A dispatch from New York in the April 22 edition of The Washington Post said the Independent Cutters and Sewers of Children's Sleepwear had filed suit in Washington over a Consumer Product Safety Commission order that sleepwear manufacturers buy back goods treated with the fire retardant Tris. The suit was actually filed by the American Apparel Manufacturers Association.
Most of the sewing tables in the Ganis Bros.' creaking and musty loft in lower Broadway's garment district are silent these days, and huge piles of brightly colored children's pajamas are piling higher and higher in every corner of the 71-year-old factory.
The telephone seems to ring incessantly on Jesse Ganis' steel surplus Army desk in the crowded stockroom one floor below, and unopened mail is beginning to accumulate amidst an atmosphere of frenetic worry and impending crisis.
"We've had problems before, but nothing like this. We're being pushed into the water and told to drown ourselves, and it is the federal government that is doing it," says Ganis, brandishing a sheaf of invoices.
Up and down Broadway and in the dingy lofts of SoHo, where high-speed sewing machines operated under hanging naked bulbs by low-wage Puerto Rican women grind out clothes measured in the thousands of dozens, an obscure compound called Tris is dominating the conservations.
Earlier this month, the government banned the production and sale of children's sleepwear treated with the flame-retardant chemical Tris because laboratory tests showed the chemical could cause kidney cancer in humans. At the same time, it was estimated there were 18 million size zero to 14 garments in commercial pipelines worth about $150 million, not including unwashed apparel that can be returned by consumers under the federal order.
Now the nation's $400 million children's sleepwear industry has accused the Consumer Product Safety Commission of ineptness in administering its ban on Tris, and has warned that dozens of small firms face bankruptcy by being forced to repurchase Tri-treated garments from retailers.
Already, an Allentown, Pa., children's sleepwear maker, faced with having to take back $750,000 worth of godos has laid of 120 employees. August Nielsen Co., which does $2.5 million business a year, has lost the bank credit it needs to finance the production of autumn garments that its customers would normally receive this spring.
The government's purchase order will "literally annihilate" an entire industry that simply tried to comply with an earlier government ban on flammable sleepwear, says Louis Bates, head of the newly formed Independent cutters and Sewers of Children's Sleepwear Association.
"We do not make the chemical. We do not make the fabric. We don't even retail it, but the entire economic burden of the Tris ban is being placed on us," said Bates, who manufacturers children's nightwear in Greensboro, N.C.
Bates' group formally asked the product safety commission in Washington today to amend the repurchase order so that textile mills who actually applied Tris to the fabrics are responsible for buying back goods. The group said it represents 30 small garment makers who had no idea what fire retardant was used on fabrics and whether it was hazardous.
Stephen Schnitzer of the Pajama Corp. of America told the commission that garment makers were having trouble even now learning from suppliers which fabric bolts contained Tris.
The industry representatives said the commission members' questions demonstrated a total lack of knowledge of an industry on which they had placed a towering financial burden. The commission took no action on the request to modify the re-purchase order.
Absorption of that loss will wreck the smallest segment of the garment industry - the cuters and sewers - while the fabric mills and retailers will get off without liability, according to officials of the sleepwear association.
Like other apparel manufacturers interviewed along lower Broadway and in the SoHo district, Carl Liss appeared angry and frustrated at the seeming inequity of the government's repurchase policy.
"The government put this monkey on our backs to start with," said the owner of New York Children's Underwear Co., a small garment business his father began in the same Prince Street loft in 1919. He was referring to the 1972 ban on the sale of children's nightwear that is not treated with flame retardants. "Now they discover that the chemical they approved causes cancer in rats, so they make us buy it all back."
Liss echoed the sentiments of other garment manufacturers that they are not so much opposed to the government's ban on Tris as they are to the method by which consumers and retailers are recompensed.
"I'm not a doctor. I'm not a chemist. I don't want to get cancer and I don't want to give cancer to anybody. I just want my business to survive," Liss said.
Ganis, co-owner of the sleepwear company founded by his father, said, "If the commission says its cancerous, it's cancerous. I have no quarrel with that. All we want to do is distribute the loss so the entire burden doesn't fall on the smallest segment of the industry."
Albert Pinhas, vice president of Sullcraft Pajama Co., a $6 million-a-year business, said, "I have no idea whether I'll lose a half million or five million, because the stuff has been out there (in the retail market) for years. Nobody can estimate the losses, but you know they're going to be big."
The ultimate irony in the Tris affair, Pinhas said, is that only weeks before the commission's ruling, many sleepwear manufacturers received written commendations from the government for having adapted so thoroughly to the 1972 ban on flammable nightwear.
"We've been sending in sample swaths of cloth and prototypes of every garment we make, and all we've heard from the government is, 'Congratulations for your fine work. Your garments have the proper amount of Tris'." Ganis said.
"Now, they come back and say, Damn you for making garments with Tris. Take them off the market and abosrb the loss yourself.'"
Attorneys hired by the newly formed association filed a lawsuit last week asking the U.S. District Court in Washington to determine who must pay for repurchases of the Tris-treated children's nightwear, but today Judge George L. Hart denied a request for a temporary restraining order and scheduled a preliminary hearing for next Thursday.
Gerald E. Gilbert, attorney for the independent cutters and sewers group, told the safety commission that Hart did call the repurchase order "unfair, inequitable and nonsensical."