He's been called a West Texas cowboy. “That's a compliment down where I come from.” One magazine called him irascible. “I like that, too. I don't really know what that means, but I like it.” The cotton industry can just call him effective.
In less than a year as chairman of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, the big and burly Van May has helped raise the level of awareness about the plight of the U.S. textile industry by simply telling the story of the 60,000 American textile workers who lost their jobs last year and the 118 mills that closed their doors. “You don't have to embellish that story much,” he says. “You just have to make it known.” Using a mixture of west Texas drawl and storytelling, May weaves a sturdy, but wearable case against “unfair trade” about as fast as one of his high-powered looms makes a pair of all-cotton jeans.
He's reaching out, building coalitions, looking toward developing a new model that will return the U.S. textile industry to profitability. “In my business, a healthy textile industry means a healthy grower industry,” May says.
“I have a different perspective,” May told members of the Carolina Cotton Growers Cooperative at its 80th annual meeting recently. “I'm the first Texan to hold that space. And I know for sure I'm the first one to be president of the ATMI who gets paid twice a month by cotton farmers.”
In his day job, May is president and CEO of the Plains Cotton Cooperative in Lubbock, Texas. Plains represents 26,000 growers in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, with annual gross sales of $800 million. The co-op also makes cotton denim and cotton stretch jeans for most U.S. manufacturers.
Just like the story of the turtle that got up on the fence post because someone put him there, the increased visibility of the U.S. textile industry is no accident. “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.”
Back to the storytelling, May recalls hearing a commentator interview Bob Charles, his favorite golfer. “Charles had one of the sweetest putting strokes on the PGA tour in the late 1960s.” The commentator said to the golf pro, ‘Bob, you were really lucky on the greens today.’
“Charles looked at him and said, ‘you know, it's funny. The more I practice, the luckier I get,’” he recalls from his high school days in Crosbyton, Texas.
May says the “luck this year” was due to the decision of the ATMI board of directors and officers to bring the plight of the American textile industry — workers and mills — to the public. The move paid off in TV, radio and newspaper coverage of “unfair trade practices and unbalanced currencies,” and “created awareness among the people who make decisions, including the president and members of Congress. As a result of the campaign, they had already heard about the problems back home.
It prepared the ground to make a case against fast-track authorization — although it passed — and got about $50 million in help for the textile industry through the new farm bill.
“The devaluation of currency in Asia and unfair trade practices is killing us,” May says. “It's not a lack of productivity. Productivity has improved 165 percent in the last 10 years due to massive investment.”
While productivity is up, textile exports to Asian countries is down 30 percent. “It's all about trade policy and currency,” including a strong dollar, May says.
“I'm not against free trade,” May told the Carolina Cotton Growers Cooperative annual meeting in Rocky Mount, N.C. “I'm not against fair trade. I am against unfair trade.
“Here are the kind of trade deals negotiators have cut for you: If someone from India wants to send denim over here, the U.S. charges them an 8 percent tariff,” May says. “When we send denim to India, we have to get an import license — I'm told you can get one with a stack of money.”
On top of that U.S. textile manufacturers must pay a 40 percent tariff, a 10 percent surcharge, in addition to other taxes. “I'm up to 50 percent and they're at 8 percent,” May says. Meanwhile, the hand-loom sector in India, which employs 6.5 million people, has been able to compete against high-speed looms in the U.S. because of government intervention. “And they call that free trade.
“I've been labeled a protectionist, but the label doesn't fit,” May says. “Other countries are protectionist. We're beginning to make that issue visible. Ray Charles can see it's not fair. When you point it out to people, they agree that it's not fair.
“There's only so much foreign trade can do,” May says, quoting from an article in the Washington Post. “I'm not going to read the whole thing: 2001 apparel exports in Pakistan rose 400 percent. Workers are paid 24 cents an hour. There's 137 percent inflation.
“If we're going to give it away, let's support the people who need it,” May says. “We need to improve our trade policy.”
That would include a weaker dollar in the world market, May believes. “Our trade policy has never been intended to be fair or make sense. It's always been about human rights or foreign policy, not about being fair to you and I.”
Meanwhile, “we have a $400 billion trade deficit,” May says. “We've already lost the equivalent of 20 million bales. Thirty percent of your best market is gone now…because of a strong dollar.
“We're wiping out 150 years worth of infrastructure, most of it right here in the Carolinas,” if something isn't done, May says.