Time and Time Again: The Women, the Union and the Vanity Factory
By Paula Mclendon
Vol. 6, No. 5, 1984, pp. 8-17
Sarah Boykin: Mr. Hundley was the plant manager when we first started organizing. They told us that he had found a better job. But I don’t believe that because he had twenty years in with Vanity Fair. And he went to that cabinet shop right up the road. I don’t believe he would have thrown away that many years.
I think they got rid of Mr. Hundley because he didn’t have t in his heart to do the things that Vanity Fair likes done to their employees. He was a Christian man. He was a good man too. When we started organizing, everything changed. They had to get rid of him because he was too easy, too soft. They had to get rid of him. They gave us Larry Windham. That was the meanest man that ever walked in Vanity Fair.
Emily Woodyard: Mr. Hundley respected the women. He wanted to get the work out, but he wouldn’t ride you like you were a machine or something. The rest of them did. It didn’t matter to them as long as they got their quota out and they looked good on that little piece of paper that came out.
In 1976, Sarah Boykin, Emily Woodyard, Wilda Blackmon and Rebecca Blackmon led a successful union campaign in Jackson, Alabama, at Clarke Mills, a division of Vanity Fair Mills, manufacturers of women’s apparel. Local 118 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) came into being by the narrow margin of sixteen votes out of over five hundred cast. The union was bitterly resisted by the Clarke Mills’ management and by the parent VF Corporation, a non-union multi-plant operation that employed approximately eight thousand women in south Alabama and the Florida panhandle.
In 1979, these four women, textile workers each with over a decade of experience, sat down to talk with me about how and why they came to form a union.
In 1982, after a company counter-campaign in which Vanity Fair employed a considerable array of intimidators against union supporters, Local 118 was decertified.
In 1984, I asked Sarah, Emily, Wilda and Rebecca for another interview together. They talked about the circumstances which led to the loss of their union. They considered the various wiles and coercions of Southern manufacturers like Vanity Fair. They also talked about themselves and their co-workers–what they had learned, and what they had gained from all they had given to the union campaign.
Jackson, a town of six thousand people’ sits along Alabama’s Tombighee River in Clarke County, about sixty miles north of Mobile. Clarke was a cotton plantation county in the antebellum South. Fifty percent of its 1850 population of 9,800 consisted of slaves. Today, blacks comprise forty- tree percent of the county’s total population of 28,000.
Nearly half of Clarke County’s black citizens live in poverty.
During the twentieth century, Clarke County’s agricultural production has undergone a long and steady decline. In the decades since World War 11, commercial pulpwood and timber interests, together with Clarke Mills, have dominated the local economy. Ninety percent of the county’s land is forested; only eight percent is devoted to farming. As in many coastal plains counties of the South, a few individuals and companies have assembled large landholdings into pine plantations ranging from ten-thousand to seventy-thousand acres each. Clarke leads Alabama’s counties in the yearly cutting of pine lumber and is near the top in pulpwood production.
Scotch Lumber, Allied Paper Company and Clarke Mills together account for more than three-fourths of the county’s three-thousand manufacturing jobs.
Since its beginnning in 1939, Vanity Fair’s Clarke Mills has drawn its workforce from local women. Today it is the largest employer of women in a county where only sixty-three percent of adult whites and twenty-six percent of black adults have high school diplomas. Residents are quick to acknowledge Vanity Fair’s significant role in the local economy, yet the low-wage, labor-intensive industry has hardly brought prosperity.
The decision to try to organize a union at Clarke Mills arose not out of any one disagreement with Vanity Fair but came as a result of accumulated frustrations. Women found it increasingly difficult to support families on wages of $2.65 an hour. Retirement and health benefits were inadequate. “Used to be,” recalls an elderly former employee, “your retirement check would just about pay your light bill.”
Workers expressed dissatisfaction with workplace policies such as the longstanding practice of mandatory overtime and the partiality shown by supervisors in determining work assignments and in selecting those workers who went home during lay-offs. Workers could not make complaints without fear of reprisal. The company, it was said, maintained an “open door policy”: the door was open and you went out of the plant if you disagreed with management.
Except for my narrative background and occasional bridging of time and topics, the women’s words and their perspectives fill the following pages. Their voices are joined occasionally by that of Richard Boykin (Sarah’s husband) and Eileen Brown, the ILGWU organizer who worked in the Clarke Mills effort.
