Friday, February 25, 2011

EDITORIAL >> More jobs lost here

Another area manufacturing plant is set to close, a victim of a slow economy and cheap foreign competition.

Graphic Packaging International Inc., a subsidiary of Graphic Packaging Holding Co. of Marietta, Ga., will close its multiwall-bag facility on Redmond Road in Jacksonville in July. Some 200 workers will be out of work, another sad reminder that manufacturing jobs are fast disappearing in Arkansas.

The company, long a fixture in Jacksonville, will move its equipment to other U.S. plants as it tries to cut costs against cheap foreign manufacturers.

When announcing the closing, the company issued a statement that was as heartless as it was predictable: “As always, GPI deploys business to our most cost-effective plants,” David Scheible, president and chief executive officer, said in a news release. “We continually evaluate all of our business operations to ensure we are serving our markets as efficiently as possible. Simply put, this is a difficult business decision.”

Formerly owned by Stone Container Corp. of Chicago, the plant had a solid reputation for quality and a workforce that earned above-average wages. But those kinds of jobs are harder to find here because companies can often pay foreign workers a fraction of what it costs to operate in the U.S. Arkansas was once known as a low-wage state, but Mexico and China have workers who’ll gladly take a job for $1 or $2 an hour.

It’s no wonder Arkansas has lost some 50,000 manufacturing jobs since 1995 — more than 2 million in the U.S. Those jobs in Arkansas once represented 20 percent of the workforce, but they’re now just 14 percent of the state job market. To be sure, there are still decent jobs out there: The aerospace industry employs 3,400 people in Arkansas, while thousands of workers are drilling for natural gas in the Fayetteville shale. In addition, education and health care have created 13,000 more jobs, so the picture is not all bleak.

But drive down Redmond Road, and you’ll see empty plants everywhere: From Graphic Packaging to Franklin Electric to Conestoga Woods, although others are thriving, like Triangle Engineering, which makes quality fans. Around the corner, Lomanco continues to make the best attic ventilators in the world.

But when cheap foreign competitors can horn in, the American workers suffer. We’ve seen manufacturing jobs disappear for decades, but when it happens in our cities, there’s usually someone you know who will lose a paycheck. They’re not just an unemployment statistic, but part of a national tragedy.

Here’s hoping those jobless workers will get back on their feet when the economy improves. We fear some of them never will.