WASHINGTON — The various sectors of the domestic textile industry — fiber, fabric and yarn manufacturers, as well as cotton farmers — are setting aside their squabbles over the fine print of free-trade pacts in order to fight a common foe: Chinese imports.
About two dozen officials from the greater U.S. textile industry are meeting today in Washington to sign off on their strategy.
Their immediate goal is already clear: To muster enough political clout to pressure the Bush administration to limit imports of textiles and apparel from China, which have ballooned 140 percent over the past year. China now has an almost 15 percent share of the U.S. market of foreign-supplied textiles and apparel.
“Obviously, political strength comes from an expanded base,” said Augustine Tantillo, Washington coordinator with the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition.
Unity in the U.S. textile industry has largely been absent for more than a decade as subgroups ranging from weavers to yarn spinners have struck out on their own to try and secure provisions in trade legislation to benefit their particular sectors. Such free-agent maneuverings were evident in shaping legislation passed by Congress in recent years dropping duties on qualifying apparel imports from the Caribbean, Central America and sub-Saharan Africa.
For example, U.S. yarn makers and cotton growers have forged alliances to advocate allowing duty free imports on apparel produced from foreign fabric, as long as U.S. yarn is used. Likewise, U.S. fabric makers have been vocal in urging duty breaks only be given to apparel using U.S. fabric — they have argued that using some foreign yarn is OK.
The various sectors still have unresolved differences. However, aside from the threat of China, in the meeting today, officials from AMTAC, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, the American Fiber Manufacturers Association, the American Yarn Spinners Association, the National Cotton Council and the National Textile Association are expected to discuss other potential alliances.
The groups have already scheduled a Wednesday press conference to discuss their stance on the China issue.
“What we’re trying to do is bring together all the groups and focus on things of common interest,” said Parks Shackelford, ATMI president. “I think China will be the biggest thing of common interest.”
Without a common message, Capitol Hill lawmakers and politicos in the White House have less reason to act, Shackelford said: “Particularly with people on the Hill, they complain about the industry giving conflicting messages.”
The last time the textile industry stood together was in the 1980s when three bills that would have restricted growth of textile and apparel imports cleared Congress. However, they were all vetoed.
The specter of China further cutting into domestic textile sales is today’s common ground for the U.S. textile sector. In 2005, quotas will be lifted on all apparel and textile imports among World Trade Organization members, creating a huge incentive for more production from around the globe to shift to China.
But the U.S. can take steps to buffer the Chinese import impact. Under the terms of China’s WTO membership agreement, countries can impose category-specific limits for up to one year if Chinese imports are causing domestic market havoc.
Already, the ATMI has asked the administration to reinstate quotas on Chinese imports of five apparel and textile import categories from which quotas already have been phased out. More applications are planned.
Karl Spilhaus, president of the NTA, said a unified industry, coupled with the sector’s job losses and the general soft state of the economy, should work together to create political traction to see Chinese safeguards imposed.
“This is very much an environment in which our issues will be heard,” Spilhaus said.