Roger Milliken’s Company Joins the Global Economy

Roger Milliken, head of the South Carolina textile firm Milliken & Co. for more than 50 years, was one of the most important benefactors of modern conservatism. He was active in the Goldwater campaign, and was a founder and funder of National Review and the Heritage Foundation. He dabbled in libertarianism, too. He was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education and supported the legendary anarchist-libertarian speaker Robert LeFevre, sending his executives to LeFevre’s classes.

But he parted company with his free-market friends on one issue: free trade. Starting in the 1980s, when Americans started buying a lot of textile imports, he hated it. As the Wall Street Journal reports today,

Milliken & Co., one of the largest U.S. textile makers, has been on the front lines of nearly every recent battle to defeat free-trade legislation. It has financed activists, backed like-minded lawmakers and helped build a coalition of right and left-wing opponents of free trade….

“Roger Milliken was likely the largest single investor in the anti-trade movement for many years—as though no amount of money was too much,” said former Clinton administration U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, who battled with him and his allies….

Mr. Milliken, a Republican, invited anti-free-trade activists of all stripes to dinners on Capitol Hill. The coalition was secretive about their meetings, dubbing themselves the No-Name Coalition.

Several people who attended the dinners, which continued through the mid-2000s, recall how International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union lobbyist Evelyn Dubrow, a firebrand four years younger than the elderly Mr. Milliken, would greet the textile boss, who fought to keep unions out of his factories, with a kiss on the cheek.

“He had this uncanny convening power,” says Lori Wallach, an anti-free-trade activist who works for Public Citizen, a group that lobbies on consumer issues. “He could assemble people who would otherwise turn into salt if they were in the same room.”…

“He was just about the only genuinely big money that was active in funding trade-policy critics,” says Alan Tonelson, a former senior researcher at the educational arm of the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a group that opposed trade pacts.

But the world has changed, and so has Milliken & Co. Roger Milliken died in 2010, at age 95 still the chairman of the company his grandfather founded. His chosen successor, Joseph Salley, wants Milliken to be part of the global economy. He has ended the company’s support for protectionism and slashed its lobbying budget. And as the Journal reports, Milliken’s executives are urging Congress to support fast-track authority for President Obama.

American businesses are going global:

But as business becomes more international, American industries that once pushed for protection—apparel, automobiles, semiconductors and tires—now rarely do so. The U.S. Fashion Industry Association, an apparel trade group that wants to reduce tariffs, says that half the brands and retailers it surveyed last year used between six and 20 countries for production. Only two of the eight members of the main U.S. tire-industry trade group, the Rubber Manufacturers Association, even have their headquarters in the U.S….

“There’s a new generation of CEOs,” says Dartmouth College economic historian Douglas Irwin.“It’s part of their DNA that they operate in an international environment.”…

While Mr. Milliken saw China is a major threat to the industry—he said in 1999 he was “outraged, totally outraged” by Congress clearing the way for China’s entrance into the WTO—his successor sees the company’s future there. Milliken opened an industrial-carpet factory near Shanghai in 2007. It has a research-and-development center there and a laboratory stuffed with machinery where Chinese customers can check out the latest additive for strengthening or coloring synthetics.

Globalization is bringing billions of people into the world economy and into prosperity. Even in South Carolina.