In 1980, the Chicago Sun-Times characterized the conflict between textile giant J.P. Stevens & Co. and the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) as "the biggest labor-management war of the last two decades."
Sally Field in her role as "Norma Rae."
(Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)
The union's success in that "war" — gaining the first-ever collective bargaining agreements for more than 3,000 Stevens workers at 10 plants in the Carolinas and Alabama — has been widely attributed to the multifaceted "corporate campaign" program devised and directed by ACTWU staffer Ray Rogers.
As the veteran labor reporter A.H. Raskin of The New York Times wrote: "Pressure on giant banks and insurance companies and other Wall Street pillars, all aimed at isolating Stevens from the financial community, helped generate a momentum … that could not be achieved through the 1976-1980 worldwide boycott of Stevens products or through more conventional uses of union muscle such as strikes and mass picketing." Raskin quoted Ray Rogers: "We took the strength of the company and made that its weakness… We forced the power elite behind J.P. Stevens — its principal lenders and companies with which it had interlocking directorates; to put the squeeze on it."
The Textile Workers Union had merged in 1976 with the larger Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America to form ACTWU. The new union's leaders and AFL-CIO President George Meany immediately announced "an international consumer boycott" of Stevens' products to pressure the company to settle with the union.
Ray Rogers, an experienced boycott strategist, researched Stevens and concluded that a consumer boycott could not bring enough pressure to force a contract settlement. Less than a third of Stevens' products were sold to consumers, and even those were sold under dozens of different brand names or could be identified only with registration numbers. In addition, secondary boycott laws under the National Labor Relations Act at the time made it nearly impossible to run a successful boycott campaign, since unions and their supporters were only allowed to ask consumers not to buy a product. It was illegal for unions covered by the NLRA to pressure retailers to stop selling products by boycotting stores. (After the 1988 Debartolo decision, unions are no longer prohibited from engaging in such secondary boycott activity.)
Crystal Lee Sutton, the Real "Norma Rae."
(Courtesy of The NY Times.)
The Stevens Corporate Campaign exposed, attacked and broke up the network of power supporting the company and eventually forced the big money interests behind J.P. Stevens, led by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., to give Stevens an ultimatum — settle or else. Pressure from the Corporate Campaign "divide-and-conquer strategy" led to the resignations of top corporate officers from the boards of Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co (then the nation's fourth largest bank), New York Life Insurance Co. and J.P. Stevens itself.
"No one helps workers shake up big business like Ray Rogers and Corporate Campaign..." — Crystal Lee Sutton, the real Norma Rae
Other highlights included organizing mass shareholder actions at J.P. Stevens' and other companies' annual meetings. More than 600 individuals and organizations each purchased a share of Stevens' stock for the campaign's first mass action in March 1977 in New York City. Hundreds of people holding stock proxies and representing unions, religious, community and political organizations lined up at the entrance to Stevens' corporate headquarters, waiting to enter to attend the company's annual meeting so that they could directly confront management. At the same time, 4,000 protesters marched around Stevens Tower. The company, which had held its annual meeting in Manhattan for many decades, moved it to South Carolina the next year and never again held it in New York.
On Dec. 15, 1981, more than a year after the Stevens settlement, the textile industry newspaper the Daily News Record reported that "Stevens presented a history of the epic confrontation" at an annual meeting of the South Carolina Textile Manufacturers Assn. Hal Addis, Stevens' vice-president of corporate and industrial relations, said: "Of the three major tactics employed by (the union) during its confrontation with Stevens, the corporate campaign designed to cut Stevens off from the financial community was the most effective." Addis and another Stevens executive said the company was able to overcome union litigation simply by "issu(ing) a written policy of rules and regulations" and said the consumer boycott had little or no effect on sales.
Sally Field and Crystal Lee Sutton.
