Byline: Scott Malone

NEW YORK — Roger Milliken, for over half a century one of the fiercest warriors on behalf of the domestic textile industry, has split with the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, the industry’s largest lobbying organization.
After months of straining, the relationship between the two industry giants finally snapped. In a meeting last week, the ATMI board voted Milliken & Co. out of the organization, after it had withheld its dues for almost five months.
The company was protesting what it viewed as a growing disconnection between the ATMI policies decided by the board and the actions of the ATMI staff.
“In my opinion, the ATMI staff has failed to implement, forthrightly and vigorously, numerous policy positions established by the ATMI board of directors,” Roger Milliken, president and chief executive officer of the Spartanburg, S.C.-based mill, said in a statement. “Our quarrel has never been with anyone on the ATMI board, nor with the textile industry to which I have made a lifetime commitment. The problem is deeper than that.”
An ATMI spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter because, “We don’t comment on membership issues.”
However, a list of “ATMI Active Member Companies” obtained from the organization’s Web site did not include Milliken & Co. It did list 91 other textile makers.
The spokeswoman described that list Tuesday as identifying member companies’ Web sites. However, only 50 of the names on the list actually linked to companies’ home pages. A brief Web search through another search engine turned up a Web home page for only one of five of the other 41 companies. Milliken & Co. has a Web site.
The positions of the ATMI and Milliken on trade issues have diverged in recent years. While the ATMI has become more moderate, advocating more free trade within the Western Hemisphere as a boost to the domestic industry, Milliken has remained a staunch advocate of a U.S.-only approach.
Most recently, Milliken’s concerns had been focused on the implementation of the Trade & Development Act of 2000, the law that grants trade parity to apparel made in the Caribbean Basin and sub-Saharan Africa of U.S.-made fabric. After years of lobbying, the law passed only after a series of compromises, including an allowance for 390 million square-meters-equivalent of Caribbean-knit fabric to eventually qualify under the parity laws.
While that exemption seemed a given as soon as the law was signed in May, there were other details the industry continued to fight against. One of those was an exception intended to allow Caribbean companies to dye, finish and print U.S. gray fabrics. Milliken and the ATMI board had opposed that exception, which was included on a list of federal guidelines released this week.
Before the guidelines were released, Milliken warned, “The industry does not have in place the necessary regulations to ensure proper executive-brand implementation of the CBI-Africa legislation passed on May 11 of this year. This new law directly affects the livelihoods of the 563,000 men and women in the domestic textile industry.”
He further noted that 118,700 U.S. workers were employed in dyeing, finishing and printing area.
In recent years, Milliken has often been a lone voice of dissension on trade issues. Milliken is one of the few within the industry who contends that NAFTA hurt domestic mills, citing as evidence the declines in mill earnings and employment.
In April, when the company announced it would close its Gaffney, S.C., plant, a company spokesman blamed “the continued growth of imported textile and apparel products into the U.S. from China, the Far East, Mexico and the Caribbean.”
In the years since NAFTA’s passage, on the other hand, most other big U.S. mills have moved to set up lower-cost weaving and knitting operations in Mexico, to be closer to that nation’s growing garment-manufacturing industry.
Still, over those years, textile employment has continued to decline and, despite a booming economy, domestic mills have reported dismal financial results — either losing money or getting by on razor-thin margins — and have seen their stocks plummet. Many mills have filed for bankruptcy protection, most recently knitters Glenoit Corp. and Dyersburg Corp.
Last month, the Labor Department reported employment within the domestic textile industry fell by 2,000 people in August to 541,000 and was down by 15,000, or 2.3 percent, from August 1999.
Textile industry employment hit its high-water mark at 1.3 million people in 1951, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, and was just more than one million in 1973, when the apparel industry reached its all-time high for workers.
Privately held and notoriously tight-mouthed Milliken & Co. does not reveal its financial results.
While Milliken has disagreed with many other textile executives, he’s come to support a position similar to those advocated by trade unions — the importance of job preservation. This is somewhat of a change for an executive who once was known as a strong opponent of unions.
The change came about partly out of a realization of the importance of people in creating political power. Without a large voting workforce, an industry will lose influence with elected officials, the reasoning goes.
This is also by no means the first time that Milliken has butted heads with the ATMI. In 1995, he left the group’s annual meeting on the first day, after vehemently protesting the organization’s decision to lend its support to granting trade parity to the nations of the Caribbean Basin Initiative. That year marked the first he was not reelected to the ATMI’s executive board; he has not held a seat on that board since.
He kept up his dissent on the parity for many years, though has since taken a more resigned approach.
Meanwhile, ATMI officials and the ceo’s of several big mills have embraced the granting of CBI trade parity for garments made in the region of U.S. fabric as a boost for the domestic industry. Many have argued that working with the nations of the CBI will prove an important way for domestic mills to hold off the onslaught of imports expected in 2005, when World Trade Organization-member nations will drop their quotas.
Last fall, when the U.S. reached an agreement setting the groundwork for the coming expected grant of permanent normal trading relations to China, Milliken himself reacted with fury, saying in an interview, “I’m totally outraged” and predicting that closer trade relations with China would cost the industry “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
According to sources, the vocal lobbying efforts of Milliken & Co. on its trade positions — such as those against closer relations with China and the CBI — created friction between the company and the trade association.
For their part, many within the industry don’t understand Milliken’s zeal in defending the industry, given that recent years have made it all but clear that the U.S. government is not interested in maintaining protectionist trade policies to benefit the textile industry at the expense of larger cogs of the overall economy, like finance and information technology.
Further, for all his fervor in support of the domestic industry, Milliken & Co. has plants in Europe and Japan, which it says serve those markets.
While Milliken hasn’t played a prominent role in the ATMI in the past few years, he has never been afraid to act on his own. In 1983, he created the Crafted with Pride in the U.S.A. organization, which had the goal of promoting domestic textiles and apparel. Largely funded by Milliken, in its early years the organization ran TV ads featuring stars including Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jr. and Carol Channing.
While Milliken founded the group on his own, the ATMI soon joined with him. In 1985, the group created a committee to promote and expand the program, which was later spun off and moved to New York. It dedicated about a page of its 88-page organizational history, published last year, to the Crafted with Pride movement.
Through the late Eighties and early Nineties, the group co-sponsored the Miss America pageant. Since then, it has maintained a lower profile, though the group is still in existence.