FALL RIVER — Up a narrow flight of stairs from the New England Shirt Company’s creaky main floor, past a pile of collared shirts, stands a haunting reminder of this needle town’s demise.
The sewing machines that once filled the cavernous room have disappeared, swallowed in decades of globalization and cheaper labor abroad. Nothing has taken its place.
This former industrial city, and places like it, casts a long shadow on President Obama’s push for a sweeping trade deal intended to counterbalance China’s economic growth in the region. Many here wonder whether his proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership would really help — or would it snuff out the city’s hard-earned progress toward rebirth.
“We are now starting to come out” of the decline, said Robert Mellion, president of the Fall River Area Chamber of Commerce. “I’d hate to go through this again.”
The divided views in Massachusetts are tethered to both vocation and geography, with Route 128 (“America’s Technology Highway”) a remarkably accurate dividing line. Inside 128 are Boston’s pharmaceutical and high-tech industries, which back the deal and stand to benefit from it. Outside the loop are old mill communities such as Fall River, where the scars of previous trade agreements run deep.
Those are the types of places Obama needs to convince that the 12-nation pact will boost American jobs rather than devastate them. That’s critical to gaining the support of Democratic representatives, who are largely opposed to a bill the White House considers necessary to propel the deal forward.
Democratic Representatives Joseph Kennedy III and Bill Keating, whose districts include parts of Fall River, have yet to back the accord.
“It would hit Fall River and I’m strongly against it,” said Sam Sutter , the city’s new Democratic mayor, who has promised to lead the city’s transformation. He stood at his office window and pointed at hints of transition — the city’s renovated bridge, the waterfront restaurant, a newly unobstructed view of historic warships moored in the Taunton River.
“I don’t like any kind of agreement that costs American jobs,” he said.
Businesses in the industrial park north of the city share that uncertainty.
“Nobody talks about the little guys employing 60 people in Fall River banging metal every day,” said David Monti, the vice president of Fall River Manufacturing, which makes stainless steel screws, nuts, and bolts. The company sells almost entirely to larger logistics companies in the United States, which then determine where the products go.
“My gut feeling is it’s not going to be beneficial for small manufacturers like us,” he said.
The administration has spent years negotiating the trade deal, commonly known as TPP. It is intended to reduce trade barriers and tackle issues such as labor conditions and intellectual property. Opponents worry it would further erode American manufacturing jobs and create unenforceable standards.
The Senate may take up a bill next week that would “fast track” the deal. This would allow Congress to vote on an accord but prevent lawmakers from amending it.
Obama will travel to Nike’s Oregon headquarters on Friday to make the case that American workers will benefit from the elimination of tariffs and stronger labor standards in other countries.
“China is out there competing in these areas, and if we don’t write the rules, they are going to be out there writing them,” Obama said this week on the “Late Show with David Letterman.’’ He has repeatedly emphasized that his priorities lie with American middle-class families.
The deal aims to strengthen economic ties with countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and Japan. China is not a member.
Cities like Fall River are caught in the middle of this ambitious undertaking, uncertain about whether it will bring revitalization or further devastation.
“We have more than the memory of the North American Free Trade Agreement; we are living its legacy,” said Mellion, who expressed deep concerns with the deal.
President Clinton in 1993 negotiated NAFTA, the last major trade agreement, and it’s unclear what concrete effect it had amid a broader decline in manufacturing and an influx of cheaper Chinese imports. Locals place much blame on NAFTA, although economists are divided over its overall impact on jobs.
Either way, Fall River has lost 68 percent of its manufacturing jobs since 1990.
The skyline reveals former textile and garment mills in various stages of decay. Main Street shuts down by early evening. The unemployment rate, at 10 percent, is double the state average. The town’s centuries-old motto is “We’ll Try.”
Fall River is starting to show signs of resurgence. Some mills have been turned into residential lofts or data storage centers. Bulldozers are tearing down the highway interchange ramps that blocked the waterfront, a railway line has started to carry commercial freight into the city, and two industrial parks now employ more than 5,000 people. The city is in talks with Amazon over building a distribution center in a separate technology park.
“I don’t see anything [about the deal] that is going to improve the lives of the 60 people who work here,” said New England Shirt Company president Robert Kidder, who bought the factory he worked in six years ago in hopes of keeping a piece of American manufacturing alive.
Kidder doesn’t expect the Trans-Pacific Partnership will have a direct impact on his company, which now sells high-end men’s shirts almost exclusively to American specialty stores. But he questions whether punch-clock workers will benefit as much as Boston’s pharmaceutical and high-tech industries.
To some extent, it’s already too late for traditional manufacturers. The kind of work that once filled these factories barely exists in America. Many of Fall River’s manufacturers are small companies that turned to niche products — such as luxury linens and wooden baseball bats — to survive. How much those small upstarts will be affected is unclear.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington research institute that advocates for free trade agreements, estimates the deal will add $77 billion a year to US economic output.
But some in Fall River fear the economic and foreign forces beyond their control, ones that shake out in ways that are difficult to measure.
“The winners are going to be companies that rely heavily on copyright and intellectual property protections . . . the other winners are going to be foreign companies,” said Nitsan Chorev, a professor of sociology and international studies at Brown University, 16 miles from Fall River. “The losers are often relatively diffused.”
That tension is particularly noticeable for Kennedy, whose district extends from the well-heeled Boston suburb of Brookline to the aging mills of Fall River.
Kennedy toured a garment factory this week and eyed one item that hung from the ceiling: a T-shirt with “NAFTA” crossed out.
“When we say the administration has to make a case, that’s why,” he said, looking at a group of women hunched over sewing machines. The White House “still has lots of us who have to be convinced.”
Labor unions have gone after the deal with vigor, aided by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who warns it would allow large corporations to skirt American regulations. She has blasted the closed-door nature of the negotiations and tied fast-track authority to a potential rollback of financial reforms. Obama has referred to Warren as “just wrong.”
In another section of the industrial park, Karl Hetzler showed off golf clubs his company distributes in the United States and Japan. He envisioned a possible upside to the accord, but one full of caveats.
H&S Tool and Engineering provides components for Fortune 500 companies. These corporations may take advantage of the trade deal, Hetzler said, which could generate more business.
“It’s a wonderful idea to allow American companies to get their product out of the country,” he said. “The question is will they move out all together?”