WASHINGTON — A delegation of National Textile Association members made their first foray to Washington last week to meet with Capitol Hill lawmakers and Bush administration officials and register their concerns about U.S. trade policy, which they contend is at odds with U.S. manufacturing interests.

The industry group was formed last year by a merger of the Northern Textile Association, with a strong wool fabric presence, and the Knitted Textile Association. The marriage of the two groups was designed to share resources in building business, but also to heighten members’ influence in Washington at a time when the domestic textile industry continues to struggle.

"We’ve brought quite a diverse group; the people who’ve survived," said Jonathan A. Stevens, NTA vice chairman and president of Ames Textile Corp., Lowell, Mass. He spoke during an interview at a lunch break for the NTA’s 25-member delegation at The Monocle, a political insider haunt in the shadow of Capitol Hill.

Next on the NTA members’ agenda were meetings with lawmakers representing their hometown districts. The executives were prepared to discuss a laundry list of issues underscoring their worries about increasing textile and apparel imports harming the U.S. market.

They had a number of requests to make to lawmakers. Among them:

Reject future trade legislation and trade agreements that don’t provide reciprocal access for U.S. products in foreign markets.

Resist any new attempts to change trade regulations requiring textiles to be dyed, finished and printed in the U.S. if apparel from the Caribbean Basin and Andean countries is to receive duty-free treatment.

Reject any expansion of exceptions to U.S. trade laws granting duty breaks to large amounts of foreign wool fabric.

The day before, in a meeting with Jim Leonard, a deputy assistant secretary at Commerce who’s in charge of administering trade laws governing textile and apparel imports and exports, the NTA mission discussed increasing import competition from China. Low-priced Chinese imports are expected to balloon further in 2005 when all global quotas on textiles and apparel are eliminated among the 145 nations of the World Trade Organization.

The NTA is eager for the administration to impose so-called safeguard measures, allowed by the WTO, to keep limits on certain Chinese apparel and textile categories, particularly knits. Separately, for Vietnam, the NTA wants the administration to step up talks on an agreement to impose limits on the country’s burgeoning textile and apparel imports.John Emrich, president and chief executive officer of Guilford Mills, Greensboro, N.C., called their fight as critical for the textile industry as the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium was for allied troops in World War II.

"We have absolutely been decimated by trade laws that are being — rapid fire, one after the other — approved," said Emrich, whose company in recent months has laid off 3,500 workers. "It’s absolutely impossible to manufacture in a trade environment where our government is hostile to us."

George Shuster, president and ceo of Cranston Print Works, said the NTA is broadening its message to Washington officials to include the decline in manufacturing jobs in general. In 2002, the textile industry lost 23,000 jobs to end the year employing 425,000. Over that time all U.S. manufacturing lost 592,000 workers.

"We’re broadening our message," Shuster said. "This is affecting all manufacturing."

Earlier, a handful of NTA members brought their message to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, who’s well aware of the domestic textile industry’s lament.

Last year, the Bush administration made pledges to the industry to help make it more competitive, at a time when the White House is pursuing several free-trade pacts, including a Free Trade Area of the Americas. The White House has said it can balance its goal of lowering tariffs and trade barriers while keeping U.S. manufacturing competitive.

At the WTO, the administration has also proposed that the U.S. eliminate its tariffs if other countries do the same.

However, the NTA delegation is giving its conditional support, if the lowering of tariffs indeed is reciprocal and is done in conjunction with eliminating nontariff barriers, like steep foreign licensing fees, that keep U.S. exports out. In contrast, another industry textile group, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, has opposed the zero-tariff idea as taking away the industry’s only means of protection against imports.

"This industry has said the mantra of ‘level playing field’ for so many years, so if they can get to that I don’t think, in good faith, we can condemn the plan," said Karl Spilhaus, NTA president. "We also want countries like India to open their markets to China, as well as us."

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