Politics may succeed where Stockman didn't

Don Hogsett, May 12, 2003

In a last-ditch drive to save what few textiles jobs are left in America — in an industry virtually dis-owned by Washington policy-makers who have used it as a bargaining chip in the global scheme — a textiles workers union is threatening to derail a deal that would create a textiles industry powerhouse, a $3.1 billion home fashions producer that would tower above its rivals.

Well on the way toward completion, and only days away from being publicly announced, Springs' pending buyout of Pillowtex was blocked — at least for the moment — by the union's 11th-hour maneuvering. At stake for the union are the jobs of thousands of Pillowtex workers that would likely be lost as Springs dismantled most, if not all, of Pillowtex's manufacturing plants.

At stake for Springs is a master plan engineered by investor David Stockman — who bought into the company when it went private in 2000. The first step was to build Springs into a $4 billion to $5 billion textiles titan, mostly through acquisitions. The second step was to take it public once again through the sale of stock, hopefully raising truckloads of cash and providing an exit strategy for both Stockman and the Close family that has controlled Springs for more than a century.

Leveraging all of its strengths against Springs' perceived weaknesses — most notably its distaste for any form of public imbroglio — the union and its president, Bruce Raynor, have shrewdly swung their ax at Springs' softest spots by loudly going public, even threatening to organize its workers to march on Springs' headquarters.

Because of its century-old stewardship of Springs and its sense of responsibility toward one of the Carolinas' largest employers and the communities that house its plants, the controlling Close family is acutely aware that widespread plant closings would tarnish the family's well-cultivated reputation as a responsible, responsive employer.

Another point of vulnerability for Springs are the potential political consequences for Erskine Bowles, the husband of Crandall Bowles, Springs chairman and ceo. Bowles lost a North Carolina senatorial bid a year ago and may still be contemplating another run for public office. No canny politician wants to antagonize a union, even one whose power is waning.

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