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Washington Outlook Archive
James A. Morrissey, Washington Correspondent

US Textile Manufacturers Turn Up Political Pressure

James A. Morrissey, Washington Correspondent

W ith US and Chinese government trade officials virtually ruling out negotiating restraints on the growth of Chinese textile and apparel imports, domestic manufacturers are turning up their political pressure in hopes of getting some relief. Last year, Chinese imports of textiles and apparel grew by 67 percent, giving China about 20 percent of the US market.

Most trade officials foresee even bigger increases if import quotas are removed as scheduled by January 2005. After the US government last year slapped one-year quotas on three categories of Chinese imports that would limit growth to 7.5 percent, industry trade associations started pressing for a comprehensive agreement that would cover a much broader group of what they consider “ sensitive growth” products. That idea was shot down last month by US Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade Grant Aldonas, who said the Chinese have “categorically rejected” any such notion. Aldonas said this does not mean the United States will not continue to work with the Chinese to make sure they eliminate import barriers and intellectual property violations, but industry officials question whether the commitment is there.

The textile industry lost another round when US trade officials rejected a petition brought by the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL/CIO) seeking trade sanctions on China for what the union charges are “unfair trade practices as a result of labor rights abuses.” A group of manufacturing industries, including textiles, that comprise the Fair Currency Alliance was planning to propose a similar petition based on China’s alleged currency manipulation, which it contends amounts to as much as a 40-percent subsidy for Chinese exports to the United States.

In turning down AFL/CIO’s application, US Trade Representative (USTR) Robert B. Zoellick said accepting the petition would “take us down the path to economic isolationism.” That sent a signal to the alliance to forget about its petition. Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), not only expressed disappointment, but said the tone of the rejection indicates the administration is not likely to take any meaningful measures to control the growth of Chinese imports. Johnson and other textile industry lobbyists say the industry must exert greater political pressure on the president and members of Congress in this election year.

Political Demands

The industry’s lobbyists also have stepped up their political activities. The National Textile Association (NTA) weighed in with a letter to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry outlining a five-point program addressing textile trade issues. It includes: a commitment to extend textile and apparel quotas beyond the Jan. 1, 2005 deadline; opposition to free trade agreements that have loopholes allowing non-signatory nations to benefit from agreements; opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement in its present form; opposition to any reductions in US textile and apparel tariffs, and to any weakening of US trade laws; and support for preserving and expanding the “Buy American” requirements for government procurement. NTA recently made these same points in a series of meetings in Washington with administration trade officials and members of Congress from textile manufacturing states.

NTA, NCTO and the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition all are conducting employee education, and voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns that they say will reach virtually every textile worker in the nation. In addition, the textile organizations will distribute questionnaires to candidates asking where they stand on textile issues, and those findings will be highly publicized. The textile groups do not plan to endorse any particular candidates, but say the questionnaire results will speak for themselves.

Both US textile manufacturers and importers have long urged the government to do a better job of policing textile and apparel imports, but with more and more resources being devoted to controlling drug traffic and strengthening homeland security, that is not very likely to happen. 

International Efforts

US textile manufacturers are placing a lot of their hopes on the Istanbul Declaration, which calls on the World Trade Organization (WTO) to convene an emergency meeting to consider extending the elimination of textile and apparel import quotas beyond the Jan. 1, 2005, deadline (See “ Eurocoton, FTA Endorse Istanbul Declaration,” TW, May 2004). More than 70 textile and apparel trade associations and federations from 35 countries have signed on, but the question is whether they can get their governments to go along. The USTR has repeatedly made it clear that he does not support any such action, and Chiedu Osakwe, director of the WTO’s Textiles Division, says it is out of the question. “The position is unchangeable,” Osakwe said. “It’s a deal that has been done, and it cannot be undone.”

However, US textile officials are not ready to give up yet. They believe the less developed nations, which depend heavily on textile and apparel manufacturing, can make a persuasive case because the WTO’s round of trade liberalization talks are designed to benefit developing and less-developed countries. 

Importers Fight Back

In an effort to counteract the Istanbul Declaration, a group of 18 associations representing retailing and importing companies — including the US Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, and the National Retail Federation — have strongly endorsed the scheduled 2005 deadline for eliminating quotas. The group, which includes both foreign and domestic associations, said in a formal statement: “We believe it is essential for the leadership of the WTO and the world to know that the majority of the industry and consumers in Europe, the United States and Canada fully support the end of the quotas this year and reject any effort to extend the system and create new forms of protection.”

The statement says the governments of the United States, Canada and the European Union have notified the WTO’s textile monitoring body that on Jan. 1, 2005, they will lift all quotas on textiles and apparel that have not already been removed during the 10-year quota phase-out. They say nothing has changed that would warrant backing out of the deal now.

The group says the quota phase-out was an “essential concession” by the developed countries to the developing countries that provides justification for the developing countries to accept rules governing such things as intellectual property rights protection and services, which are important to the developed countries. Efforts to disregard these bargains, they say, would “raise grave concerns” about the future of the international trading system. 

Upholstery Fabrics Council Formed

While the industry’s trade associations are putting most of their eggs in the international trade basket, NTA has formed an Upholstery Fabrics Council to address some critical flammability issues at the federal and state levels. The Consumer Product Safety Commission appears to be in the final stages of writing a flammability standard for upholstered furniture fabrics. The standard uses a cigarette and small flame ignition source test.

The commission reportedly is anxious to issue a standard this year, and NTA has been providing it with test data it hopes will bring the issue to a close. Although consumer safety officials in California also have fabric flammability proceedings underway, the textile industry is hopeful that a single national test could be written that would eliminate the need for state regulations and thereby eliminate costly duplication and confusion.

Roger Berkley, president and CEO, Weave Corp., has been elected chairman of the council. In addition to Weave Corp., charter members include American Silk Mills Corp., Craftex Mills Inc. of Pennsylvania, Milliken & Company, Quaker Fabrics Corp., Sunbury Textile Mills Inc., and Wearbest Sil-tex Mills Ltd.

June 2004