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Tiny U.S. Broom Industry Could Be Swept Away

Trade: Few remaining makers say only restored tariffs on cheaper Mexican imports can save them.

August 23, 1996|From Associated Press

GREENUP, Ill. — In a long room filled with the smell of straw and the clatter of stitching machines, Ed Graves feeds fistfuls of broomcorn under a thin wire.

He works quickly, cutting the extra stalks away with a long knife as the spinning machine turns wood, wire and straw into the familiar shape of a household broom.

It's a good job, the top of the broom-making profession. He can earn up to $100 per day.

But it's a job Graves and fellow employees at the Quinn Broom Works fear could soon be gone, the victim of the North American Free Trade Agreement and cheaper labor at broom factories in Mexico.

"I'm against NAFTA," Graves says. "This is the only thing I know how to do."

The U.S. broom industry is a small one--about 600 workers scattered in small plants in Illinois, Ohio, California, Texas and the Southeast. But small broom makers like the Quinn Broom Works could be among the first manufacturers protected from Mexican competition under NAFTA.

Last month, the U.S. International Trade Commission recommended restoring a 32% tariff on Mexican brooms. The ITC ruled that competition from Mexican factories poses a serious threat to the domestic broom industry.

"We want to survive, like anybody--to have a job, to work," Quinn Broom Works president Mark Quinn says in an office where brooms of all shapes and sizes line the paneled walls.

The ITC recommendation goes to President Clinton, who has until the end of August to act on it or adopt his own. Congress can override Clinton if he rejects it.

The U.S. Cornbroom Task Force, an industry group, says more than 200 U.S. broom workers have lost their jobs since NAFTA went into effect in 1994. The group had enlisted the help of Rep. Glenn Poshard (D-Ill.), who inserted language into NAFTA allowing tariffs to be restored if the U.S. broom industry got hurt.

East-central Illinois once was a center of the broom industry, where broomcorn was grown in the prairie soil and brooms were made in farm towns nearby.

But broomcorn--the crop related to sorghum which, when dried, makes the familiar yellow stalks on brooms--hasn't been grown in the area for more than 20 years. In fact, the small broom factories in the area have to import their broomcorn from Mexico.

Last year, the average Mexican broom cost $1.92, compared with $3 to $3.40 per broom for U.S.-made brooms, the industry group says.

"Our sales are down from the first of the year because of NAFTA by about 50%," says Alvin Wingler of Warren Manufacturing in Arcola.

Warren Manufacturing has cut its work force from 30 employees to 20. The France Broom Co. recently closed a plant in Mattoon that employed 30 people. General Broom Co., also in Mattoon, cut back from 20 workers to 14.

"I don't want to worry my employees too much when they open their newspapers," France Broom Co. manager Stan Koschnick says, "but I would guess that if it was left unchecked within 10 years, there wouldn't be any brooms made in the United States."

The main problem is wages, broom executives say. Plants like Quinn Broom Works and Warren Manufacturing pay their most skilled workers more than $8 per hour, while Mexican workers might get that much per day.

Losing the Quinn Broom Works and its good jobs would be a terrible blow to Greenup and all of Cumberland County, which has only about 10,000 residents, Quinn says. The same is true for Arcola, a town of 2,600 that still bills itself the Broomcorn Capital of the World.

"You do this to a small town, and it makes a big difference," Wingler says. "It's not like we're an itty-bitty factory in some corner of Chicago, where if we shut down nobody would notice."

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