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Manufacturing and the Metamorphoses of Trade (Part I)

Posted May 08, 2015

As President Obama tries to sell the nation on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Congress heads towards a contentious debate about the trade promotion authority bill (TPA) that would “fast-track” negotiations concerning the ambitious 12-nation deal, the news of late has been full of stories about free trade. One of the more interesting ones was a piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week about How a U.S. Textile Maker Came to Embrace Free Trade describing the ideological journey of Milliken & Co., away from trade protectionism as business went global.

The focus of the piece is highly appropriate considering that Milliken, one of the largest textile makers in the country, was for many years not just on the front lines of nearly every battle since the 1980s to defeat free trade legislation, but often leading the charge, with the company’s aging patriarch Roger Milliken at its head. Whether financing activists, backing sympathetic lawmakers or building bipartisan coalitions of free trade opponents and launching populist anti-trade movements, until his death in 2010 at the age of 95, Milliken was a tireless advocate for protecting American industry from the emerging export economies of Asia and the rest of the world.

Today however, Milliken’s chief executive officer Joseph Salley is leaving the past behind. Already an increasingly diversified concern making 19,000 products in 55 factories worldwide with annual revenues estimated at close to $3 billion, the company is presently building a new carpet-manufacturing and textile-research hub in Shanghai and is focusing more than ever on technology, utilizing automated plant equipment and robotics to boost productivity. The firm is constantly developing innovative new products such as a new range of fabrics designed for specialized applications such fire suppression and chemicals for the treatment of plastics to replace metals in automobiles and other goods. And in a move that would surely have horrified his late predecessor, the new CEO is urging lawmakers to support the TPP. So too is the National Council of Textile Organizations, the textile industry’s main lobbying group, which is working closely with the White House to secure the votes it needs in Congress to reauthorize TPA.

Author Bob Davis rightly describes this dramatic about-face as reflecting “a metamorphosis of modern commerce” and no company or sector of the U.S. economy better epitomizes this transformation than does Milliken and the textile industry. Davis does a thorough job of describing Roger Milliken’s quarter-century long crusade against free trade starting in 1985 with launch of the “Crafted With Pride in U.S.A.” campaign, but as this is such an illustrative example of the evolution of U.S. trade policy and its interconnection with the changing fortunes of American manufacturing since the days when the country was the industrial powerhouse of the world, in the second part of this post we also want to explore some aspects of the story not covered by Davis regarding the period leading up to the 1980s.