WASHINGTON — The beleaguered U.S. textile industry got a political boost Wednesday in the form of two letters sent to President Bush by a cadre of Republican and Democratic lawmakers urging various steps be taken to gird the industry against competition from China.

The textile industry has long had its wish list for the Bush administration regarding China, which is the U.S.’s largest foreign supplier of apparel and textiles with a 17 percent market share. That’s expected to keep climbing when global quotas restricting the trade are fully lifted in 2005.

However, such bipartisan support for the textile industry’s agenda from 139 House members and 26 senators is a strong showing for any issue. It’s significant that more than one-third, or 60 signatories, came from Bush’s GOP camp and at a time when the President’s aggressive free-trade agenda is going full throttle and will depend on congressional backing to approve agreements.

“I think we’re all wearing short on patience,” said Rep. Howard Coble (R., N.C.), co-chairman of the House Textile Caucus, at a Capitol Hill news conference. “Democratic and Republican administrations have missed the mark on trade.”

The key moves the lawmakers want the President to make are:

  • Back the U.S. textile industry in its call for temporary limits on certain apparel and textile imports from China. A decision is due Nov. 17.

  • Drop proposals at the World Trade Organization to eliminate textile and apparel tariffs altogether. Instead, lawmakers want the administration to wait until other countries lower their tariffs and nontariff trade barriers first.

  • Reject calls in Central American Free Trade Agreement talks to allow non-U.S. or Central American textiles to be used in apparel gaining duty-free access to the U.S. Lawmakers don’t want “China and other free-rider foreign suppliers to benefit from agreements designed to promote trade” among signatory countries.

In the letter, lawmakers called their plan of action “essential to offset China’s massive and damaging surge into the U.S. textile and apparel market.” The letter also cited an American Textile Manufacturers Institute study forecasting that China is poised to claim 65 to 75 percent of the U.S. apparel and textile import market.Helping to drive Capitol Hill support for the textile industry’s cause is the overall decline in manufacturing jobs, which have tumbled by 2.7 million in the last three years, 314,000 of which were in textiles and apparel.

“We’re not crying wolf here, we’re crying crisis,” said Rep. John Spratt (D., S.C.), co-chairman of the Textile Caucus, who said U.S. trade policy should look to remedy manufacturing woes by “sector-specific solutions” like those proposed for textiles.

William Giblin, chief executive officer of Tweave Inc. and chairman of the National Textile Association, and other industry officials said the congressional support indicates a grassroots revolt on trade. Jim Chesnutt, ceo of National Spinning Co. and vice chairman of the ATMI, spoke about the textile industry’s voter registration drive designed to reward politicians who back the textile cause. The workers “understand who supports us,” Chesnutt said, declining to measure support in the textile-producing South for Bush’s reelection bid next year.

With no trade legislation before Congress and lawmakers set to soon adjourn for the year, it’s difficult to measure the depth of discontent among lawmakers for the Bush trade agenda. Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.), an opponent of the Bush policies who attended the news conference, said support is waning.

“The message from the Hill is ‘don’t negotiate any new trade agreements because you’re not going to get them passed, anyway,’” Frank said.

However, apparel and textile importer officials aren’t ready to sound the alarm that breaks might be put on free-trade policies that, over several administrations, have led to more than 90 percent of apparel being sold in the U.S. being imported.

Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, doesn’t consider the strong congressional backing of the textile industry’s China agenda to have broader implications for future trade agreements.

“There is a strong feeling in Congress to send a strong message on China, whether it’s on their currency, the trade deficit or loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S,” Hughes said. “That is the issue of the moment.”Kevin Burke, president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said protections against Chinese imports won’t bring U.S. textile jobs back. Moreover, he said if domestic mills supported foreign fabric in the Central America pact, that would mean more business for them.

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