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Ground zero

Anyone experiencing a sense of vertigo right now is well justified. Indeed, the sand seems to be shifting under the industry's feet so rapidly that the act of maintaining equilibrium is in itself a feat.

Eleven months ago, HTT described the environment as a three-ring circus in a cover story featuring the leaders of the four most prominent home textiles companies dressed in big-top regalia. Their companies' combined sales in 2000 were more than $5.4 billion, a tasty slice of the textiles pie.

It was a short-lived fraternity.

Within a month, Pillowtex ceo Chuck Hansen would be forced out by the company's exasperated credit holders. A few weeks later, WestPoint Stevens president Tom Ward would be handed his hat as well.

Now comes word that Crown Crafts ceo Michael Bernstein has split from the company, taking its adult bedding business (including the Calvin Klein and Royal Sateen brands) along with him. At least his exit was voluntary, a nice change in this revolving-door world.

Among the mighty quartet who graced that cover less than a year ago, only Springs Industries chairman and ceo Crandall Bowles remains on her perch, and her company within weeks will go private.

But those are shifts on a macroscopic level. Down on the ground where the toilers live, the impact has been even more profound, prompting the governors of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina to fire off a letter to the White House in hopes that the U.S. International Trade Commission may ultimately extend to home textiles some of the protections being considered to shield the domestic steel industry from imports.

According to the ATMI, textiles imports, excluding clothing, catapulted by approximately 65 percent from 1996 to 2000, from $9.5 billion in goods to $14.5 billion, costing U.S. manufacturers an estimated $25 billion in domestic production and sales last year alone.

Statistics on the number of U.S. workers who lost employment due to plant shutdowns varies. The ATMI pegs it at 39,000; the governors put the figure at 56,000.

The governors' effort is no doubt sound from a constituency standpoint. In reality, however, it amounts to a Sisyphean attempt to turn back the tide. Textiles globalization has already happened.

On the remote chance that the Administration would take up the domestics cause, the machinery of protection moves so slowly and is impeded upon by so many trade agreements that success is highly unlikely.

One need only look at the U.S. steel industry, for which the Administration has already sprung into action. When Bush last month asked the U.S. International Trade Commission to examine whether steel imports hurt U.S. companies, it was merely the first step toward imposing import controls.

The U.S. has already long been engaged in negotiations with Russia and Japan on the matter. And a few months ago, the World Trade Organization ruled against the U.S. on increased import duties.

Those results don't auger well for textiles.

So the ground will continue to shift, occasionally with cataclysmic results. It's how new continents are formed.

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