Laid-off Springs' workers not bitter in NPR interviews

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By Johnathan Ryan

National Public Radio "Morning Edition" host Steve Inskeep was surprised to hear that a Springs Industries job was much more than, well, a factory job to many former Springs workers.

On Monday and Tuesday, Inskeep was in Lancaster with NPR producer Emily Ochsenschlager and production assistant Nicole Beemsterboer to talk with former Springs workers about the plight of textiles and how they've coped since they lost their jobs.

Interviews were conducted at Springs Global's Grace Distribution Center, the local office of the S.C. Employment Commission, Leigh Anne's restaurant and other places in the area before the NPR crew returned to Washington, D.C.

"That was striking – how much they loved these jobs," Inskeep said.

Ochsenschlager and Beemsterboer remarked on the perks that laid-off workers spoke of, such as trips to Springmaid Beach.

"There just seems to be a lot of pride in this company," Beemsterboer said.

The concept behind the NPR story was to focus on the early primary states of the 2008 presidential election and give anecdotal accounts of how top campaign issues are affecting ordinary Americans.

In Iowa, where the country's first caucus has held on Jan. 3, Inskeep interviewed residents of a small town where a large factory was thought to be hiring illegal immigrants. There, NPR's focus was the intersection of politics and various views on illegal immigration.

South Carolina's Republican presidential primary on Saturday and the Democratic presidential primary Jan. 26 are the first in the South.

In Lancaster, NPR's focus was on the economy and how laid-off textile workers might provide insight into the psyches of others who've seen their jobs move overseas.

Inskeep said laid-off workers spoke openly about their political views, party allegiances and the candidates they'll vote for.

Many talked about their individual situations.

They were not angry, or at least not visibly, at Springs, which has shifted thousands of jobs overseas in the past decade. Many jobs moved to South America following Springs Industries' merger with Brazilian-based Coteminas in 2005.

The company now employs about 4,000 across the United States, with less than 1,000 people working in Lancaster, Chester and York counties – the area where the company was founded in the late 1800s. Twenty years ago, Springs employed more than 17,000 in South Carolina alone.

Last year, Springs ceased manufacturing in South Carolina for the first time since the company was founded.

Largely because of the Springs' layoffs, the county's unemployment rate remained high throughout 2007. In November, it was 9.9 percent, the fifth-highest in the state.

In NPR's interviews with former Springs' workers, their outlook was a mix of resignation and resolve to begin a new chapter in their lives.

"It seemed like many were like, 'This is what's happened and now we need to do something about it and move on,'" Beemsterboer said.

Many were doing just that.

Inskeep said former Springs' workers are learning new trades, such as carpentry, or working toward a new profession, such as a certified nursing assistant with educational assistance benefits. One man interviewed was looking to start his own business.

Many of those interviewed maintained a "cosmic or religious" sense that despite the uncertainty of the times, they would be OK, Inskeep said.

"One man said, "God will provide," so I guess they were optimistic in a way," he said.

Many of those interviewed looked at their unemployment as a chance to pursue a career interest or passion they never had before.

Feeling the depth of the story, Inskeep said it would take "two weeks to do it right," but he was thankful to be in town for a short time and give the story his best shot.

The story is expected to air on Thursday or Friday during the "Morning Edition," which will air from 5 to 9 a.m.

In the Charlotte area, listeners can tune in to station WFAE 90.7 FM for the program.

Contact Johnathan Ryan at 416-8416 or jryan@thelancasternews.com