WASHINGTON — The billboards popping up in South Carolina in advance of the Feb. 3 Democratic primary there don’t endorse a candidate, but they underscore a thorny issue facing politicians this election season: unemployment.

This story first appeared in the January 12, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Lost Your Job to Free Trade and Offshoring Yet? Vote,” read the billboards, put up by the American Manufacturers Trade Action Coalition, which has a heavy textile-mill constituency, including Spartanburg, S.C.-based industry giant Milliken & Co.

The billboards — there are nine strategically placed along well-trafficked highways and intersections in the state — are part of AMTAC’s grassroots campaign to encourage voters to support politicians who want to change U.S. trade policies.

“The eyes of the political world are going to be on South Carolina between now and Feb. 3, and AMTAC wants to ensure the manufacturing crisis and the job-loss issue are fully vetted as part of the debate leading up to this primary,” said Augustine Tantillo, AMTAC’s Washington coordinator. “It’s part of our education program getting people to connect the dots on trade policy and its impact on jobs.”

The coalition argues that U.S. trade policies furthered by President Bush, as well as his recent predecessors and members of Congress from both parties, are too skewed toward allowing foreign imports to increase at the expense of competing American manufacturers.

Although not endorsing or campaigning against any candidate, AMTAC members, including Milliken officials, make clear their discontent about Bush on trade and his zeal for wanting to negotiate more regional free-trade pacts, like the one just concluded with Central American countries. The President argues that expanding international trade is essential to the U.S. economy, as long as steps are taken to enforce trade pact rules.

However, like other U.S. manufacturing groups, the coalition likes to note that since 2001 when Bush became President, the economy has shed 2.3 million manufacturing jobs.

“We have serious problems with many of his policies,” Tantillo said of Bush, who handily won South Carolina in the 2000 election, and is now under pressure by AMTAC and other textile groups to take import-limiting steps like setting quotas on Chinese textiles and apparel. “If he produces the solution or someone else produces it, it doesn’t matter to us, as long as we get a solution.”

South Carolina is one of the states hardest hit by the manufacturing downturn. In the last year, the state has lost almost 20,000 factory jobs, including 4,000 in textiles. In the last 10 years — the free-trade pact craze started with NAFTA in 1994 — the state has lost almost 100,000 manufacturing jobs, including 42,600 in textiles, or about 45 percent of the state’s industry.

South Carolina is expected to be a key state in winnowing the field of Democratic candidates, since it’s seen as representing a swath of conservative-minded Democrats in a Republican-heavy state that doesn’t always back GOP candidates. Depending on the outcomes of the Jan. 19 Iowa caucus and Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary, the victor in South Carolina could also become a clear designee as the Democratic presidential candidate to challenge Bush in the fall.

It’s difficult to measure the potential impact of the billboards on the Democratic primary, or in the general election, with the plans to keep the signs up through the Nov. 2 face-off.

“I don’t think the billboards will make a difference,” said Steve Pfister, senior vice president of government relations with the National Retail Federation, a backer of free-trade policies. “Quite frankly, they’ve spent a lot of money to urge people to turn out and vote, but their message is muted because they’re not lining up behind a candidate.”