J.P. Stevens Workers Seek ‘Some of the Harvest’

J.P. Stevens Workers Seek ‘Some of the Harvest’

By Bill Finger

Vol. 1, No. 7, 1979, pp. 19-21

You would have thought it was the Darlington 500 the way people were flocking to the South Carolina Piedmont. But the gathering at Textile Hall in what the local chamber of commerce calls “the textile capital of the world” lacked the gaiety of a good stock car race.

On this chilly March morning in Greenville, S.C., J.P. Stevens and Company was holding its 1979 stockholders meeting. The nation’s second largest textile company with 44,000 workers, Stevens has been the target of a union campaign by textile workers since 1963. For the last four years, the stockholders meeting has been the central and public event in the escalating controversy. After large demonstrations and media coverage in 1977, Stevens moved the meeting away from the traditional New York site to Greenville. This year they again came to Greenville because, as Stevens board chairman James Finley put it in his opening remarks, “At least we’re welcome here.”

On the Monday before the meeting, the “Greenville Piedmont newspaper did the official honors. “The standing invitation for Stevens to move its headquarters from that increasingly hostile environment (New York) to Greenville remains as warm and earnest as ever.” However, there is also a hostile environment in Greenville – created by preachers, civil libertarians, civil rights leaders, attorneys, women’s advocates, and most important, Stevens workers.

“Why is my labor – my hands – so much cheaper than the same hands in New York?” asked Stevens worker Pat Burgess. “I love to weave and I’m good at it. I wasn’t raised to be chicken. I was raised to be proud and stand up for what I believe.” An attractive mother of two teenagers, Burgess was raised by her grandparents in Jessup, Georgia, where she picked cotton as a child. Now she’s a feisty union supporter in Greenville’s White Horse mill. But despite first amendment rights of’ free speech and association, people like Pat Burgess have to be careful about the statements they make.

“Mr. Chairman,” said Maynard Lovell at the stockholders meeting, “last year I spoke for the union here. Then last summer I was fired.” Lovell’s firing is but another chapter in the long and crucial conflict. Thirty eight-year-old Lovell, who presided at a pro-union rally in Spartanburg last year, was a union leader in the 4-plant complex in Stuart, Virginia, where he’d worked for 19 years.

The litany of Stevens’ lawbreaking record is familiar to many. The company has more labor violations than other company in history. They include: the firing of’ 191 workers for union activities (The workers were ordered back to work by the courts and paid $1.3 million by Stevens in back wages.); widespread violation of cotton dust standards, bad faith bargaining at Roanoke Rapids, N.C.; closing of the Statesboro, Ga., plant after the courts granted the union bargaining rights there; and a company-wide Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation for discriminating against Blacks and women.

Still, while the boycott and corporate strategies have received much public attention, the heart of the campaign lies in Stuart, Va., Greenville, S.C., and the scores of’ other Southern towns where Stevens has plants. “We just get pacified,” says Pat Burgess with fire in her eyes. “We don’t get satisfied. We can’t have a free election in any J.P. Stevens plant. There’s too much conspiracy.”

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National attention has highlighted this Stevens record to millions – from “CBS 60 Minutes” to church resolutions against such policies. But the pattern continues. In 1974, a majority of the 3300 Stevens workers at Roanoke Rapids, N.C., voted for the union. The Textile Workers Union began bargaining for a contract, but negotiations dragged on unsuccessfully, especially on the key issue of a meaningful arbitration system for grievances.

In June 1976, the Textile Workers and Clothing Workers merged into the stronger Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU). Fresh from the Clothing Workers successful boycott of Farah Pants and ambitious to crack the nation’s only major non-unionized industry, ACTWU embarked on a three pronged campaign against Stevens. It involved (1) a nationwide consumer boycott; (2) a sophisticated legal campaign building on numerous remedies and rulings already handed down against Stevens; and (3) a company-wide organizing campaign in the 83 plants.

