Remember Paris

When Emerson pulls out of this small southern town, it'll leave bitterness and broken promises behind. That's what happens when a marriage ends badly.

But they can't distance themselves from Emerson's recent announcement that the plant is closing its doors. Emerson is working on a deal with a manufacturer in China or Taiwan to make Ridgid.

And that's got some of the townspeople and workers who listened to Knight's feel-good speech back in '98 feeling suckered.

"We call it 'propaganda,'" Chadwick says. "We don't trust them, and we don't believe anything they tell us."

Home Depot's Bernie Marcus (right) joined Chuck Knight (left) in Paris, Tennessee, in August 1998 to officially launch the Ridgid power-tool line. Four years later, the companies announced they were moving production overseas and closing Emerson's factory.
Bill McCutcheon/Paris Post-Intelligencer
Home Depot's Bernie Marcus (right) joined Chuck Knight (left) in Paris, Tennessee, in August 1998 to officially launch the Ridgid power-tool line. Four years later, the companies announced they were moving production overseas and closing Emerson's factory.
Jennifer Silverberg

A faded Dr. Pepper sign hangs on the wall of Knott's Landing, a small diner around the corner from the Henry County courthouse. A red plastic placard hangs over the doorway leading into the kitchen, warning diners "microwave in use." At every table, an ashtray.

A weathered waitress with a gravelly voice saunters up to a man wearing a faded red baseball cap and dusty clothes.

"How y'all doin'?" she asks.

He picks up a menu and looks at the specials of the day, handwritten on a piece of paper torn from a pad from a local merchant.

"What you got to eat today?" he asks.

A middle-aged man with glasses and a dress jacket walks in the front door; the waitress looks up and greets him by name.

Snippets of nearby conversations about the National Rifle Association and Al Gore mingle with orders for some sort of bean dish, coleslaw or corn bread.

But in a region where good-paying jobs are disappearing and a way of life is changing, there's something else that jumps out quickly in most conversations. Folks worry about the economy; they debate trade. Talk about NAFTA -- the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect in 1994 -- is as much a part of lunchtime discussion in Paris as the Cardinals' post-season play is in St. Louis.

The Henry I. Seigel apparel company closed most of its Tennessee plants in 1998, including a plant in nearby Carroll County that employed about 2,000 people. According to Whitlow, the work was moved to Mexico, just like what occurred with some of the smaller apparel companies that used to have factories in Henry County. In nearby Murray, Kentucky, Mattel Inc. recently shut down a toy plant that employed nearly 1,000 people. Those jobs also went to Mexico.

The Emerson plant has seen more of its parts shipped in for assembly from Mexico, Taiwan and China.

The workers question whether the move will be in the best interests of America.

"It looks to me like a domino effect," Chadwick says. "If they're going to take this stuff offshore, overseas, those people there can't buy it. The people here don't have a job, they're not going to be able to go to the Dollar Store because they're not going to have any money. They're not going to be able to go to McDonald's. They're not going to be able to go to Wal-Mart. And those stores will start to suffer. It looks to me like it's the wrong thing to do."

There's some truth to that, says Robert E. Scott, an international economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-funded think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Since NAFTA was signed by President Bill Clinton, Tennessee lost nearly 100,000 jobs because of the trade agreement, Scott says. Nationally, the free-trade toll has been more than three million jobs, most in production and manufacturing, he adds.

"Production workers are about three-quarters of all the United States labor force," Scott says. And the rush to move production out of the country has "had a tremendous impact on employment in manufacturing. But more importantly, it's had a huge impact on wages, both in that sector and throughout the country."

For people like Chadwick, the ones who are being pushed out of work, Scott says they suffer "substantial losses." He cites a U.S. Department of Labor study that shows "their wages are always going to be lower in the future than they are now."

Even looking at the forest, rather than the trees, Scott says it's hard to see a positive trend. "Much more money is going to the rich, but a lot less is going to the vast bulk of workers," Scott says. "The sum total of those two may come out to a slight gain, but many more workers have been hurt than have been helped."

However, one person cheering the move is Matt Collins, an analyst who tracks Emerson for St. Louis-based Edward Jones.

"From a shareholder's perspective, over the longer term," Collins says that shutting down the plant and moving the work out of the country "should be a good thing."

According to its most recent annual report for the year ending September 30, 2001, Emerson characterizes its deal with Home Depot as "successful," based on increased sales of Ridgid tools. But the company's overall performance lagged, as income before taxes dropped 27.1 percent.

The company's stock has been hammered, and options granted to top execs, including Knight, have lost their value for now.

Knight, who remains chairman of the corporation after relinquishing the title of chief executive officer in 2000, isn't hurting.

In 2001 he received over $6.8 million in compensation, according to Emerson's filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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