WASHINGTON — The National Council of Textile Organizations wants to hit politicians where it hurts: in the ballot box.
Officials from the new lobbying group forged by fabric and yarn makers launched their organization Tuesday on Capitol Hill. With a contentious election year in full throttle and the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs a key campaign issue, the NCTO is angling for Congressional and presidential politicians to heed their calls for action.
“The job anxiety is real. It will bring more people to the polls than we’ve seen in decades,” said NCTO member Stephen G. Dobbins Jr., president and chief executive officer of Maiden, N.C.-based Carolina Mills.
Dobbins is also president of the American Yarn Spinners Association, which is being dissolved along with the American Textile Manufacturers Institute to form NCTO in a move to amass more influence in Washington. NCTO members and others in the textile industry concentrated in the South have been educating workers on politicians’ positions on trade, while registering them to vote in advance of the Nov. 2 elections. The goal is to persuade the 412,100 U.S. textile workers and the allied apparel sector with almost 300,000 workers to vote for candidates who only favor their stance on trade.
The industry’s litmus test includes support for World Trade Organization members to delay the scheduled Jan. 1 elimination of market-protecting textile and apparel import quotas; forcing China to stop depressing the value of its currency that keeps its imports inexpensively priced; stricter enforcement of trade agreements to ward off millions of dollars of suspected illegal apparel and textile imports into the U.S., and requiring trading partners to follow labor and environmental standards like those mandated in the U.S.
Rep. Robin Hayes (R., N.C.), speaking at the news conference, is among a cadre of rank-and-file GOP House members hearing from manufacturers whose loyalties to the President on trade are being tested.
“Everything is on the table,” said Hayes, whose district included Pillowtex, the textile mill that shuttered last year, displacing 5,000 workers, and whose family were original founders of the mill.
The South is generally considered a GOP stronghold for President Bush in his reelection bid. But mill executives are clashing with Bush’s free-trade goals, despite his overtures that have included reinstating quotas on three categories of Chinese textiles.
Jim Chesnutt, NCTO’s vice chairman, who is also president and ceo of Washington, N.C.-based National Spinning Co., said he’s telling workers “promises have not been kept by this administration.” However, Chesnutt stopped short of an endorsement of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, who’s advocating stronger labor and environmental standards in trade pacts.
“It’s political peril for anyone, Democrat or Republican, who doesn’t understand” the textile industry’s plight in fighting subsidized and otherwise unfair import competition, said Allen Gant, president of Glen Raven Inc. of Glen Raven, N.C., and NCTO’s chairman, also declining to declare allegiance to any candidate.
He also noted trade-expanding policies have been largely consistent through modern-day Republican and Democratic administrations and bristled at any attempts at “protectionist” labeling.
“We are not isolationists. We are in favor of fair trade,” said Gant. “This industry has lost 86,300 jobs in the last six months.”
Bush administration officials have worked to court industry support by undertaking various foreign-market opening initiatives, supporting tax breaks for distressed companies, promoting exports and discussing unfair trade practices and currency issues with China.
On Wednesday, Charles Freeman III, a deputy assistant U.S. trade representative, defended the administration’s record on forcing China to abide by its fair-trade commitments, speaking to a House panel.
“China wants us to keep our markets open,” said Freeman. “That will depend in no small part [on] what they do in the next few months.”