As part of the Stevens settlement, the company demanded what the news media called "the Ray Rogers clause," which stated in part: "…the Union will not engage in any ”corporate campaign” against the company… (and) will not in any manner attempt to effectuate the resignation of members of the Board of Directors of Stevens, or to effectuate the resignation or removal of Stevens executives from the boards of directors of other companies, or to restrict the availability of financial or credit accommodations to Stevens, or by deliberate conduct to affect materially and adversely the relationship between Stevens and any other business organization."
Today, when abuses of corporate power are multiplying as rapidly as the lists of lawless acts by Stevens in the '60s and '70s, unions (as well as community, public interest, environmental and religious groups) need to learn how to challenge the irresponsible behavior of their foes. Corporate Campaign, Inc. (CCI), founded by Ray Rogers and Ed Allen in 1981, stands ready to help your organization take the offensive and win your objectives.
In the passing on Friday, Sept. 11, 2009 of Crystal Lee Sutton, The Real Norma Rae, we have lost the physical presence, but not the spirit, of a true friend and inspiration for all workers struggling against deplorable and unsafe working conditions, discrimination and corporate greed.
Crystal was cut out of the same mold as Mother Jones, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta and other great fighters for human rights. Crystal was portrayed by Sally Field in the Oscar-winning film, "Norma Rae," about a textile worker in the southern mills of the J.P. Stevens Co.
I hadn't spoken to Crystal for a number of years when I received an email from Richard Koritz who I had seen in Winston-Salem, NC, at the kickoff rally for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee's (FLOC) campaign against Reynolds American (R.J. Reynolds Tobacco). The Campaign is seeking justice for thousands of farmworkers suffering from deplorable working and living conditions in the tobacco fields of Crystal's home state of North Carolina. Richard said, "I'm writing on behalf of Crystal Lee Sutton, 'the real Norma Rae,' your old friend. She would really like to hear from you. She is currently battling cancer with her typical, courageous and determined spirit..."
I immediately called Crystal and a number of conversations followed over the next few months. We talked about her health and each other's concerns about the plight of so many hardworking, desperately poor people and the unbridled corporate greed destroying the world's economy. Crystal wanted to show her support for three labor struggles I am presently involved in - Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, Farmworkers struggle for justice against Reynolds Tobacco and the Campaign to Stop Satellite Sweatshops, waged on behalf of DirecTV technicians fighting for decent working conditions.
Crystal Lee Sutton and her husband Preston showing their support for the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, Summer 2009
Crystal felt strongly that whether you were a worker fighting oppression in a textile mill or in a bottling plant in Colombia or a farmworker in the tobacco fields of North Carolina or a satellite television technician being cheated out of pay, you needed and deserved a strong union and a voice not only to fight for justice in the workplace but to fight for justice everywhere. As a textile worker in the '70s, Crystal fought on all fronts against oppressive working conditions and all forms of discrimination.
We planned on getting together at her home in Burlington, NC, in July. At that time, I planned to introduce Crystal to FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez. However, doctor felt that due to the flu outbreak, it would be unwise for us to meet at that time. We planned again to get together some time in the Fall.
Crystal and I had a lot in common. While on the staff of ACTWU, I developed and directed the Corporate Campaign that was crucial in the union's ultimate victory that led to a contract settlement and better working conditions for thousands of Southern textile workers.
In one demonstration I organized in July 1980, Crystal led a march of about seven hundred demonstrators into Sperry's annual meeting because the CEO of Stevens served on the company's board along with the head of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. As reported in the Wall Street Journal in October 1980, pressure by the head of Metropolitan Life on Stevens was the final blow following forced board resignations of the CEOs of J.P. Stevens, New York Life Insurance and Avon Products from the boards of Manufacturers Hanover Bank, New York Life Insurance and J.P. Stevens.
Ray Rogers and Crystal Lee Sutton leading a demonstration of flight attendants
New York Times veteran labor reporter A.H. Raskin hailing the union's creative use of corporate strategy wrote: "Pressure on giant banks and insurance companies and other Wall Street pillars, all aimed at isolating Stevens from the financial community, helped generate a momentum toward settlement that could not be achieved through the 1976-80 worldwide boycott of Stevens' products or through more conventional uses of union muscle such as strikes and mass picketing."