Sarah Boykin: The company had been in Jackson thirtysomething years. They had all the time they needed to prove themselves and they didn’t. There would never have been changes without our local . You would either have done what they said or you would have been at home.
I never had any trouble with Vanity Fair. They had never done anything to me that I didn’t let them know how I felt about it. But there were so many people there that I would see crying–just crying to no end. They were so upset they’d just lose all control. That would upset me. I don’t know; I have a very tender heart for other people. I don’t like to see people mistreated. And there are those–somebody could be standing over them with a gun and they’re not going to try and defend themselves.
I would come home and tell my husband about it. I would just cry and he would ask me, “Why are you crying?”
I said, “Because if you had seen it then you would cry.”
He said, “Well don’t cry. What you need to do is get a union.” So that’s how we started.
I was the one who first contacted the union. This was around March, 1976. I spoke with my husband’s union representative, Herbert Belt. [Sarah’s husband, Richard, worked for the United Parcel Service, represented by the Teamsters.] Mr. Belt told me his union did not handle garment workers. He let the ILGWU know I wanted to talk with them. I guess it must have been probably a couple of weeks after the first mention of the union a Mr. Ashley was supposed to have met us. He didn’t show. A couple of us carried the meeting on.
The first time we met it was just a few of us. We didn’t sign anything, but we wanted to have phone numbers so we could keep in touch. At the fourth meeting we had thirty-five to show. Sometimes it would be less members, sometimes more.
Wilda Blackmon: But this too. The people wouldn’t come out. They were still afraid to say “union” in the plant.
Sarah: If you said “union” to one lady she would say, “Oh don’t talk to me about that. ” She said, “They don’t even allow you to say union in this plant.”
Emily Woodyard: They tried to have a working condition where you were scared to talk to your neighbor.
Rebecca Blackmon: That was supposed to have been mandatory at one time–that you could not talk during work hours.
You sit there for twenty years doing everthing the company says without questioning, you’re not going to change overnight. You have to be shown that even though you are standing up and saying, “Hey, look, you didn’t treat me right,” that the company can’t eat you. You’re going to have to be shown time and time again.
Emily: I had been working at Vanity Fair since I was eighteen. It was 1974. I was running late as usual. I had my card, trying to clock it. It was one minute till. We had a three minute whistle and a seven o’clock whistle. And there was a man who said, “You’re not clocking that card.” The man grabbed me and would not let me clock in.
That never left me. I made the statement if I ever found a way to do anything to make it better at Vanity Fair I’d do it.
Wilda: I went to work there twenty-three years ago. The day I really made up my mind to look into the union was when one of the engineers came out–I was doing a most difficult job. I mean it was almost impossible to do and I had found a better way to do it. He came out and found out the way I was sewing it and asked me, “Who do you think you are to change my method?” I had to go back to his way, a harder way. That’s the day I started looking at the union.
Rebecca: What motivated me was the income. I didn’t think I’d get rich working under a union but I thought we could get a better wage.
The VF Corporation designs, manufactures and markets apparel through three wholly-owned subsidiari–in addition to Vanity Fair Mills–H.D. Lee, Inc. and Kay Windsor, Inc. Vanity Fair Mills posted profits of $15.5 million on sales of $184 million in 1982. H.D. Lee’s eight production sites in north Alabama, combined with Vanity Fair’s eleven plants in south Alabama, make the VF Corporation one of the state’s largest private employers–with some 8,500 workers.
Vanity Fair Mills originated in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1899 as Reading Glove and Mitten Manufacturing Company. After several changes of names and production lines, Vanity Fair began shifting its manufacturing to the non-union South in 1937 by opening plant in Monroeville, Alabama–thirty-five miles east of Jackson. By the late 1950s, the company had ceased all its Pennsylvania production.
The opening of a textile plant in 1939 in Jackson, then a town of three thousand, offered many white women their first opportunity to work for non-farm wages. Vanity Fair’s Clarke Mills began by producing silk stockings, but soon converted to rayon and nylon lingerie. The plant is still known to older citizens of the area as the “silk mill. ” With the construction of a new sewing facility in Jackson in 1975, the original factory became the site of knitting operations, producing Vanity Fair fabric.
