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Flashback: Sucked Dry in Barbour County

Barbour County Courthouse Square, in Clayton.

Barbour County Courthouse Square, in Clayton.

Photo by Rivers Langley

In 1992, independent presidential candidate Ross Perot said he could hear a “giant sucking sound” from the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement, designed to level trade barriers between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

The sound he meant was jobs down the drain. But it might just as well have been the credibility vacuum from Democratic candidate Bill Clinton, who loudly opposed NAFTA on the campaign trail but did a 180 two years after election.

NAFTA was narrowly ratified by the House, 234 to 200, and passed in the Senate 61-38. All five Democratic members of the Alabama delegation voted No, and the four Republicans split.

Alabama, like most Southern states, was set up to be a loser in the NAFTA deal, with low-paying jobs, especially textile jobs, ready to be Hoovered over the border.

The fear was well justified, as we reported in the April 1996 issue of Business Alabama, “Adrift in the Global Economy,” focusing on Clayton, Ala., where Phillips-Van

Heusen closed a shop that literally took the shirt off the back of the Barbour County seat.

The plant, once with a payroll of $3 million, shut down Nov. 21, 1995, putting 230 out of work, in a town of 1,500.

“One minute you’re sitting there working just like you’d done for 30 years, and a voice comes over the intercom and your whole life just falls apart,” said Epsy Ammons, one of 220 women laid off.

Clayton Mayor Tommy Horne wasn’t appeased by the notion that all those low-wage jobs would be replaced by more skilled work.

“I’m a veterinarian, but if, suddenly, tomorrow, there stopped being a need for veterinarians, that doesn’t mean I could go out and perform heart surgery,” said Horne.

Phillips-Van Heusen administrative assistant Pat Hutto told us, “These women are skilled at one thing, sewing. The plant was the only way they had to make a living.” 

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