WASHINGTON — A new coalition of six textile, fiber and machinery associations, said to represent $100 billion in annual textile sector sales, endorsed the Central American Free Trade Agreement on Thursday.

The move further fractures the U.S. textile industry over support of CAFTA. Supporters say the tariff-dropping pact will help fabric exports to the region, while opponents contend it will lead to more job erosion in the already decimated sector.

The coalition, in a statement, lauded the export benefits in CAFTA, but also noted it is concerned about “several troublesome provisions in the agreement.”

The textile industry has been considered one of the hurdles to CAFTA’s passage in the House, where the accord faces an uphill battle. But in recent days the administration has secured support from the National Council of Textile Organizations, a key textile lobbying group that is part of the coalition. The administration is counting on the support from the textile industry as it looks to secure votes from lawmakers in southeastern states with large textile constituencies.

The pro-CAFTA group comprises NCTO, the National Cotton Council, the American Fiber Manufacturers Association, the American Textile Machinery Association, the Carpet & Rug Institute and the association of the nonwoven fabrics industry.

Textile lobbying and labor groups opposed to CAFTA reaffirmed their objections to the accord and its potential to hurt U.S. workers. The anti-CAFTA coalition includes the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, National Textile Association, UNITE HERE and the Domestic Manufacturers Committee of the Hosiery Association.

The decision to support CAFTA has caused some dissension even within NCTO. Roger Chastain, president and chief operating officer of Greenville, S.C.-based Mount Vernon Mills, one of the largest U.S. fabric producers, said in a phone interview that he resigned from the organization’s board over the CAFTA vote because he believes it will lead to more job losses.

Stephen Felker Jr., manager of corporate development at Avondale Mills, an NCTO board member, also said the company does not support CAFTA as it stands.

U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman met with NCTO’s board members Wednesday evening and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez gave the dinner speech. Cass Johnson, president of the group, was also invited to the White House to meet with Gutierrez, Portman and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.

This story first appeared in the May 20, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

On Wednesday night, Gutierrez thanked the association for its support of CAFTA as he highlighted the administration’s recent actions to help the industry. The U.S. has now approved seven petitions and will impose quotas on $1.31 billion worth of apparel and textile imports from China.

“Hopefully, it’s another example that this administration is trying to be responsive to the concerns raised by the industry,” he said.

Gutierrez also said he met with a Chinese vice minister Wednesday to discuss the new round of safeguards and the minister told him, “He was ordered to read us the riot act on how disappointed they were.”

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