closing Case Martin's Textiles
August 12, 1992, was a really bad day for John Martin. That was the day Canada, Mexico, and the United States announced an agreement in principle to form the North American Free Trade Agreement. Under the plan, all tariffs between the three countries would be eliminated within the next 10 to 15 years, with most being cut in 5 years. What disturbed John most was the plan's provision that all tariffs on trade of textiles among the three countries were to be removed within 10 years. Under the proposed agreement, Mexico and Canada would also be allowed to ship a specific amount of clothing and textiles made from foreign materials to the United States each year, and this quota would rise slightly over the first five years of the agreement. "My God!" thought John. "Now I'm going to have to decide about moving my plants to Mexico." John is the CEO of a New York-based textile company, Martin's Textiles. The company has been in the Martin family for four generations, having been founded by his great-grandfather in 1910. Today the company employs 1,500 people in three New York plants that produce cotton-based clothes, primarily underwear. All production employees are union members, and the company has a long history of good labor relations. The company has never had a labor dispute, and John, like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him, regards the work force as part of the "Martin family." John prides himself not only on knowing many of the employees by name, but also on knowing a great deal about the family circumstances of many of the longtime employees. Over the past 20 years, the company has experienced increasingly tough competition, both from overseas and at home. The mid-1980s were particularly difficult. The strength of the dollar on the foreign exchange market during that period enabled Asian producers to enter the US market with very low prices. Since then, although the dollar has weakened against many major currencies, the Asian producers have not raised their prices in response to the falling dollar. In a low-skilled, labor-intensive business such as clothing manufacture, costs are driven by wage rates and labor productivity. Not surprisingly, most of John's competitors in the northeastern United States responded to the intense cost competition by moving production south, first to states such as South Carolina and Mississippi, where nonunion labor could be hired for significantly less than in the unionized Northeast, and then to Mexico, where labor costs for textile workers were less than $2 per hour. In contrast, wage rates are $12.50 per hour at John's New York plant and $8 to $10 per hour at nonunion textile plants in the southeastern United States. The last three years have been particularly tough at Martin's Textiles. The company has registered a small loss each year, and John knows the company cannot go on like this. His major customers, while praising the quality of Martin's products, have warned him that his prices are getting too high and they may not be able to continue to do business with him. His longtime banker has told him that he must get his labor costs down. John agrees, but he knows of only one surefire way to do that, to move production south--way south, to Mexico. He has always been reluctant to do that, but now he seems to have little choice. He fears that in five years the US market will be flooded with cheap imports from Asian, US, and Mexican companies, all producing in Mexico. It looks like the only way for Martin's Textiles to survive is to close the New York plants and move production to Mexico. All that would be left in the United States would be the sales force. John's mind was spinning. How could something that throws good honest people out of work be good for the country? The politicians said it would be good for trade, good for economic growth, good for the three countries. John could not see it that way. What about Mary Morgan, who...
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