One long-time resident recalled the subsistence farming that was still familiar when Vanity Fair arrived. “Folks didn’t have nothing to do with. You couldn’t make a penny. Just what little if you hoed or picked cotton. That’s all there was. The silk mill took a lot of folks out of the field.”
The company played upon this historical sense of gratitude and dependence among older white women workers when organizing efforts began in 1976.
Following the Monroeville and Jackson plants, Vanity Fair built factories in several similar south Alabama towns: Atmore, Bayou La Batre, Butler, Demopolis, Luverne and Robertsdale. So hospitable was Alabama for Vanit Fair that the company now runs only two out-of-state plants, both in the Florida panhandle. At every location, their workforce is overwhelmingly female.
In the mid-1970s, Vanity Fair expanded operations in both Monroeville and Jackson. A cutting plant opened in Monroeville in 1973. This meant that Vanity Fair could dye, finish and cut the fabric manufactured in nearby Jackson. The finished and cut fabric could then be distributed to the various sewing plants, which by l 975, included Clarke Mills. It was at the sewing facility that organizing efforts were initiated in 1976.
Clarke Mills’ sewing plant–a one-story, windowless, slab–sits on what was once a farm just outside the Jackson city limits. In 1976 the sewing plant employed over five hundred workers. Nearly all were women. There were four hundred sewing machine operators, fifty-three examiners who checked finished garments for mistakes, thirty-six packers, and seven mechanics (all male).
The plant’s work was divided among eleven operation or production lines, each of which had its own supervisor and one “service girl ” who made sure that sewing machine operators always had the materials they needed to work without interruption.
To earn more than minimum wage, the women had to meet a “production” quota, a quantity of work calculated by time-motion stud ies and set to a torturous pace.
Sarah: When you have to sit there and do so many garments in so many minutes–and this is an eight hour job–it’s not easy. It’s not easy. A lot of times I psyched myself out, you know, “I can do it.” But you don’t always do the same job. Styles change, jobs change, you change machines.
I think that the people that pack are very skilled, more so than a machine operator. But they can’t run a machine. Then, on the other hand, I can’t pack either.
You have to be skilled, in my sight, to be able to pack those garments as fast as they do. When you have a job where “production” is the main word, you are forever busy. And you would be surprised one minute will cost you a dollar.
Sarah McDonald Boykin grew up in nearby McIntosh where her mother worked for a local restaurant and the family farmed. Like her thirteen brothers and sisters, she left home after high school graduation, eventually living in California for several years. She returned to Jackson in the 1 960s to be near her family. She met and married Richard Boykin, a native of Clarke County and an active civil rights worker.
Sarah began work at Vanity Fair in 1966 at the age of twenty-two. She was among the first black women trained as sewing machine operators. Sarah was elected president of Local 118 in 1976.
Sarah: I had heard Vanity Fair didn’t hire black people. This was in 1965. I went up and put in an application. The first thing they told me was I didn’t pass the test and that I needed to pass the test in order to be hired. So I forgot about it. And one day they called me. It was in April 1966, I believe.
Wilda Blackmon has always lived in Jackson, Alabama. One of eleven children, married since she was fifteen, Wilda first began at Vanity Fair over twenty years ago as a sewing machine operator. She continued to work there on and off through the birth of her three children.
“This last time,” Wilda recalls, “I had been back working for ten years. Up until we got the union, you couldn’t take time off to have a baby. You had to quit and come back in. Now you can have maternity leave and your time continues with the company.”
As the shop steward, Wilda was responsible for handling worker grievances. She also served as president of the local after the departure of Sarah Boykin in 1980.
Rebecca Blackmon was unique among the union supporters in that she had held supervisory positions with Vanity Fair on several occasions. In 1976she was employed as a machine operator.
Rebecca: I went to work at sixteen. I worked on and off for about thirteen years. I was skilled at sewing on nearly every machine. I worked in the press and pack department.
I very much surprised people by being for the union. I had several of them tell me that they were shocked because I had been a supervisor and to be a supervisor is the ultimate in the company.
Emily Woodyard, like Rebecca Blackmon and Wilda Blackmon, is white. She was one of fifty examiners who worked at Vanity Fair in 1976. Both Emily and Rebecca were members of the shop committee that negotiated the local’s first contract. Neither she nor Rebecca had completed high school when they went to work at Vanity Fair.
