Monday, March 26, 2018

In 1954, John F. Kennedy talks about the relocation of textiles from New England to the South

As someone with a deep admiration for the Kennedy family and an interest in rural New England and the South, I was particularly interested in an article that I stumbled upon today in The Atlantic. In January of 1954, then-Senator John F. Kennedy wrote about the departure of textile mills from New England and their arrival in the South.

As Senator Kennedy notes, New England's loss of industry was largely due to the more lax labor standards in the South and the ability of the mills to get access to substantially cheaper labor. The lower influence of organized labor also served as a way to keep wages low in the South. North and South Carolina, two of the principal landing places of the textile industry regularly rank 49th and 50th in levels of union participation. This "race to the bottom" continues today with the spread of right to work legislation and the belief that unions are driving wages too high. New England, to its credit, has uniformly resisted "Right to Work."

Not surprisingly, the textile mills have largely left the Carolinas, largely due to cheaper labor in foreign markets. The parallels that one can draw from Senator Kennedy's descriptions of towns in New England that suffered the same fate is fairly obvious. Entire towns in North Carolina have lost their chief employer and are struggling to figure out how to replace that.

The lesson here is that if an industry chooses your community because of cheap labor, they will also leave when cheaper labor becomes available. I would hope that leaders in rural communities realize this sooner rather than later. I also highly encourage you to read Kennedy's article, it is an incredible snapshot in time of a rather huge economic shift in both New England and the Carolinas.


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