In 1981, the Daily News Record, an industry newspaper quoted J.P. Stevens vice president of industrial relations who stated: "Of the three major tactics employed by ACTWU during its confrontation with Stevens, the Corporate Campaign, designed to cut Stevens off from the financial community was the most effective."
In the Dallas Morning News in April 1987, there's a photo of Crystal and me leading a demonstration of American Airlines flight attendants whose union was fighting against onerous working conditions, a fight that was successful.
Crystal, you'll be sorely missed, not only by your family and friends, but by millions of others who you inspired by your example and on whose behalf you fought for justice.
As reported by the Associated Press, "Sutton donated her letters and papers to Alamance Community College in 2007. She said: 'I didn't want them to go to some fancy university; I wanted them to go to a college that served the ordinary folks'."
Ray Rogers, Director, Corporate Campaign, Inc.
"Crystal Lee Sutton, the real-life inspiration for the 1979 movie 'Norma Rae,' died Friday after a battle with meningioma, cancer of the meninges, at the age of 68. Her actions helped to bring a union contract to employees at a J.P. Stevens textile plant in Roanoke Rapids, NC, and she gained national fame as a symbol of women's and laborers' right after her efforts (and jailing) were fictionalized in the movie.
"Ironically, she has also become a symbol for the corruption and dysfunction of the American health care system. In a year-old newspaper interview, Sutton compared insurance company behavior to murder.
"She went two months without possible life-saving medications because her insurance wouldn't cover it, another example of abusing the working poor, she said.
" 'How in the world can it take so long to find out (whether they would cover the medicine or not) when it could be a matter of life or death,' she said. 'It is almost like, in a way, committing murder.' "
"She was a warrior to the end," Price said.
" 'I've never seen any woman fight cancer as hard as she did. She was in a wheelchair in the last few months, and she wanted me to push her to a protest about a school's teacher cuts.'
"Last year, a Burlington Times News reporter asked Sutton how she'd like to be remembered. 'It is not necessary I be remembered as anything,' she said, 'but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the U.S. and the world. That my family and children and children like mine will have a fair share and equality.' "
"Crystal Lee Sutton, whose defiance of factory bosses invigorated a long-running battle to unionize Southern mill workers and formed the dramatic heart of the Academy Award-winning movie "Norma Rae," died Sept. 11 in Burlington, N.C. She was 68.
"The cause was brain cancer, said her son, Jay Jordan.
"In 1973, Sutton worked at the J.P. Stevens textile plant in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. Fed up with the poor pay and working conditions, she joined the Textile Workers Union of America and became an organizer whose activism quickly earned the wrath of management.
"Moments after being fired, she wrote 'UNION' on a piece of cardboard, climbed onto a table in the middle of the factory floor and raised the sign for co-workers to see. Stunned by her courage, they switched off their machines and focused on the 33-year-old mother of three who earned $2.65 an hour.
"Some raised their fingers in a V for victory, but a union contract was still years away.
"The victory that day was over fear.
" 'Stand up for what you believe in, no matter how hard it makes life for you,' Sutton, reflecting on her iconic protest, told the Burlington Times News last year. 'Do not give up, and always say what you believe.'
"Her rebellion inspired one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history, when it was reenacted by actress Sally Field in an Oscar-winning performance in 'Norma Rae' (1979)."
"Crystal Lee Sutton, 68, a textile worker who rebelled against the low pay and poor conditions in a Southern mill to urge its workers to unionize and whose life inspired the film "Norma Rae," died of brain cancer Sept. 11 at a hospice in Burlington, N.C.
"Ms. Sutton, a 33-year-old mother of three who earned $2.65 per hour folding towels at the J.P. Stevens textile plant, was fired in 1973 for her pro-union activity. Before the police hauled her off the factory floor, the 16-year veteran of the job wrote "UNION" on a piece of cardboard, climbed on to a table and slowly rotated so her fellow workers could see her protest.
