At the start of the last decade, Health-Tex Inc. was one of the nation's leading manufacturers of children's clothing, with 9,000 employees in 18 plants up and down the East Coast.

Today, after two leveraged buyouts in the last five years, employment is down to 4,000 at five plants and Health-Tex is struggling to avoid liquidation.

Faced with the loss of another 4,000 workers after three years of a wage freeze, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) is trying a new tactic in an effort to salvage the business wreckage of a decade-long takeover binge: Pressure the banks that financed the deals to nurse the surviving companies back to profitability.

"These banks are willing to restructure massive loans to foreign countries and companies outside our borders," said ACTWU President Jack Sheinkman. "Let them give similar consideration to American workers who have sacrificed to save their company from {the} financial crisis handed to them by the banks."

The ACTWU, which owns a $1 billion bank of its own in New York City, has embarked on a campaign of public demonstrations against the 10 banks that financed the Health-Tex takeovers.

In announcing the strategy, Sheinkman said, "We are working in the communities of each of the 10 banks to mobilize support from the banks' depositors for our demand. All we're asking is time to complete the cleanup of the financial mess foisted on us by these banks."

Last week, union pickets marched into the Charlotte, N.C., headquarters of NCNB Corp. and forced a meeting with the bank's top officers, who told the union they would not support liquidation of Health-Tex at this time.

A group of ACTWU pickets, backed by the local AFL-CIO labor council and local television cameras, demonstrated outside Cleveland's Ameritrust Corp. until the chairman of the board agreed to meet with them. After a two-hour meeting, bank management said it was not eager to be viewed as an institution that threw workers out of jobs.Banks holding the Health-Tex debt signed a so-called standstill agreement last November in which they agreed not to take any action on the company's debt until the end of this month. The union is trying to persuade the banks to extend the agreement while Health-Tex management, with the help of the union, seeks a buyer for the company.

Union officials said that since the start of the campaign, five of the banks have formed a committee to negotiate with possible buyers of the company.

Public protests are not the only weapons the labor movement may use in its effort to focus attention on the role banks have played in numerous leveraged buyouts.

The Bank of New York, for example, handles the credit card accounts of hundreds of thousands of union members belonging to the Union Privilege Benefit program of the AFL-CIO. At the end of the first quarter of this year, the outstanding balance on these credit card accounts was $1.7 billion, with lines of credit totaling $4.2 billion.

The moral of the story is that if the bank decides it doesn't want to stick with Health-Tex, the AFL-CIO is apt to decide it doesn't want to stick with the bank, labor sources suggested.

The Bank of New York holds about 30 percent of the Health-Tex debt and is the lead bank in the consortium that holds the company's debt.

Another powerful motivator may be the voice unions have in how hundreds of millions of dollars in private pension funds are invested. Unions could decide to stop doing business with any bank that fails to help work toward rescuing companies from the burdens of takeover debt.

ACTWU Vice President Garry Feraris said that before the union embarked on the campaign against the banks involved with Health-Tex it did research to find depositors who might be friendly to the union's cause. "Every bank has heard from somebody who supports us," he said.

In addition to pressuring the banks, Feraris said the union also was working to get several investors who operate so-called "vulture" funds that specialize in buying distressed firms to buy Health-Tex. "It's not going to be an employee-owned company," he said, stressing that the union was looking for someone else to buy the firm.

The ACTWU has been working within the AFL-CIO to set up a $100 million Employee Partnership Fund to help unions buy companies put up at distress sales. The fund is expected to be operational by year-end.

A labor investment adviser suggested that the spotlight turned on the banks by the union should have an impact.

"The banks ought to be very sensitive that they made a lot of loans in the '80s that in retrospect were not done with great care," he said. "For them to turn around and say, 'I'm sorry we've got to liquidate,' ... they just can't walk away."

The pressure being put on the banks is "just one arrow in our quiver," Sheinkman said. "I've always felt that you have to fight these institutions on their own turf. What's a strike going to do? We've got to use economic muscle. We have to use new techniques."