Textile states weave plans to stall new trade pacts

The industry, ravaged by job losses, wants protections before backing a push for more 'free trade' deals.

Charles Hayes never changed his small office, even after he made it to the top of Guilford Mills Inc. He liked hearing the din of the big knitting looms on the other side of the wall as he worked. And he hated shutting them down.

"This is what Congress and the strength of the dollar has done to our industry," he said, shrugging off a tear as he walked through a nearly empty mill for the first time since closing it last March.

Now, as President Bush presses Congress for authority to negotiate new free-trade agreements, Mr. Hayes and the industry he represents are becoming an increasingly vocal force in opposition.

More than 74,000 US textile jobs have disappeared in the past 12 months alone - the biggest period of job loss in the industry since the demobilization after World War II. While the trend is a long-term one, the sped-up pace worries industry insiders, who say a lot more cuts are on the way.

Here in Greensboro, N.C., Guilford Mills now employs 600 workers, down from 1,600 in January 2000. By one local study, fewer than half the laid-off workers have found new jobs.

The silent looms signal the problem the White House is having convincing Congress and the public that more free trade will create more good jobs.

"This is a very tough time for the textile industry, and it's been tough for the last few years," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Lowering trade barriers is good for the economy overall, but some people suffer severely on account of it. And the textile industry is right there at the top."

The industry that virtually dictated US trade policy in the 19th century has lost most of its political clout in an economy increasingly dominated by services. Until recently, the Congressional Textile Caucus - down to a handful of representatives from a few Southern states - rarely met.

For one thing, even lawmakers with a big textile presence in their districts could point to jobs created by incoming foreign firms to offset the losses in textiles.

But with the US economy at a standstill, cries for protecting manufacturing jobs are making inroads in Congress.

When Republican leaders in the House tried to get a quick vote on President Bush's request for trade-promotion authority (TPA) last July, they found they did not have enough support.

By some estimates, the measure remains too close to call as a fall vote approaches.

One reason is people such as Hayes.

Currently president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, the industry's main lobby group, he has been a longtime supporter of free trade. He worked out details leading up to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with US trade officials over his dining room table in Greensboro, N.C., in 1993.

But since then, his doubts about free trade have grown.

Since June, he has been lobbying for the government to step in with remedies, including invoking unfair-trade laws against Asian manufacturers and attacking illegal practices, such as mislabled countries of origin. Many lawmakers, especially in the South, are lending an ear.

For some GOP lawmakers, such as Rep. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, the issue is personal. He has family still working in textiles, and grew up close to the industry.

He says he is looking for assurances from the White House that textile jobs will be protected before promising a vote on TPA.

Over the August recess, the newly revived textile caucus sent a letter signed by 31 lawmakers calling on the White House to do something about the textile crisis.

"Some of us are undecided as to whether we will support trade-promotion authority, while some of us will feel compelled to oppose it," they wrote. "All of us, however, believe your administration must take substantive steps to address the crisis in the textile industry before we can even consider lending our support to TPA."

The industry also has the strong support of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who can be a one-man wrecking crew on issues he cares deeply about.

At the industry's urging, Senator Helms held up four key Bush nominations for the Treasury Department for seven months over proposed regulations that would have dropped customs duties on some apparel produced in the Caribbean basin.

"We held up all these nominations until we got an assurance from the Treasury Department that they would not promulgate regulations until there was a legislative solution to this problem," says Jimmy Broughton, a Helms spokesman. "North Carolina has been the donor state for all this wonderful free trade.... Everyone is for free trade, but it has to be fair."

This new activism on the part of the textile industry worries some free traders. If anything, the textile industry is getting too much clout, says Claude Barfield, a trade expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The secretary of the Treasury was sitting alone for many more months than he needed to be because of Helms and this group of ailing industries," he says.

When the governors of four textile states asked for a meeting with President Bush on the textile crisis last month, they got a form letter from a White House staffer saying that the president was too busy.

On Thursday, the White House took a second look at that request and promised the governors a meeting with top economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey soon.

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