WASHINGTON — The new textile lobbying coalition bringing together mill management and organized labor doesn’t have a name yet, a second meeting scheduled or confirmed members, but the fledgling effort, not even a week old, is already causing a stir.
“The forces of darkness have united,” is how opposition camp member Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel for the National Retail Federation, reacted to word of the new textile coalition, first reported in WWD last week.
“They’re protectionist junkies,” said Laura Jones, executive director of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, arguing that domestic mills are already protected by high textile and apparel import tariffs.
“What is working is the international trade agenda,” said Steve Lamar, vice president, American Apparel and Footwear Association, bucking the coalition’s bid to convince Congress and the Bush administration to revamp U.S. trade policies regarding textiles.
Textile magnate Roger Milliken, Bruce Raynor, president of the textile and apparel union UNITE, and George Shuster, president of textile printer Cranston Print Works, convened a group of 40 like-minded industry and union officials last Wednesday, where they said interest in a new industry lobbying effort was strong. Their mission: save the flagging U.S. textile industry.
The textile troika said they’re striking out on their own because established industry groups like the American Textile Manufacturers Institute have been too quick to endorse compromises in trade legislation granting trade breaks to foreign-made textiles and apparel.
Coalition leaders said they want trade parity and dismissed labels of protectionism. Mills have modernized and endeavored to raise exports, they claimed. However, they argued that the government has been limp in its efforts to force foreign countries to lift barriers blocking U.S. textile exports and a series of trade agreements have led to steady increases of low-cost imports robbing domestic mills of market share.
“This isn’t some pathetic industry asking the government to bail it out,” said Raynor, who noted that domestic apparel producers, with 531,000 workers still in their ranks, will also be approached to join the coalition. Textile mills employ 439,000. Each sector has seen continued, steady job losses over many years.
Charles Hayes, chairman of Guilford Mills and president of the ATMI, said he shares the coalition’s concerns. However, he defended the ATMI’s response in compromising on a Caribbean trade bill allowing for some knits to be produced in the region, but only if U.S. yarn is used. Otherwise, duty breaks are reserved for apparel made of U.S. fabric, which Hayes said is a boost for American mills.
“There is no question the future of textiles lies in the hands of politicians,” said Hayes, adding that he hopes the ATMI will work with the coalition. “There has to be a balance in trade, but if you’re looking for protection as the textile groups did during the Reagan (and first Bush) administration, that will never go.”
Three times in the Reagan-Bush years, legislation curbing textile and apparel import growth passed Congress, but were vetoed. Votes to override failed by narrow margins. Since then, free trade has been the mantra of Democratic and Republican administrations, with the advent of NAFTA, the WTO, Africa and Caribbean trade bills and the pending Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Milliken’s Washington lobbyist, Jock Nash, considers the three textile-apparel bills of the Eighties and early Nineties as high-water marks for the domestic industries. He sees a direct link to employment stabilizing in the sectors during the period to politicians being pressured. Nash hopes the coalition will recreate such political power.
“Our influence has faded,” Nash said. “We’re not going to do that anymore.”
Nash expects the coalition to officially launch in mid-April.
The current Bush administration is already aware of the political power of textiles this election year. White House officials have made promises to textile-state lawmakers to help the industry, however coalition leaders said these promises, like further combating transshipments, don’t go far enough.
Roger Chastain, president of Mt. Vernon Mills, Greensboro, N.C., and an ATMI member, said, “It’s premature in a lot of ways as to whether this is a viable coalition. The main thing is, we all fight together or die separately.”
Mike Hubbard, executive vice president of the American Yarn Spinners Association, called the new coalition’s goals “lofty.” Yarn spinners are among the textile sectors advocating trade legislation that opens U.S. markets to foreign knits made of U.S. yarn.
“It is an election year and members of Congress will be paying attention to their constituents,” Hubbard said. “But they will be hearing mixed things from their constituents.”
Karl Spilhaus, president of the Northern Textile Association, said, “I anticipate we will be working close together and supporting it. I think it’s needed because of what’s happening” to the textile industry.