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Southern textile-mill blues: the refrain bemoans a tide of imports

Z.T. Kendall lost his $6-an-hour textile job when the mill in this small town closed. He got another job repairing air conditioners at the same pay, but has been temporarily laid off from that job, too.

In Graniteville, S.C., another mill has shut down, and grocer Ronald Williams says his sales are drooping because laid-off workers have less to spend.

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The story is repeated elsewhere in the South, but its implications go far beyond this region. It is also the story of your shirts, sweaters, and sheets; of Chinese garment workers who earn 16 cents an hour; and of some tough talks between the United States and China.

Round 5 in those talks, over how much cloth and clothing China will be allowed to export to the United States, has just collapsed. US officials say the two sides are closer to agreement, however.

Imports are one of the reasons so many American textile workers have lost their jobs in the past several years, according to Department of Commerce officials and textile manufacturers. Most Asian textile and apparel exporters make things cheaper than their US counterparts - much cheaper.

But the US has no intention of simply throwing up protective trade barriers to block all imports. For one thing, American consumers would cry foul. For another, the US depends heavily on the export of many of its own products.

Even in the US textile and apparel industry, some 190,000 jobs depend on exports, according to the industry. But some 300,000 jobs have been lost in the industry since 1978, and textile manufacturers point to imports as a major culprit.

But there are other factors, according to James A. Chapman Jr., president-elect of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, including:

* Modernization. New equipment that makes a better product faster is replacing many workers. As a whole, the industry has been making annual productivity gains (more cloth per hour of labor) of about 4 percent, one of the bright spots in American industry.

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* The recession. Sales are down. People are buying fewer homes and cars, so fewer fabrics are needed. People use their towels, sheets, and shirts longer when income is down.

But textile employment is a ''little better than it was three months ago,'' said Mr. Chapman in a telephone interview.

Not at the Scottdale Mills, however. On a recent workday, only about a dozen cars were in the large parking lot, as a handful of employees wrapped up final bookkeeping for the mill, which closed last year, ending jobs for about 600 persons.

In Graniteville, S.C., the Graniteville Company has laid off some 1,500 workers in the past year. ''We had to close some of our more inefficient plants, '' says company vice-president Bill Johnson.

A federal program to help laid-off textile and other workers affected by imports has ''limited effectiveness, limited benefits,'' says Marvin Fook, director of the office of trade-adjustment assistance for the Department of Labor. Often, laid-off workers are reluctant to move, he says.

Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea - the three top textile and apparel exporters to the US - have already signed trade agreements limiting growth of their US exports to 1 to 2 percent a year. The Chinese, the fourth-largest exporter to the US, want to continue the larger percentage they've been allowed in the past.

The Reagan administration and the textile industry want to limit the growth in imports to growth in domestic sales. That growth averaged about 1.5 percent over the past 10 years. But last year, sales declined from the previous year.

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