Emily: One thing they used against us, Becky and myself, was that we had not finished high school. They’d say, “Look at the people that’s your leaders.” So we went back and took our GED tests. Now we’ve got a high school diploma.
In 1976 the ILGWU sent organizer Eileen Brown to Clarke Mills. An organizer for the past ten years, Eileen travels throughout the Southeast for the ILG but still lives in her hometown of Talladega, Alabama. For over fifteen years, Eileen, a mother of three children, worked as a sewing machine operator.
Emily: Eileen was a key factor. I do not think just any organizer could have carried it off. She had what it took to go out and meet the people. She could go in their homes.
Rebecca: She was just basically a decent person.
Emily: And that came across with people who would not let an organizer in their home. Even they had to admit she was a good person.
Soon after the union drive began, rumors began to circulate that Clarke Mills would close if the campaign were successful.
Eileen Brown: If you can just imagine you’re working in the plant. You feel a lot of these people accusing you of taking their jobs away, causing work to be short, causing the plant to close. It’s not easy at all.
Emily: Say two supervisors would get behind one operator while she was sewing and talk about–well, say our work turning up in another plant, machines being moved.
Rebecca: Things that were not supposed to have been happening. Yet they were making sure that the people that would be the most scared of it knew what was happening.
Sarah: I reported rumors to the union. The main one was about a supervisor who said Vanity Fair was the first one that hired black women out of the cotton patch and that if the union were voted in we would be back in the cotton patch.
This rumor contradicted the actual experience of black women. Excluded from jobs in Clarke Mills until the mid-1960s, these women did not come to Vanity Fair from the fields. The fields, by then, had been planted in pines. The rumor revealed more about the attitudes and perceptions of whites than about black women workers. But it did touch on the crucial issue of available wage work.
Vanity Fair held a virtual monopoly on jobs for black women in the town of Jackson where today ninety percept of all managerial, administrative, sales, clerical, technical and professional work (with the exception of teaching) continues to be held by whites.
Eileen: Work slow-down times were different when the campaign was going on. I’m sure what they did was step up the change of styles. You’d go in and this girl was laid off for so many days and that girl was laid off for so many days.
And you’d go visit them in the evening and she’d say, “Lord, no, I can’t sign a card because if I do and they get word of it, they’ll fire me.”
Nobody had ever told her point blank, “I’ll fire you if you sign a union card.” But the implications were there. The little strategic lay-offs. If they felt we were beginning to get a little deeper in, there would be lay-offs in that section.
Rebecca: Even though the supervisors or management could not come out directly and say, “You will be fired if you go through with this,” they could tell you the same thing in so many ways. And you’d know what they were saying.
Emily: The supervisors would come out of meetings every morning–they’d spread rumors. They would harass the people on their line and when we’d take it to the company, “We didn’t know they were doing it.” “They’re not doing it because we told them to.” And of course the supervisors would keep their mouths shut.
But the company was putting them up to it. The company was schooling them on what to do. They’d pick out people that they knew they could…
Rebecca:…buffalo. That they knew they could scare to death and just ride them. Stand over their shoulder and pick on everything they did. Or stand there and just talk.
Prejudices, not only of race but of sex and class, were exploited in an attempt to divide workers at Clarke Mills: white workers against black workers; sewing machine mechanics (all male) against sewing machine operators (all female); and sewing line supervisors against operators.
The male sewing machine mechanics actively opposed unionization even though–because wage increases were based on current pay and they were the highest paid workers–they would receive the greatest gain from the 19771LG contract. According to March, 1979, payroll records, sewing machine mechanic Paul Pan en, who would lead the later decertification effort, averaged $6.37 per hour during a two-week pay period. During the same time period a sewing machine operator with thirty years experience averaged $3.38 per hour.
While organizers drew little or no support from men in the workplace, one man who did offer moral and practical support during the organizing campaign was Sarah Boykins’s husband, Richard. He made after-hour visits to workers’ homes, attended meetings, and enlisted support among members of the black community.
Eileen: Sarah’s husband, Richard, would do his job and then if there were people way back in the hills–see he knew everybody because he’s the UPS (United Parcel Service) man–he would go with us. He would go wherever he was needed.
