Indiana ironing-board factory faces stiff competition from Chinese companies

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

SEYMOUR, IND. -- There is one factory left in the United States that manufactures the basic ironing board, and its survival against Chinese competition demands unrelenting, production-line hustle.

The 200 people at the plant in this small town make their boards very, very cheaply and as fast as 720 in an hour. In three low-slung buildings without air conditioning, coils of cold-rolled steel are cut, welded, riveted and boxed, then loaded onto the Wal-Mart and Target trucks backed up to the loading dock. Paid with piece-rate incentives, workers emerge weary at shift's end.

"The people on the line are making pretty good money; it can work out to about $15 an hour," said Dave Waskom, 61, a tool and die maker who readied the plant's machinery for 37 years. "But they work like dogs."

Yet loyalty and hard work are not enough.

The company survives in part because it convinced U.S. trade officials that Chinese firms were unfairly dumping ironing boards into the United States at less than fair-market value; in response, the United States levied anti-dumping taxes of 70 to more than 150 percent on its Chinese rivals.

Now, it looks as if the company might get more help: China, under pressure from the United States, has agreed to allow its currency to appreciate against the dollar, a move that would make Chinese ironing boards more expensive for U.S. consumers.

For now, it is the tariff that gives the plant here, a division of Chicago-based Home Products International, its biggest advantage in selling to Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart and other companies.

But imposing tariffs on foreign goods also elicits loud protests, and not just from the foreign manufacturers who face the burden. Some U.S. retailers say that the tariffs have given the American factory, long the market leader in the United States, a near monopoly on ironing boards. And economists say that the tariffs push up prices for American consumers, who buy an estimated 7 million ironing boards each year.

Even so, there is little doubt in Seymour, home town to singer John Mellencamp and an inspiration for his song "Small Town," that the tariffs saved 200 jobs and leveled a playing field that had been tilted in favor of foreign factories.

Over sweet tea at the local Steak 'n Shake, Jan Engel, 47, a materials manager at the plant, said that without the tariffs, "we would not be here."

Top executives at Home Products International declined to comment.

Daunting challenges

As representatives of the world's largest economies prepare to tackle trade imbalance issues at the G20 summit in Toronto this weekend, exactly how the United States should handle the crush of imports is a matter of urgent debate in many places in the country where manufacturing has anchored the economy.

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