RALEIGH, N.C., FEB. 25 -- American textile interests are pressuring presidential contenders to endorse a textile quota bill before a series of primaries in the southern states, where the industry has the most political clout.
The new effort, inaugurated with a rally Wednesday in Greenville, S.C., the heart of the South's textile belt, comes just before the March 5 presidential primary in that state and "Super Tuesday," March 8, when there are primaries in 20 southern and border states.
The textile measure passed the House last year and is not expected to come up in the Senate until after the major trade bill gets out of a House-Senate conference, probably late this spring. Textile-state interests in the Senate were reported to have considered calling for a vote on the measure March 3, two days before the South Carolina primary and five days before Super Tuesday, but decided against it.
Daniel K. Frierson, chairman of the Fiber, Fabric and Apparel Coalition for Trade, an industry-union group promoting the bill, denied that the new effort was timed to take advantage of the southern presidential primaries. Rather, he said, it is aimed at getting support for the bill from elected local, state and national officials in the South, as well as from presidential candidates.
Since 1981, Frierson said, 35,000 South Carolina textile workers have lost their jobs and 92 South Carolina mills have been among the 1,000 closed nationwide.
Textile officials say the job losses are caused primarily by an increase in imports, but some economists and industry analysts believe the plant closings and cuts in employment were part of a needed restructuring to modernize plants so they can compete in world markets.
President Reagan has promised to veto the bill, which passed the House last year, as he did when Congress passed a similar but more restrictive quota measure in 1986.
The labor-industry coalition supporting the bill is not expected to muster enough votes to override the veto, and political observers here and in Washington said their aim is to gain commitments from presidential contenders for future fights.
Textile interests used a campaign pledge from Reagan to gain a series of import-restricting rulings from the administration in its first term, but never won the president's support for the quota bill.
Vice President George Bush, campaigning hard in the South, remains opposed to the textile bill.
But Pat Robertson, who is looking for his "invisible army" of evangelical Christians to give him a surprise victory, has already come out in favor of the bill.
And Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who voted in favor of the measure when it came before the Senate in a different form in 1985, campaigned in North and South Carolina Wednesday with one of the major sponsors of the bill, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-Kan.).
On the Democratic side, Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) have voted for textile quota bills in the past. It is unclear where the other major Democratic candidates in the southern primaries -- Jesse Jackson and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis -- stand on the issue.
If the textile forces in the Senate bring the bill to the floor next week, the vote will come at a time when imports have slowed dramatically and plants are running close to capacity. After spending $17 billion to modernize facilities through the 1980s, U.S. manufacturers have become some of the most productive and efficient in the world.
But industry officials insist that the turnaround is transitory and that hard times lie ahead. Carlos Moore, executive vice president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, cited recent figures showing that the market is beginning to soften as inventories start to build and orders fall off. Further, he said employment was down 3,000 in textile mills and 7,000 in apparel plants in January. Even last year's profits, up 9 percent over 1986, are low compared to the 34 percent increase for all manufacturing industries, he said.
"We are facing one of the cyclical downturns" in which "the domestic industry gets clobbered and imports rise," he said.
"There is not anything to be bullish about," Moore said. "We get a smaller and smaller share of the market after every downturn."