"Her colleagues responded by shutting down their machines, in defiance of management orders."
"TACTICS TO UNIONIZE J.P. STEVENS WATCHED"
NBC Nightly News | NBC Television | Mon., Sept. 4, 1978
MIKE JENSON, NBC News, New York: "For fifteen years, the Textile Workers Union, now merged with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, has been trying to organize employees at J.P. Stevens, for the most part, unsuccessfully...
"Now the textile workers are trying a new strategy: to drive a wedge between Stevens and the rest of the business community. ... The new campaign is the brainchild of 34-year-old union organizer Ray Rogers...."
"Rogers' plan is light-years removed from traditional labor tactics. Operating out of a cluttered basement office, he has put together a coalition of unions, church groups and political organizations. Their message is aimed at businesses having board members who also sit on the board of J.P. Stevens - and it says, 'Get off one, or the other.' "
RAY ROGERS: "When you look at the Stevens' company, you can't look at it as 85 plants, 44,000 employees and a multinational corporation with immense Wall Street connections. You have to look at it as the 13 men who direct it, and the primary self-motivating interests of those men." — Read Transcript —
Under the leadership of an activist whose name few businessmen have heard, organized labor is bringing some of the country's biggest corporations to) their knees by substituting a money whip for its blunted traditional weapons of strikes and mass picketing. Fresh from their victory over Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and Avon Products (Forbes, Mar. 20), union forces have just added New York Life Insurance Co. to their conquest list and arc stepping up pressure Oil both coasts to bend other giant companies and financial institutions to their will. — Read Article —
Mr. Rogers, who engineered a lengthy national campaign against J.P. Stevens & Co. that ended this weekend, has had plenty of practice bothering other people. "You can only fight power with power," says the burly, 36-year-old activist, who still lifts weights. "Economic power breeds political power, and the banks and Insurance companies are the most powerful institutions in this country."
On behalf of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, Mr. Rogers put pressure on companies that do business with Stevens or that have Stevens directors on their own boards...
"I never contact my adversaries, they contact me," he says proudly. The first time he tried a campaign was In 1974, against Farah Manufacturing Co., a Texas-based men's slacks maker. William Farah gave in to union pressure to organize his plants after Mr. Rogers successfully pressured retailers in Birmingham, Ala., to stop selling the slacks...
Mr. Rogers' strategy against Metropolitan imitated his attack on New York Life two years ago. At that point, the union forced James D. Finley, then Stevens' chairman, and R. Manning Brown, Jr., chairman of New York Life, to resign from each other's boards by threatening to seat a dissident slate of directors at the insurance company.
The campaign against Stevens started in 1977 with a mass demonstration outside the company's annual meeting site in New York. After that year, the company convened its meeting in Greenville, S.C., the union says, to avoid the bad publicity New York demonstrations created.
Mr. Rogers later managed to force Mr. Finley off the board of Manufacturers Hanover Trust (which was threatened with withdrawals of union money) in 1978. David Mitchell, chairman of Avon Products Inc., resigned from Stevens' board at about the same time.... — Read Article —
Money power, that traditional weapon of the bosses, was a crucial element in giving organized labor what history may record as its most significant victory in cracking antiunion bastions in the South: ratification Sunday of the first union contract in the sprawling J.P. Stevens textile empire.
Pressure on giant banks and insurance companies and other Wall Street pillars, all aimed at isolating Stevens from the financial community, helped generate a momentum toward settlement that could not be achieved through the 1976-80 worldwide boycott of Stevens products or through more conventional uses of union muscle such as strikes and mass picketing.
"We took the strength of the company and made that its weakness" is the way the pressure campaign is described by its chief architect, Ray Rogers, a 36-year-old former Vista volunteer whose successful termination of the drive also ends his own job as a special mobilizer for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. "We forced the power elite behind J.P. Stevens — its principal lenders and the companies with which it had interlocking directorates — to put the squeeze on it." — Read Article —
SETTLED IS A 17-year old "open industrial warfare, which became part of an era's legend and even the basis for a Hollywood movie ("Norma Rae).