Richard: I think the company didn’t fight the union as hard as they would have if it had been men. They didn’t think that the women were going to be successful. It surprised the devil out of them when they won.
Wilda: It was nerve wracking. But in the end the tears were worth it all. One person asked me, they said, “Well, if you do go union who will go to negotiate the contract? You know nothing about it.”
I said, “Well, we’ve learned this far. Why can’t we continue to learn?”
They said, “You mean you’re going to get on the road?” And there wasn’t a trip we took that I wasn’t there.
Richard: A lot of times I would come home in the evenings and get in my car and drive around through the county–Barlow Bend, Whatley, Grove Hill–to get cards signed.
Eileen: Home contacts are the mainstay. That’s what you do from day one until day zero because you have to have a contact with the people. Where the company can have a command audience, we can’t. We have to do ours while they’re off, while they’re home.
Richard: Some of the people, especially the older people, they would say, “Vanity Fair has been putting bread on my table for twenty years. Why should I turn against them?”
I would tell them, “If Vanity Fair is putting bread on your table they’d send you a check at the end of the week. You wouldn’t have to get up and go out there each morning at seven o’clock.”
Wilda: And so many of them came back with, “If you start this union Vanity Fair will close their doors.”
Emily: They did move our work out of the Jackson plant. We had shevelva [trade name for brushed nylon fabric used in manufacture of women’s lounge wear]. I was on shevelva. And the shevelva line turned up in Butler. We would go to meetings in Butler and the girls would say, “Well, we’re doing shevelva. It’s your work. They will shut the plant down.”
And they would take my card–your cards have four different places you could cut it and put your clock number on it and put it with different work if you split your bundle. And my work was being split up back then. If they found bad work on other people what they were doing was taking their numbers out of the pockets of shevelva robes and putting my number in it. I got to where I marked my numbers with a certain kind of mark, a different one every day or cut the corner off. I fixed the card where they could not use it but one time.
I had a big mouth. And I wasn’t afraid to stand up and tell Larry Windham in the meeting what I thought of him. I even put George Heard [director of industrial relations] on the spot. I came right out and asked him if we were going to be fired for our union activities whether or not it went in. “Say for instance it wasn’t voted in,” I said. “Are we going to be fired?”
He didn’t answer.
So I spoke up even louder and asked him again. He didn’t have any choice but to answer, “No, the company cannot fire you for your union activities.” I feel like putting him on the spot had a lot to do with me being put on the spot.
Sarah: I think I’d be right in saying they laid off the majority that were very outspoken and that supported the union.
Richard: But they made it a point not to mess with the committee members. They didn’t push them around because they were scared they’d get kickback from the Labor Relations Board.
Wilda: But even during the campaign we did not get easy jobs. We were in the plant. We took the worst. When we would leave at 3:30 in the afternoon our machines would be sewing fine. Go back at seven in the morning with trouble.
Sex, Race and Class
Wives and/or mothers first, the women who organized Local 118 felt strong obligations to their families. They experienced varying degrees of conflict as the result of their activities depending on the amount
of support they received at home. The decision to organize Clarke Mills, in the face of traditional demands of work and family, was a major act of assertion.
Emily: Women are at a disadvantage. They put in their eight hours a day–or ten–whatever is required of them. They go home; they cook supper; they tend to the kids. And they get ready for another day at the plant.
Rebecca: There are unions in this town–granted, they are the men’s jobs. And that’s one thing l cannot understand because a lot of the women working at Vanity Fair had husbands who worked on union jobs. And yet they didn’t want Vanity Fair organized. I really do not understand it. The men worked at union jobs and made good money. They paid union dues. The women had grown up with it.
Emily: It’s got something to do with the men saying, “Hey, I want her home to cook cornbread.”
Wilda: I don’t think any of them liked to see us away from home but it was something that we believed so strongly nobody would say, “Don’t do it.”
Sarah: We had to go out. Leave home at six o’clock in the morning–I’d have to make a few stops on the way to work–and get back at midnight.
You would just work your heart out trying to see some sign of improvement and people would just be so ugly to you. You’d let all your work get behind at home. You’d go home and work real hard and go to bed. You couldn’t sleep. You lay there thinking, “What have I said or what have I done to cause these people to feel like this?”
