WASHINGTON — The beleaguered textile industry on Tuesday applauded a new "buy American" law sponsored by freshman Rep. Larry Kissell, though it remains unclear how many jobs will be shifted to the United States because of it.
Some of the nation's leading producers of yarn and other textiles say the new government business will help stabilize their companies, provide more confidence in future federal work and help them invest in the future.
"Obviously I'm in favor of anything that keeps the textile business alive," said Martin Foil, chairman of Tuscarora Yarns Inc., which is based in Mt. Pleasant, N.C., and has other facilities in Oakboro and China Grove.
He said he was glad to see the government wasn’t going "overseas with tax dollars, which really ticks me off."
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Foil participated in a conference call with several other textile manufacturers to praise a provision in the new economic stimulus law that was sponsored by Kissell, a Democrat from North Carolina.
The measure is Kissell's first to become law since becoming a member of Congress last month.
It expands a rule that military uniforms be completely made and assembled in the United States to textiles worn and used by Transportation Security Administration officers, who monitor airports and other transportation systems like trains and subways, and to the Coast Guard.
The fabric for TSA's uniforms is already made in the United States, by Milliken & Co. in Spartanburg, S.C., but the pants and shirts are assembled in Honduras and Mexico.
The number of jobs that would be shifted to the United States for TSA uniform assembly would be difficult to calculate, but it's likely to be 100 or fewer, said Neal Waters, a vice president of the company that has the existing contract to manage the TSA uniform program, a subsidiary of Greensboro-based VF Corp.
"It's a fairly complex question," he said, in part because the company's line workers work on several different contracts, not just the government program.
The Kissell rule applies to all textile products such as body armor, holsters and conveyer belts, not just clothing, said Lloyd Wood, a spokesman for the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition.
The TSA said it hadn't calculated the cost of the change.
About 50,000 TSA workers are given $150 a year to replace uniform pieces, said agency spokesman Christopher White. Last year, at a cost of $12 million, the agency completely revamped its uniforms to incorporate fabrics and colors that were more friendly to weather conditions and stains, he said.
The Coast Guard also would be covered by the Kissell rule, although it's unclear whether it uses any foreign sources to make its uniforms now, Wood said.
Several "buy American" provisions in the $787 billion economic stimulus bill have been criticized as protectionist by pro-business and free-trade advocates.
President Obama has said he wants to be respectful of international trade laws and make certain that such provisions don’t lead to a "downward protectionist spiral that is very dangerous."
Foil said Kissell's rule won't be a boon to every textile company in America, "but every little bit helps."
Peter Hegarty, president of Tuscarora Yarns, said with the significant downturn in the retail business, anything his company can do to get more heavily invested in military applications and protective apparel is "tremendously important to our survival."