It’s a bright, mellow, short-sleeve April evening in the troubled pinelands of south central North Carolina. Except for the waspish drone of lawnmowers and the occasional whoosh of a car sliding along Highway 220, this town of 1,700 is almost eerily quiet–partly because, with gas costing what it does, people can’t afford to do much driving around. But it’s mostly because of the big yawning silence at the center of Biscoe, where the mill used to be.
“This was the old Springs plant,” says Larry Kissell, pointing up a street formerly known as Mill Hill to a sprawling, low-slung series of connected buildings showing no sign of life. “It had, in its heyday, seven, eight hundred people.” That’s almost half the town’s population. “People weren’t getting rich, but there were good jobs. Good benefits. And of course it’s gone. Just the heart and soul of Biscoe. This is one of those mills, they’d blow the whistle at 7 and 12 and 3–you always knew what time it was, based on the mill whistle.”
The Springs plant was an early casualty in the outsourcing plague that began to hit North Carolina after NAFTA and accelerated in this decade–and has socked the textile-heavy 8th Congressional District like a series of never-ending tornadoes. “Textiles were the sacrificial lamb” in NAFTA, says Kissell, a Democrat who’s running, for the second time, to become Congress’s first Gentleman from Biscoe. “I think everybody knew that was gonna happen.”
But nobody predicted just how rough it was going to get down here, or how fast. North Carolina, first in the South for its share of jobs in manufacturing, long benefited from a form of outsourcing. Decades ago Northern manufacturers shifted jobs to low-wage, Southern states with severe restrictions on organized labor. Now the “old economy” parts of all these states are reeling from the post-NAFTA version of outsourcing. Since 1993 North Carolina has bled more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs, according to state government estimates–one-fourth of its total. The pace of closures isn’t slacking, either. Last year 10 percent of the state’s textile jobs were lost, with at least 10,000 more manufacturing workers out of luck. In Biscoe after Biscoe, unemployment keeps climbing. Even in relatively prosperous Cumberland County, with its two expanding military bases, Wal-Mart is the number-one private employer. “Good jobs are coming to North Carolina,” says Kissell. “They’re just not coming here.”
It’s a gnawingly familiar story in too many communities up North. Down here, people are still in shock. And nobody speaks for them more truly than Kissell. As the Democratic presidential campaign heads toward a showdown in North Carolina on May 6, the candidates–who’ve been beating the populist drums vigorously but not always convincingly–would do well to take a listen. And maybe take a stroll down Mill Hill.