Potentially divisive racial issues were a constant concern during the months before the election and afterwards during contract negotiations. The biracial shop committee tried to overcome workers’ racial prejudice and build unity. On the overnight trips to out-of-town negotiation meetings, black and white committee members shared hotel rooms.
Sarah: The first time I shared a room with Wilda Blackmon. After that we decided everybody would share rooms, with one white and one black to the room. Wilda wore the name of “rigger lover” and they call me a “honky.” You had to not hear that and keep on pushing.
As the sir-month campaign drew to a close, the pressure at the workplace increased but so did the determination of the women.
Sarah: I never thought about what it would be like if we lost until after the election. It never crossed my mind until the evening before the election. This girl was riding home with me. We were coming along Forest Avenue and I stopped at the IGA. I said, “Well, tomorrow is the big day.”
She said, “You know we’re going to lose.”
And I stopped in the middle of the street and said, “Don’t say that. Don’t say that.” I said, “If that’s the way you talk get out of my car.” And I was going to put her right out in the street.
And she said, “Well, we ought to think about that. It’s going to be hard if you lose.” But I never really thought about it. It never even crossed my mind.
Of the approximately 530 workers eligible to vote on October 29, 1976, 509 cast their votes: 260 in favor of union representation and 244 against the union. (Five votes were challenged and not included in the final tally.)
Eileen: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conducts the election. You go into booths. You mark your ballot. You put nothing else on it–“yes” or “no.” And you bring it out and drop it into the box.
There are usually two observers from the company and two from the union and they stay with those ballots from the beginning until the count. When the ballots are counted, they are read “yes” and “no” and “yes” and “no.” And you die a little bit every time you hear a “no.”
During meetings held in Atlanta in 1977 plant committee members Wilda Blackmon, Sarah Boykin, Rebecca Blackmon, Vevelyn Gilchrist and Eleanor Shaw, together with James Goldberg, legal counsel for the ILG, pursued contract negotiations with representatives of Vanity Fair. In their first contract, negotiated in October of 1977, plant committee members won wage increases, an additional holiday, improved health and welfare benefits and job seniority. The contract also provided for a grievance procedure with arbitration, the first step in providing a more equitable balance of power between employer and employee.
Sarah: Used to be if you didn’t come in on Saturday when they’d want you to work overtime, Monday morning you were in the office. And you possibly wouldn’t have a job. After the contract, it was different. Overtime wasn’t mandatory. You could say no.
As the first and only union in the Vanity Fair chain, Clarke Mills’ Local 118 continued to face opposition from a management who sought to stop union activity from spreading to the remaining Vanity Fair sites. Company representatives filed objections with the National Labor Relations Board following the October, 1976, election. These objections were resolved in favor of the local.
When contract negotiations were completed in 1977, Vanity Fair granted gains won by the union to its nonunion employees.
Wilda: In negotiations they’d say, “We can’t do this because we’ve got so many workers. If we do it for you we’re going to have to do it for them.” So we knew from the beginning that we were really negotiating for every plant Vanity Fair owned.
In 1979 workers indicated that the local brought immediate, if modest, improvement to Clarke Mills. But at the same time they expressed the belief that Local 118’s presence brought no fundamental change of attitude on the part of Vanity Fair and, in fact, exacerbated management attitudes and working conditions.
Sarah: At first, when we went in, you could just feel the resentment.
Emily: They’re still punishing the people for voting the union in. In the past you could run a high unit hour over there. You’d work yourself to death but you’d have a fair paycheck. But they messed our work up.
They don’t bring in good styles. They bring in the short running styles where in the past the Jackson plant had a slip style that ran for years. Now they’re putting in the six weeks runners. It takes six weeks to work the bugs out of it.
In Vanity Fair’s case if they would quit spending all that money trying to fight it and put a little bit of it back into people’s pockets they would have much happier employees. You have a lot of women there that’s supporting their families.
Rebecca: The women are what made Vanity Fair the company it is. Not only the women doing the work–the actual work–but the women buying the products. And the company still will not recognize the fact that to keep the women working like they are they need to treat them better. They just have not accepted that.
By the end of 1980, as Local 118’s first contract neared expiration, several of the union’s most experienced members no longer worked at Clarke Mills. Some had leg because of personal and family demands, a few had located better jobs in the Jackson area. The loss of these women made the local more vulnerable when a petition for decertification was filed.
