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How union 'wrapped up' textile giant J.P. Stevens

How union "wrapped up" textile giant J.P. Stevens
By Charles Madigan | Chicago Tribune | October 26, 1980

NEW YORK — It is a decidedly unspectacular office in an old building just off of Union Square.

There is a simple, small label on a door on the fourth floor that says "Boycott" and inside the room, six or seven people pick their way through a maze of desks.

But the events that have taken place in this unassuming office have made history in the American labor movement. For it was here that the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union [ACTWU) ran the controversial and unprecedented organizational campaign that forced J.P. Stevens & Co., the nation's second largest textile manufacturer, to the bargaining table.

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.

STEVENS HAS 83 textile plants, 78 Of them in the South and operations in France, Canada, England, Mexico, and New Zealand. Its annual sales are $1.7 billion.

The unionization of Stevens has been one of the most difficult struggles in the history of American labor and it was won in a conflict that spanned more than 17 years and extended from the rolling hills, of the Carolinas to the mahogany-paneled board rooms of several of the biggest banks in the United States.

A week ago, the company announced it bad agreed to honor labor contracts in 10 plants where the textile workers union had won elections previously, and at any of its other plants where union elections succeed in the next 2 ½ years.

The first contract covers 3,000 of the company's 43,000 workers...

The union's campaign was waged at many levels: first; workers organized and won elections in 1974; four years ago, a boycott was started; and there were dozens of suits and legal actions brought before federal boards and agencies.

And finally came the union assault on an area that had been sacred: the corporate board rooms of companies that had business ties with Stevens.

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.

The main tactic: Force banks and insurance companies to remove their representatives from the Stevens board, and force Stevens representatives to leave the boards of those banks and insurance companies.

The aim was to encourage the institutions connected to Stevens to encourage Stevens to go to the bargaining table.

ROGERS JUMPED into action in 1977, when he jammed Stevens' annual meeting in New York with 600 union or sympathetic proxy voters. Meanwhile, he organized 4,000 supporters for a march around the Stevens building during the meeting.

"We wanted to send a strong message not only to Stevens but also to the corporations that were dealing with Stevens," Roger said.

A year later, the. union succeeded in forcing James Finley; chairman and chief executive officer of J. P. Stevens, and Stevens director David Mitcbell off of the board of Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. which held substantial union pension funds.

The campaign next focused on Mitche!l, the chairman and chief executive officer of Avon Products, Inc., who was forced to resign from the J.P. Stevens & Co. board.

A few months later, Ralph Manning Brown Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of New York Life Insurance Co., resigned from the Stevens board, and Finley resigned from the board of New York Life.

THEN, THE UNION focused on Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., which held some $97 million in Stevens company debts last year.

The union's plan was to run two dissidents for the board of the huge life insurance company, which would have forced Metropolitan to spend millions of dollars to arrange, an election, which would have involved millions of Metropolitan policyholders.

That move, according to the. union, led Metropolitan chairman Richard Shinn to arrange "talks" with Whitney Stevens, the newly named Chairman of the Stevens company.

Shinn said he exerted no pressure on Stevens, but the message was clear: If Stevens company solved its union problems, Metropolitan could avoid its election problems.

THE- UNION also focused on other key businesses with ties to J.P. Stevens & Co.

The outcome was a Stevens request for labor negotiations that led to the new contracts.

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."

THE UNION itself remains somewhat cool in its praise of Rogers, who admitted he fought a continuing internal battle in the textile workers union for permission to proceed with his campaign.

"Granted, the corporate campaign is the kind of thing that really captures your imagination." said Murray Finley, president of ACTWU in an interview with The Tribune in Washington.

"Let's not forget that a few thousand workers down in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., [where the union won its representation election in 1974] stuck this thing out for years. Without them, nothing would have happened. And don't forget the boycott and the legal actions we have taken over the years."

He said the battle with Stevens cost the union $10 million in the last four years.

But it was a battle the union felt it had to fight and to win, Finley said. There are 800,000 textile workers across. the South, and only 15 per cent of them are working under union contracts, Finley said.

"The corporate campaign was a valid tool and it will be used again," he said. "If you are on the board of a company, you cannot turn away from the responsibility that company has."

BUT WILL work?

"Well, we're going to find out, aren't we," Finley said.

"We sent letters last week to thousands of workers in Stevens plants outlining what we had accomplished, and we sent similar letters to 100,000 workers in other textile plants.

"We intend to very strongly dramatize what a dedicated union can do. Stevens has agreed to things they told us they never would agree to. It is too soon to tell whether this will be the victory that opens the South. It opened the door wide, but it is up to us to continue the struggle."

He added, that one outcome certainly will be that labor organizers will study the Stevens campaign and its many angles for years to come.

One important development that already has resulted is a serious look at the billions of dollars of union pension funds being held by institutions across the country.

"This is an important and proper thing that we: are doing on pensions," Finley said. "That money be!ongs to workers. "There is no reason why we, should be investing it in companies that are constantly banging us over the head."

AS FOR Rogers, his days as "corporate campaign director" — a title he gave himself "because you need something impressive printed on your calling card" — are numbered.

While he is planning to retain his contacts with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union he will be working on an independent project he doesn't want to talk about.

Besides, Stevens got an important concession in the agreement they signed with the union.

It's in Subparagraph 3 on Page 3, and it reads:

Subsequent to the date of this agreement, the union will not engage in any 'corporate campaign' against the company. Accordingly, the union 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..."