Like the Cesar Chavez-led Farmworker boycotts of the 60s, the ACTWU boycott is dependent for momentum upon local citizens groups taking up the issue as a social cause. Boycott director Del Mileski feels that this first stage of the boycott has been accomplished in many of the nation’s cities. Local citizens’ groups – ministers, civil rights leaders and others – meet with department store officials and ask them to stop buying Stevens products as a matter of conscience. Highly visible pressure tactics on stores have been limited because of stringent secondary boycott prohibitions. (You can boycott Stevens products but not the store where they’re sold.) Because of the thousands of Stevens product lines, many of which are not sold in the retail market, making a dent in the company’s sales is difficult. Cancellations by retail stores are occurring though, and Mileski feels that “these cancellations are holding up better than Farah,” the pants company boycott of a few years ago. ACTWU has concentrated the boycott in the northern and western cities, away from the organizing campaign.

Another ACTWU tactic is the “corporate campaign”, led by 34-year-old Ray Rogers. Rogers focuses on individual Stevens Board of Directors members and their interlocking corporate lives, attempting to isolate Stevens from the entire financial community. During 1978, he achieved several successes that shocked Wall Street. In one instance, he marshaled holders of union pension funds and other liberals to pressure Manufacturers Hanover Trust to remove two of their directors – Stevens’ board chairman Finley and David Mitchell, chairman of Avon Products. Unions threatened to remove portions of their $1 million reportedly managed by Hanover Trust unless Finley and Mitchell were

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removed. Two weeks later when Women’s groups supporting Stevens workers threatened to boycott Avon Products, Mitchell quit the Stevens board as well. “Amalgamated has now resorted to terrorizing businessmen who do business with Stevens,” said The Wall Street Journal, expressing the fear of the business world over Rogers’ successes. Labor columnist Victor Reisel called the tactic “the first real test of a 21st century organization technique.”

Because of the numerous and repetitive labor law violations against Stevens, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has taken an unprecedented approach to the case. The board is now holding hearings to determine whether they should award bargaining rights to ACTWU in Wallace, N.C. (1000 workers); Montgomery, Al. (3400); Stuart, Va. (1600); and New Millford, Conn. (200). If a majority of the workers have expressed their desire to have a union by signing union cards and if the labor law violations are serious enough to prevent a fair election without intimidation, the board, and then the courts (since Stevens always appeals such rulings), would award ACTWU bargaining rights for the workers in that location without having an election.

Scott Hoyman, ACTWU’s Textiles Director for the South, has been involved in many of these hearings. “Our view, and apparently that of the board, is that it would be impossible for the Stevens workers to vote their beliefs.” On the other hand, from the podium of the stockholders meeting, Stevens’ chairman Finley said he felt the climate was fine for elections. “(We have) again publicly challenged the NLRB and the Union to let the employees decide this issue.” However, when ministers and workers rose to question Finley on the amount of money the company spends each year in legal fees fighting the labor board cases, Finley stonewalled, “This is a private matter between the lawyers and the corporation.”

Since the three-pronged campaign began in 1976, it has been anything but a private matter. The initial burst of media and celebrity attention has abated somewhat and what lies ahead for Stevens workers like Pat Burgess and Maynard Lovell is a protracted campaign in small communities where the national media rarely reaches.

As in the past years, the stockholders meeting this year proved to be merely a showcase for persons on both sides of the issue to vent their opinions. Tensions were evident as Finley gaveled down his opponents and praised the company’s supporters.

The legal remedies for the Stevens labor law violations could take several years in the appeal process. Meanwhile, the union Is slowly building support in the Stevens towns so that when NLRB elections are held, the workers are prepared for the intimidation that has been the pattern in the past. “Rome wasn’t built in a day you know,” says Burgess, explaining her steadfastness.

The Stevens campaign dramatizes the labor-management battles ahead in the South as well as the emerging issue of civil rights in the workplace. The country’s major unorganized industries – textiles and furniture – are deeply rooted in the South and the lowest average wages are still in our region. But the workers who have tasted the union campaign seem to know what they’re up against. The odds are long, but momentum is building slowly. And workers have no place to go in most cases but back to their looms and spindles. “We’re stronger than ever,” says Maynard Lovell. “People are standing up now stronger than I ever thought they would.”

“I want J.P. Stevens to make money,” says Pat Burgess, “because then my job runs. I just want to get some of the harvest.”

Bill Finger, a freelance writer, lives in Raleigh, N.C.