Wilda: Every time a good strong union member would leave you would get a little bit of hack. “She couldn’t take it no more. She had to go.”
Emily Woodyard left because of the birth of her third child in 1978.
Emily: I certainly had not planned on leaving. I had planned to stay there. It’s a daily struggle with myself because I’m not over there actively involved.
Rebecca: My husband’s health was not good. He became totally disabled. And there’s no way one person working at this plant could support a family. So I knew I had to do something.
I left Vanity Fair voluntarily in 1979.1 really hated to leave the plant because of the people, leaving the people. I went to work at a chemical plant making two-and-a-half times the salary that I had made, with a union, better working conditions, retirement, the whole works. I was there until 1983 when the plant cut production, leaving a lot of people out of work.
Sarah: I had an allergy problem. I was allergic to the fabric and dust at work. I was spending more than I made on medicine. I went back on two separate occasions. The last time I told them I would not be back.
Sarah Boykin subsequently took a position as a paralegal. She resigned as president of the local in the fall of 1980 and was succeeded by Wilda Blackmon.
Sarah: A lot of times I’ve thought about it. I really hated I resigned. It was a hard thing to do. I felt sad. It came down to my health or the job and I chose my health.
On September 17, 1980, Local 118 and Vanity Fair entered came into a memorandum of agreement extending their contract, with modifications, through 1983. On that same date Paul Parden, sewing machine mechanic and an employee for over twelve years, petitioned the NLRB seeking a decertification election.
Parden obtained legal representation from The Center on National Labor Policy,; an organization that describes itself as “a non-profit, non-partisan charitable legal foundation that works through the courts to restore individual rights lost through abuse of union power.” Headquartered in northern Virginia, the Center’s list of clients has included the Stevens People and Friends for Freedom, a group of J.P. Stevens employees supportive of the company in its battle against the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers.
Parden, who is white, continued to act as the leader of those workers who opposed the union. He argued that the union was not strong enough to do its members any good, although he and other mechanics benefited the most as the result of the local’s first contract. There was no apparent advantage for Parden if the local was decertified. Rumors persist that mechanics and supervisors were promised
raises and/or bonuses in return for their opposition to the union.
Rebecca: The mechanics are a small group but at some time or another they talked to almost every sewing machine operator in that plant. They have access to every examiner. There’s no person in that plant that a mechanic cannot go talk to.
Wilda: I went to the first open meeting they had. Paul Parden and Benny Harrison were there. The lawyer said he was free. It didn’t cost Paul Parden anything to bring him down here. The lawyer said he was interested in getting the company out from under the union. He explained how to get the union out. To the best of my knowledge the only black women that went in were with me.
Emily: Benny Harrison was a preacher. A lot of women would just flock in behind him because he was.
A decertification election was held in July of 1981. While initially impounded, the ballots were later counted and revealed that a majority were cast against the UH ion by a vote of 199 to 11 7. This election was set aside in April, 1982,followingan NLRB administrative hearing.
Testimony at the hearing called into question Vanity Fair’s neutral position in the election campaign. The company first posted its “no solicitation, no distribution” notice in 1978. According to the new policy, employees were forbidden to solicit or distribute material on company time or company property.
Numerous breaches of the policy took place when collections were made for retirement, baby and birthday gifts. Moreover, Tupperware and Avon products were sold during work time with the knowledge of supervisors. In contrast, a sewing machine operator who passed out union buttons in the workplace in 1981 received an immediate reprimand from Joe Nichols, personnel supervisor.
Administrative Law Judge Huffon S. Brandon found that Vanity Fair applied its no solicitation policy to prohibit all union activity while taking no action to prohibit non-union solicitation. He ordered a new election for September 1982.
Time and Time Again
Although the union prevailed in the 1982administrative hearing it was not to be taken as encouraging sign. The local’s ability to counter fears and to generate support had declined between 1976and 1982. Union membership dropped to forty-five by the time of the NLRB-ordered election.
On September 24, 1982, the vote went against the union 188 to 134.
Wilda: I don’t know what the members expected. I think they wanted a miracle–for the union to go in, all their jobs to get easier and their pay to get better. We never promised anything like that.
We had gained a contract that the company had to go by. We had several grievances that we went through satisfactorily. In fact we got back pay for some of the girls. We got standards lowered on some of them. But three-fourths of them would not even file a grievance on their standard when they couldn’t reach it. And I couldn’t go in the office and file a grievance for them.
