NEW YORK—As a child, Ray Rogers was slight and frail, a target of grade-school bullies. "They had me terrified for years," he says, "until I started lifting weights in the seventh grade. Once I could take care of myself, nobody ever bothered me again."
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."
Prodding Metropolitan Life
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. The object: To prod, harass and embarrass the companies until they pressed for a change In Stevens' policies. With the collective bargaining agreement reached between Stevens and the union. Mr. Rogers may finally have succeeded in winning some credibility for his unorthodox way of fighting for workers' power.
Most recently. Mr. Rogers threatened to contest the election of directors at Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., one of Stevens' major lenders. That prospect inspired Richard Shinn, chairman of the big mutual Insurer, to do some behind-the-scenes maneuvering shortly before the final settlement between Stevens and the union.
A former VISTA volunteer In Appalachia, Mr. Rogers has subjected several corporations to his tactics, among them Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co., Avon Products Inc., Seamen's Bank for Savings and Northwest Airlines Inc. Two years ago, he coached members of the Air Line Pilots Association, who had become locked in a bitter four-month strike against Northwest.
"We sought him out of frustration," recalls a senior pilot who was a member of the bargaining committee. "He was the most recognizable person in his field. We knew we had to try something."
Pilots say Mr. Rogers helped them find ways to put pressure on Northwest's outside directors and large shareholders and to tell their side of the story forcefully to local media. Soon the strike was over. A few months later, chairman Donald W. Nyrop, known for his combative attitude toward the pilots' union, retired.
How He Works
Before Mr. Rogers begins an assault, he analyzes a company's strengths and weaknesses In terms of the community-religious groups, local labor councils, voting patterns and labor unions available for support. Then he selects the particular corporate locations or officers he wants to arouse, and mobilizes his forces.
"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.
"Ray is single-minded in his purpose, he knows where he is going and doesn't become disillusioned," says Robert Harbrand, president of the AFL-CIO's food and beverage trade department, who worked with him on the Farah project.
As an employee of the clothing workers, Mr. Rogers makes $425 a week. He won't accept money from the other unions he counsels. "I'm happy if my consulting gains ACTWU support," he says. "I'm not in this to get rich. I'd rather have their help than their money."
His targets have included some of the wealthiest individuals and corporations in the country. Favorite adversaries are outside directors and lending institutions. His corporate campaign so offended Stevens that the agreement the company signed Sunday with the union forbids its future use. Even some loyal union members had trouble accepting his methods. "He had to make believers of a lot of people," says Edward AlIen, assistant to Mr. Rogers in the union's corporate campaign.
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. (Mr. Mitchell denies any connection with the Stevens furor.) Another Stevens director, E. Virgil Conway, chairman of New York's Seamen's Bank for Savings, has refused to give in to massive picketing in Manhattan and an unrelenting letterwriting campaign.
Shot in the Air
An astronomy major who switched into sociology the last year he attended the University of Massachusetts, Mr. Rogers says he got his "basic training" in VISTA. He worked in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee for two years, where he says exposure to extreme poverty and illiterate people taught him some profound lessons about economics and politics.
Mr. Rogers went into VISTA in November 1967 as a conscientious objector, after he told his Beverly, Mass., draft board he would refuse to kill anyone or train anyone else to kill. He did volunteer to go to the front lines of the Vietnam war as a medic, "because I'm no coward," he says.
The draft board asked how he could justify the gun he carried as a temporary security guard. "I fired the gun in the air," he says, "to show them it was only a cap pistol."
The Rogers family instilled the sense of charity and understanding in their son and two daughters. "Raymond always apologized to his opponents on the high school football teams he thought he had hurt," says his sister, Elizabeth Dragon. His mother worked on an assembly line in an electronics plant and his late father was a lathe operator for General Electric Co. in Lynn, Mass.
Where will Ray Rogers strike corporate America next? The activist argues that the people's power is tied up primarily in some $200 billion of union-negotiated pension funds. A hot issue now is how unions can influence their investments, primarily managed by corporate entities. He plans to incorporate an organization that will "work closely with unions and use the corporate campaign strategy as a core plan to help poor and working people." He expects to make his work public within the next two years.
Mr. Rogers, who often works a 16-hour day, says. "The important thing isn't [just] organizing people into unions. It's disorganizing the power structure."