ATMI MEETING AIRS TEXTILES WOES
Byline: Joanna Ramey / With contributions from Kristi Ellis
WASHINGTON — “Promises, promises” was the lament of textile executives last week during the American Textile Manufacturers Institute’s annual meeting, where Commerce Secretary Donald Evans and Capitol Hill lawmakers from textile states reaffirmed pledges to help the ailing industry.
“We have a history of being promised things and nothing ever comes of it,” said Jim Copland 3rd, chief executive officer of Copland Industries, a Burlington, N.C.-based weaver of polyester fabrics.
Copland, who was venting his frustration to Rep. Robin Hayes (R., N.C.), who spoke at lunch Thursday, said, “A lot of us here in this room are fighting for our [professional] lives.”
The congressman has been in the hot seat among his textile-mill constituents for casting the deciding vote in December for trade promotion authority, which enables President Bush to more aggressively pursue his trade-liberalizing agenda.
Hayes has cast himself as a hero of the import-battered domestic textile industry because in exchange for support of TPA, the Bush administration pledged to help the industry.
Hayes told ATMI members at a lunch that he’s “going to fight with every fiber of my being in every process that goes forward to make sure that the opportunity turns into more jobs, expanded markets and plants reopening and expanding, not closing.”
At breakfast, Rep. Cass Ballenger (R., N.C.) offered similar support. She also voted for TPA based on the administration’s textile promises.
Such attention from government officials, which comes in an election year, offers some hope for an industry that in the last two years has seen more closures than at any time since the Great Depression and in the last year lost 51,700 workers.
Van May, the new chairman of the ATMI and president and ceo of Plains Cotton Cooperative Association, based in Lubbock, Tex., said: “Since December…the visibility of our industry, our profile, was raised to the highest level.”
The administration’s pledges to the industry include:
Looking anew at U.S. efforts to combat textile and apparel import smuggling.
Forcing foreign markets to lower trade barriers to U.S. textile and apparel sales.
Resisting efforts at the World Trade Organization to speed up the global phaseout of textile and apparel quotas by 2005.
Promoting textile exports, including boosting sales under recent Caribbean Basin and sub-Saharan African trade legislation.
Commerce Secretary Don Evans, in a folksy after-lunch speech, told the gathering of about 100 mill executives that Bush expects to be held accountable if these commitments aren’t fulfilled. He provided no details on the progress the administration has made.
He said the President “understands the plight of the textile industry, he knows the loss of jobs, he knows the bankruptcies. Evans likened the industry’s downturn to what he saw during the Eighties oil bust as an energy executive.
For May, opening foreign markets to U.S. textiles is key to the industry’s survival. May, who was elected at the meeting to a one-year term as ATMI chairman — the post was formerly known as president — cited India as an example of a closed market. He pointed out it has 40 percent tariffs on denim imports, on top of a 10 percent surcharge and the cost of an import license. By contrast, the U.S. tariff on denim imports is 8.5 percent.
“That’s no more than a cover charge at a west Texas honky-tonk,” May said.
For his part, Chuck Hayes — who ended his term as ATMI president at the meeting and is also thinking about retiring as chairman at Guilford Mills — urged spinners, knitters, weavers, dyers and finishers to remain unified in lobbying Capitol Hill on trade issues, which in recent years hasn’t been the case.
“We must gain the respect that an industry of our size truly deserves,” Hayes said. “There is no question that our industry is controlled by politics. Textiles is nothing but a bargaining chip that is constantly in play and is used by our government on a continuing basis” for foreign-policy goals.
One trade issue that’s boiling over on Capitol Hill involves whether apparel from the Caribbean Basin receiving duty-free treatment should be dyed and finished in the U.S. in order to get the trade breaks. The ATMI believes it should. There are some yarn spinners and knitters who disagree.
May said the industry should remain unified to maintain its political clout.
“It would be our hope that, whatever model we can develop…we set the right kind of pattern for all of our future trade negotiations in this hemisphere,” May told reporters. “But we cannot allow a wovens-versus-knit split in our industry. I just don’t think that’s healthy for any of us, long term.”
Aside from trade legislation, ATMI members focused on what they say is another threat to business: the strong U.S. dollar, which makes American textile exports costly for foreign countries and fuels low-cost imports into the country. The ATMI is part of a broad U.S. manufacturing coalition urging the administration to rethink its strong dollar policy.
Cotton Incorporated ceo Berrye Worsham said mill executives have surpassed a subdued stage and are in search of new solutions. Still, he said, the U.S. dollar is an additional hurdle.
“You can’t compete with currencies being so different,” said Duke Kimbrell, chairman of Parkdale Mills of Gastonia, N.C.
With a much-scaled-down industry, the ATMI, which has faced its own cutbacks, also pared down its annual meeting at Washington’s St. Regis Hotel to two days from three.
During the meeting, there was some discussion about another textile lobbying effort under way, led by textile magnate Roger Milliken, apparel and textile union UNITE, and George Shuster, president and ceo of Cranston Print Works. Two years ago, Milliken broke from ATMI over its stance on trade. The new lobbying coalition has had preliminary meetings and is expected to be officially launched next month. In early discussions, organizers said the coalition will call on the government to reassess U.S. trade policy and its impact on U.S. manufacturing sectors, such as textiles and apparel.
ATMI members largely applauded the new lobbying effort.
“I don’t believe it takes anything away from ATMI. It’s additive,” said Joe Gorga, president and ceo of knitter CMI Industries, Greensboro, N.C., who attended the coalition’s first organizing meeting on March 6.
Gorga was elected ATMI first vice chairman at the meeting, putting him in place to assume the chairmanship in March 2004. Billy Moore, executive vice president and chief financial officer of fiber and yarn producer Unifi Inc., was elected second vice chairman.