by Chadwick Moore
12 Jul 2018
The city of Danville, Virginia sits in the bellybutton of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a hat-toss over the North Carolina border and about 85 miles northwest of Raleigh. It’s low hill country and Danville straddles the frothy, chocolate-milk waters of the Dan River. Downtown, once a booming trade district, today is a decomposed industrial husk, a tidy cluster of silent rectangles ensnared by broad, ghostly thoroughfares built for a time in the not-so-distant past when people and goods poured in and out of town.
Those days are gone, perhaps never to return.
The story of Danville is one echoed in countless communities across the country, a gutted middle class left for dead in the wake of sweeping international trade deals in Washington, applauded by liberal economists and a lockstep media portraying such policies as inevitable, ultimately good, and a win for the American consumer–a narrative usually coupled with condescending and disdainful attitudes toward displaced workers for a perceived inability to sprint ahead with the times.
As recently as the early 2000s, Danville’s top employer, textile manufacturer Dan River Mills, which specialized in bedding, sold 33 percent of production to Wal-Mart stores–the highest number federal law allows a retailer to buy from a single manufacturer–and held other lucrative contracts with K-Mart, producing Martha Stewart’s textile line.
It was an iconic American company. Within 20 years of incorporation, in 1882, Dan River Mills was the largest textile manufacturer in the South, and by 1909 produced annually 78 million yards of cloth.
“My parents raised four children working at the Dan River mill,” says Sonya Lewis, whose grandparents also worked for Dan River, on a recent Saturday evening while attending a memorial service for a friend at a Mexican restaurant in Danville.
“Growing up here, it was booming. It was a great place. I remember that everybody worked, everybody I went to school with, their parents worked,” she says.
When Bill Clinton assumed the presidency in 1993, business was so good that, even with technological innovations in manufacturing, Dan River Mills still had a labor shortage. The company acquired seven other manufacturing facilities in the area, employing 6,500 workers, according to Owen Voss, a former employee in Dan River’s corporate offices.
But Voss saw the writing on the wall when Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, a deal drafted by his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush. The following year the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, a 50-year-old trade agreement aimed at reducing tariffs, was replaced by the World Trade Organization (WTO), which then included 125 nations and governed 90 percent of global trade.