ROANOKE RAPIDS, N.C. (AP) – Former President Bill Clinton, campaigning in a former mill town struggling with job losses, said Friday the United States can bring back the manufacturing industry – as long as the nation can enforce trade laws.
“We can bring manufacturing back to America now,” Clinton said on an outdoor stage, with the now-closed mill that was featured in the 1979 Sally Field movie “Norma Rae” looming behind him. “But we have to have a commitment.”
Clinton did not mention the North American Free Trade Agreement during the campaign event for his wife, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. The NAFTA trade pact was adopted while Bill Clinton was in office, but Hillary Clinton has repeatedly said she wants to change it.
Many have blamed NAFTA for accelerating the decline of North Carolina’s once-vibrant manufacturing sector.
The former J.P. Stevens plant that served as Clinton’s backdrop was the South’s first major unionized textile mill, and the inspiration for “Norma Rae.” The movie won Field her first Academy Award for her portrayal of a minimum-wage textile worker-turned-union organizer.
Textile mills once provided 5,000 jobs in Roanoke Rapids, but the last mill closed several years ago.
Hillary Clinton has criticized NAFTA while campaigning for blue-collar votes in North Carolina and elsewhere. She said this week she has a long record of differing with her husband on trade policies, including opposing NAFTA as her husband championed the trade deal and pushed for its passage in Congress.
But White House records show that when Hillary Clinton was first lady, she attended several meetings designed to build congressional support for NAFTA. She says she had reservations about the pact at the time, and made her feelings known in such gatherings.
Bill Clinton, who also spoke in Rocky Mount, said the nation can boost the manufacturing industry by keeping national security manufacturing jobs in the United States and ending tax breaks to those who may ship jobs overseas. He also said deficits to countries like China don’t allow the country to enforce trade laws.