Lincolnton, N.C. — As President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney trade barbs over U.S. jobs moving to China and other low-cost labor centers, a furniture plant in Lincoln County has moved past the debate to focus on its craft.
Cochrane Furniture shut its doors in 2008 when its owners sent production to China, costing the town of 10,500 in the southwestern Piedmont about 1,300 jobs.
"It was hard trying to find a job. Nobody's hiring," said worker Johnny Lail, a 36-year-old father of three who was unemployed for two years. "You have to tell the kids they can't have this, they can't have that."
"There's a lot of furniture people like me who didn't know how to do anything else who started going back to school," Joe Rudisill said.
The classwork ended for many a year ago, when the plant whirred back to life under the Lincolnton Furniture Co. name.
Bruce Cochrane, whose family was in the furniture-making business for six generations before selling its operation in the 1990s, saw that the move to China by the new owners wasn't working. Production costs there were spiking, and there were problems with the workforce and with delivery of materials.
"(That) made the quality suffer a lot greater than it had in the past," said Stacey Shumard, Lincolnton Furniture marketing director.
Cochrane figured he could make furniture in the U.S. that could be priced competitively, so he moved back into the old Lincolnton factory and began turning out bedroom and dining room furniture again. The plant now employs 60.
"It feels good to be back. It feels good to be building furniture again," said Donna Keever, 54, who said she felt betrayed when the jobs at the old plant went overseas.
"You get dust in your veins, and it's hard to give it up," said Rudisill, who is now plant manager.
Obama called Cochrane, a Romney supporter, to the White House for a forum on "in-sourcing," or bringing overseas manufacturing jobs to the U.S. Cochrane also attended the State of the Union address as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama.
Lincolnton Furniture worker Gordon Robinson, 48, who spent 25 years at the old plant before being laid off, said he believes the U.S. economy is regaining its footing.
"It's slower moving because people have not really settled down about who's going to be president," said Robinson, who plans to vote for Obama. "Once they figure it out, everything's going to be fine, I think."