation. After the bankruptcy of one of the controlling companies in 1992, Mossor stepped up and opened Safety Stitch.
With NAFTA on the horizon, it was an ominous time to be in the garment business.“I screamed bloody murder in 1993 when NAFTA was coming in, but it didn’t do any good,” he said. “Why wouldn’t the companies go where the wages they pay are half what we pay here?
“We just couldn’t compete. If they don’t do something to change things, there won’t be any jobs in the U.S. Just service jobs, that’s it.”Mossor had two solid contracts during his time running Safety Stitch, but both redirected their work to Mexico.Garment and textile companies were moving factories from the United States to Mexico before NAFTA was enacted. But with the agreement, not only is the labor much cheaper, but also there’s no duty fee to import the clothes back to U.S. consumers.One of the last jobs Safety Stitch performed involved repairs to clothes made in Turkey, China and Guatemala.They repaired two tractor-trailer loads.“Why not let us do it right the first time?” asked Vickie Nutter, Mossor’s daughter and a former Safety Stitch employee.Promises on paperSafety Stitch had about 25 employees when Mossor finally called it quits Aug. 1. He applied for NAFTA-related unemployment benefits for his employees.Five are taking the retraining classes offered by the state as part of the benefits package. The class teaches applicants how to put together a résumé and about interviewing skills. Other classes might involve computer training.Ratliff isn’t taking the retraining classes. After her unemployment checks run out in June, she hopes to find work as a housekeeper.“When I got out of high school in 1981, you could have picked your factory,” she said.“I loved it here, loved the people,” she said of Safety Stitch. “I was the hemmer; I hemmed the bottoms and the sleeves.”Knowing she would be talking with a reporter, Ratliff did a little advance research on NAFTA. She pulled a small, folded piece of paper from the pocket of her jeans.It was a list of promises made in 1993 by the Clinton administration, which pushed the agreement through. There were promises of jobs and wealth and a more stable economy.None of the promises came true for her.Coming Tuesday: West Virginia businesses try to take advantage of increased NAFTA trade.To contact staff writer Robert J. Byers, use e-mail or call 348-1236.
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