Ray Rogers (right) and his aide Ed Allen
— Download Article —
J.P. Stevens was once described in congressional hearings as the "citadel" of anti- unionism in the South.
A federal appeals Court in New York called it "the most notorious recidivist in the field of labor law."
The National Relations board said it was involved in "a massive, multistate campaign" to deny workers their right to join unions and bargain for better salaries and working conditions...
It was the assault on the board rooms, labor specialists and union insiders say, that won the battle.
THE MAN WHO developed that assault is 36-year-old Raymond Rogers Jr., a former VISTA volunteer and union organizer who makes $425 a week, lives in a bachelor pad, and lifts weights to keep in shape.
Rogers admits he is not an economics expert, but he says he knows more than most people about three, key elements in his attack: organization, politics, and power
He called his attack strategy the "corporate campaign" and its goal was to isolate J.P. Stevens & Co. from its traditional sources of financing.
"People's struggles against big institutions are power struggles," Rogers told The Tribune in an interview at his New York office. "You can't confront institutions of power unless you have a significant force on your side."
Rogers used coalitions of hundreds of labor and social organizations to build his power base. Then he used that base to blast away at the board rooms of Stevens Co. and its many powerful business allies...
Rogers' tactics are widely criticized by businessmen. J.P. Stevens & Co., in an article written by its public relations agent, compared them to tactics used by Italian terrorists who shoot their victims in the knees.
"In a sense, the union is trying to knee-cap Stevens by intimidating individual members of the Stevens board who also serve on other company boards," said Stevens PR director James R. Franklin.
"This intimidation is part of the increasingly desperate attempt by the union to achieve, through the business-community, what-it has been-unable to achieve through the employees of Stevens..."
Rogers perception of the criticism is that businessmen don't like the tactic "because it works." — Read Article —
Stevens presented a history of the epic confrontation at the South Carolina Textile Manufacturers Association's (SCTMA) annual personnel directors and public relations meeting...The program presented by Hal Addis, vice-president of Stevens' industrial relations corporate...was geared to warning other textile firms of the tactics used by organized labor to gain entrance in the industry...
Of the three major tactics employed by the ACTW during it confrontation with Stevens, Addis said the corporate campaign, designed to cut Stevens off from the financial community, was the most effective and the most likely to be continued by the union in its future organizing attempts.
"As a matter of fact, Ray Rogers, who spearheaded this campaign, has set up a company in New York called Corporate Campaign, Inc..." — Read Article —
When, after twenty years of virulent anti-unionism, the J.P. Stevens Company finally' signed a contract with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, on October 19, 1980, company negotiators insisted that a "unique clause be included, The union had to promise "not to engage in any 'corporate campaign' against the Company" or "in any manner, attempt to effectuate the resignation of the members of the Board of Directors of Stevens, or to effectuate the removal of Stevens executives from the boards of directors of other companies, or to restrict the availability of financial or credit accommodations" to the textile manufacturer. —Read Interview —
Protesting Sperry Corporation's ties to JP Stevens (Top Left). Protesters include Sam Hirsch and Millie Rodriguez who later became Corporate Campaign, Inc. staffers (Top Right). Ed Allen and Ray Rogers discussing "Listen Sperry; Dump Stevens" strategy (Bottom Left). George Altomare, UFT; Crystal Lee Sutton (The Real "Norma Rae"), and AFL-CIO Regional Director Mike Mann (Bottom Right).
Thousands protest at JP Stevens headquarters
during its annual meeting, New York City, March, 1977
Photos 1,2, 4, 7 by Earl Dotter
Photos 3, 5, 6, 8 by Images Unlimited
Break the J.P. Steven/Seamen's Bank Connection Mile-Long billboard
Ray Rogers addressing the American Federation of Teachers convention.