Thousands of shoe soles are piling up in the Capitol Hill office of Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), most sent by employes of Craddock-Terry Shoe Corp., the Lynchburg company that operates seven factories in southern and western Virginia.
On each sole is a personal, handwritten plea: save our jobs by restricting imported shoes.
In other rooms are stacks of boxes containing more than 20,000 letters from textile workers, county boards of supervisors and town councils -- mostly from the textile belt in southern Virginia. All urge Warner to fight for legislation to protect the textile industry from foreign competition. And southern Virginia farmers are begging him for protection against cheaper tobacco imports.
On the other side of the issue, Mars Inc., headquartered in Northern Virginia, has asked Warner for help in breaking into Taiwan's restrictive chocolate market.
It's a tough dilemma for Warner, who has called himself a free trader. Like other members of Congress from Virginia, where politicians and businessmen usually are telling the federal government to get out of their lives, Warner has advocated relief for at least some of these industries.
"Warner has mixed feelings about this. If you ask him his trade philosophy, he'd say free trade. But that's a simple answer to a complex issue," said a Warner aide.
"If both textiles and tobacco failed, if both went down at the same time, I'd hate to think what would happen to that area. You can't just hide behind the free trade" label, he said.
Members of Congress in the region said the cries for relief have come from almost every sector. In Western Maryland, executives at the Mack Truck factory in Hagerstown have been warning Rep. Beverly B. Byron (D-Md.) that cheaper foreign labor is hurting their competitiveness and may affect jobs.
Rep. Thomas J. Bliley (R-Va.) has been asked by American Telephone and Telegraph Co., which has a huge plant in his Richmond district, to help it eliminate barriers it faces in selling its telephone equipment in Japan. And in Baltimore, Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.) has been hearing from steel workers and executives who want limits on imported steel.
The cries for help have not been ignored by the politicians, most of whom have endorsed at least some form of protectionist legislation in Congress.
This protectionist tide troubles John T. Harris, who owns three family clothing stores called Aycock's near Warsaw, Va. Harris says he wrote Warner, Sen. Paul S. Trible (R-Va.) and Rep. Herbert H. Bateman (R-Va.) "about my displeasure over the protectionist fever that is rampant in Washington now."
Harris said they wrote back, telling him they favored reducing textile imports. He says he is "somewhat surprised at their position because they are advocates of free trade," but he added, "I know they're under a tremendous amount of pressure."
Harris says protectionist textile legislation will mean higher clothing prices for consumers and will make it harder for mom-and-pop retail operations to remain competitive. He doubts he will have to lay off any of his 15 employes at Aycock's, which imports about 20 percent of its merchandise. But he fears the retail industry will face layoffs and reduced sales.
Likewise, Bob Pitman, a corn farmer in Lancaster County in Virginia's Northern Neck, says he and other farmers are afraid of a trade war. Pitman, president of the Virginia Corn Growers Association, said farmers fear that restrictions on Japanese cars, Chinese textiles and Brazilian shoes will mean these countries will look elsewhere for their corn, soybeans and other farm products.
"I think you would see some pretty quick retaliation," Pitman said.
Some members of Congress, like Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), share Pitman's concerns. "The lesson of the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill of 1929 is that other nations do retaliate and that it has the effect of generally slowing down trade," Mathias said. "It was the cause, or at least was a contributing factor, to the Great Depression."
Nevertheless, Mathias, chairman of a Senate subcommittee on international economic policy, also supports a bill to protect the textile industry from imports, saying that America may have to start taking tougher steps to eliminate barriers to American products overseas.
"It's very much like arms control," said Warner's aide. "Will escalation of protectionism lead to war? Are we negotiating from a position of strength? Should we pass a bill to give our trade negotiators more leverage?"
Rep. James R. Olin (D-Va.) is a former executive of General Electric, which has substantial exports. "GE is able to compete successfully" by designing a superior product, even if wages here are higher, Olin said. "Any technical business can do this if they're willing to invest in the business." Accordingly, he is opposed to protection against imports for the auto industry.
But Olin, whose western Virginia district has a substantial number of textile mills and shoe factories, said labor-intensive companies that are not high tech cannot compete with cheap foreign labor. He therefore has endorsed quotas to help textiles and footwear.
Olin and other members of Congress point out that because many of these shoe and textile companies are located in small towns, it is particularly hard for laid-off employes to get other jobs.
The largest employer in Front Royal is Avtex, which produces rayon fibers to sell to the textile industry. It has about 1,500 employes, and has had to lay off several hundred in the past few years, according to company spokesman Pat Hughes. Last month the company got the union to agree to pay cuts in the form of a loan. Employes were promised their money back in the future, with interest.
"Our normal marketplace, the American textile industry," Hughes said, "has been going out of business."