WASHINGTON — The downward spiral steepened for the domestic textile and apparel industries in 2003, slashing 93,400 jobs from payrolls in the year.

Staggering job losses have energized domestic textile producers, who have turned up the pressure on the Bush administration to curb imports from China and negotiate tighter trade agreements with fewer loopholes for foreign fabric.

The apparel and textile sectors have lost a combined 323,000 jobs since President Bush took office in January 2001. About a third of the jobs in the twin industries has been lost in the past three years.

The economy, which has lost about 2.3 million jobs since Bush took office, is expected to be a key campaign issue in this year’s presidential election and Democratic hopefuls have already seized on the flagging manufacturing sector to attack the President’s fiscal policies.

However, the Bush administration, pointing to the drop in the unemployment rate and other positive economic signals, claims a series of tax cuts will eventually stimulate the economy and create more jobs.

Combined employment in the textile and apparel industries fell to 722,400 in 2003 from 815,800 in December 2002, according to the Labor Department’s employment report released Friday.

Apparel employment posted the steepest decline last year, falling by 43,800 on a seasonally adjusted basis to employ 293,400. Employment fell by 2,600 in December against November.

The textile mill category lost 34,700 seasonally adjusted jobs in 2003 to employ 250,200. The sector lost 3,200 in December against November. Textile mill products shed 14,900 jobs in 2003 and 300 jobs in December.

“This has been the worst three years in terms of job and production loss on record,” said Charles McMillion, president of MBG Information Services. “The industry is really in a dead spiral. Without a strong national policy, it’s future in the next two or three years and remaining jobs are in very great doubt, and with those jobs go a lot of communities and a lot of supplier industries as well.”

Steve Spiwak, a senior economist at Retail Forward, said, “A lot of apparel and textile jobs are being exported. Another factor is strong productivity gains in the manufacturing sector, which causes layoffs. Productivity enhancements have been a long-term trend for the past 10 to 20 years and those jobs are not coming back.”

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

It is precisely because jobs are not coming back that a coalition of domestic textile groups has turned up the lobbying pressure in Washington and taken its message to the states.

The American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition recently launched a billboard campaign in South Carolina to highlight job losses caused by free trade. (See related story this page.)

“We are not surprised massive job losses are occurring when you consider the trade policy we’ve had for several years,” said a spokesman for AMTAC. “We are bearing the fruits of that policy as we speak and those fruits are job losses.”

In the overall economy, the unemployment rate fell slightly by 0.2 percent to 5.7 percent in December, but the economy only added 1,000 new jobs.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao hailed the falling unemployment rate, claiming it has dropped to its lowest level in over a year.

“The economy has created jobs in each of the last five months, though last month’s job growth was less robust than forecasters projected,” Chao said in a statement.

She pointed to other positive employment developments, including construction employment, which is at an all-time high, and rising employment in education and health services.

Bush met with women small business owners at the Commerce Department Friday and said, “I’m optmistic because I see things happening. Unemployment droped today to 5.7 percent. That’s not good enough. We want more people working. But nevertheless, it is a positive sign that the economy is getting better.”

Bush cited such strengths in the economy as rising manufacturing orders, high productivity and strong home construction. “All the signs in our economy are very strong,” he said.

Despite the declines in the manufacturing sector, Spiwak also remains optimistic about the economic outlook in an election year.

“On net as we approach November and the elections, we’ll continue to see the job market evolve slowly but steadily,” Spiwak said. “By the middle of the year, we will see a more convincing job market rebound driven mostly by rebounding business sentiment and business profits.”

Meanwhile, apparel and accessories stores cut 30,000 seasonally adjusted jobs from payrolls in 2003 to employ 1.278 million people. Employers trimmed 800 jobs in December against November.

Department stores cut 26,800 jobs to employ 1.7 million in 2003 and trimmed 1,000 jobs in December, while general merchandise stores added 3,300 jobs to employ 2.83 million people in 2003, but trimmed 12,500 jobs in December against November.