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RUSH TOWARD FREE TRADE IMPERILS GARMENT WORKERS

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They are scared, angry and frustrated, but mostly scared. Many have worked in the garment mills of Lehigh Valley for 30 years and more. The whine of sewing machines and dust of fabric have become as familiar as early snows and now the threat of unemployment.

While the removal of worldwide trade barriers and the lowering of tariffs under the North American Free Trade Agreement and GATT are expected to help American high-tech and service industries, they mean fear among the nation's garment workers.These are men and women of modest means from modest towns, like this one in the rolling hills above the Allentown-Easton corridor of eastern Pennsylvania, who cut large swaths of cloth and sew together the various elements that become a piece of clothing. They already work for relatively low pay, about $15,000 a year, but they face strong competition from places like Bangladesh, Taiwan and Singapore, where wages are far lower, working conditions bad and benefits virtually nonexistent.

But the rush toward a free trade world, which began during the Reagan and Bush years, is threatening the little security American garment workers still have. Their industry has been in turmoil for more than 30 years, as many of the mills in the North fled to the South and then overseas. In its peak year of 1973, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union had more than 1.2 million members around the country, mostly women; by June of this year, membership had dropped below 800,000.

In the Lehigh Valley, the decline has been even worse. A study released last month by Thomas Hyclak, a professor of economics at Lehigh University, found that the region lost almost 54 percent of apparel workers from 1972 through 1990. While types of manufacturing jobs also fled the region in that time, the decline in apparel was one of the steepest.

The area has managed to attract new jobs in insurance, health care and other service industries, but many apparel workers, trained for nothing else, say they have no idea what they could do if their factories closed down. They feel that trade pacts like GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, will jeopardize their well-being.

"It seems like a dying industry," said Tammy Impechiate, a 37-year-old mother of three who works as a seamstress at Fashions by Danielle here, even though her husband, Joseph, is a part owner. "Used to be, there was a blouse mill on every corner. Now, there's only a handful left. Even when I started out of high school 19 years ago, mills were everywhere. Now, it's scary. You don't know if your company is going to close down or if you can get another job. I've got children who want to go to college. I don't know if I can afford to send them."

Impechiate is typical of apparel workers in the region. Many finished high school, married young, moved into small houses on an acre or two of land, found a job in the mills and never did anything else. Never had to. For the most part, they led quiet, stable lives.

But through the 1980s, and more so now with the conclusion of the international trade agreements, the feeling of insecurity pervades every garment factory.

Some, like Maryann Corcione, who sews blouses for Scotty's Fashions in Little Gap, Pa., already work a second job to make ends meet. For 12 hours every two weeks she cleans a bank. Her husband, James, is a maintenance worker at a Kmart.

Corcione and others in the plant have already seen life without Scotty's, a family-owned business that operates five plants in the region. The company shut down for six months two years ago and called back just over half the 2,100 employees. She was one of the lucky ones.

"I worked at the bank a little more and kept hoping I'd get my job back," she said. "I called every day, asking what was going on."

And if the plant closed again? "I don't know what I'd do," she said. I was a meat-packer once. Maybe I could go back to that field if something happened. Without experience at anything else, forget it."

Many workers say they know of GATT but understand little of the economic theory that says it will make the country richer over all. They believe it is only the latest nail in the garment industry coffin.

But Nancy Shoemaker, a 54-year-old sewer at Anna Sportswear in Pen Argyl, says she understands all right. She follows all the political developments that affect the industry, and GATT makes her boil.

"What's a little person going to say?" she said. "What good does it do to scream our heads off? We're helpless." A single mother with three grown children, she has worked almost 25 of her 59 years in the mills and watched many of her friends lose their jobs.