Workers’ fears were reflected in the fact that in all three elections there were many more union votes than union members. The company’s campaign of intimidation never lost its effectiveness. A union dues checkoff provision in the local’s contract meant that the identity of union supporters was readily known.
The fears that Vanity Fair would close its doors rather than accept a union were intensified by the decline (from five-hundred to 350) in the number of jobs at the plant. That many of these lost jobs had been held by black women, the local ‘s strongest supporters, also hurt the union. Compounding the situation was the loss of experienced and committed leaders like Rebecca, Emily and Sarah who had devoted so much time and energy to the campaign. Their influence extended beyond the work place and into the community. Their absence was felt deeply by the union women who remained at Clarke Mills.
In addition, the ILG’s attempts to broaden their base of support by organizing Vanity Fair plants in surrounding counties were unsuccessful.
Emily: If we could have gotten the cutting plant in Monroeville we would have been on a roll. But when we lost the cutting plant it was downhill. We hung on but all those plants were watching us to see if we were going to survive.
Wilda Blackmon was the last to leave Clarke Mills. She continued to work for a year following the 1982 decertification election.
Wilda: I left last year the week before Easter, 1983. I came home that afternoon–I can’t remember if it was Monday or Tuesday–with chest pains that lasted through the night. I got up the next morning and went to the doctor. They sent me to Mobile and the hospital that day. I stayed in the hospital the rest of the week under heart monitor.
When I went back to work Joe Nichols put me in a training room on a mirror hemmer. That is the most difficult, nerve-wracking job there is to learn. It’s finish hemming a garment. You have to hold the same width of fabric in the machine all the way around. That was the most difficult job in the plant for an old operator to learn. Now for a new operator coming in off the street who has never worked on the machines before, it’s easy to pick up. I worked on it one day. I went back to talk to Joe. I told him that no way could I take it right then. I got another doctor’s leave and stayed off a couple of weeks.
When my leave was up I went in and said, “Joe, if you have something in this plant that I’m capable of doing that I’ve already been trained on I’ll be glad to come back to work.” He said there was nothing else in that plant to be done except mirror hemming and I could “take it or leave it.”
Sarah Boykin, still employed as a paralegal, adopted a daughter in 1981 and is in the process of adopting a son. Emily Woodyard, now the mother of four, works for a grocery store chain. Rebecca Blackmon recently began a job as an office worker. Neither woman plans to return to Vanity Fair.
Rebecca: I don’t think I could sit there all day again-
hour after hour–just sit there.
Emily: After being on the job I’m on now, I can say the same thing. I don’t see any future at Vanity Fair.
Wilda: To me the job wasn’t the most important part of my life. But to a lot of them it was. It was their life. They will admit that real quick. I can’t see them enjoying the work, but some say they do. Needing the money is more.
Sarah: I get angry. All the days and nights I left my family and this is where it ended. What did I really gain? I think about that. Did I help or hurt others? I don’t know.
Rebecca: I have mixed feelings. Sometimes I have trouble dealing with some aspects of it. I really do. Because we really gave a lot of ourselves. From leaving the kids at home and all of that.
We really believed a union would help Vanity Fair. I never thought much about what the consequences would be. I never thought I was wrong. I still don’t think I was wrong.
If you don’t take care of yourself nobody else will do it for you. And that’s a hard lesson to learn the way we did.
Emily: I believed once we got a union in it would stay.
Rebecca: I did too,
Emily: I did not know the committee was going to go in different directions.
Rebecca: I don’t think anybody did.
Wilda: I don’t regret any of the things I’ve done. I’m happy with my life as it is now. That’s all behind me. It was an experience for me to go through–a learning experience. It taught me self confidence. That I was capable of being an equal to any of the people in the plant. The supervisors were not above me–not even the plant manager or personnel manager. I’m not saying our education was the same, but education doesn’t always make a smart person.
Emily: You can get a union voted in. Just because you get the contract signed, it does not stop there. You’ve got to educate people. Whether it’s to get them to a union meeting, which is practically impossible, or whether it’s waiting ’til their feathers lay down and you can talk to them. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen in six months. It won’t happen in a year. All the company had to do was wait long enough.
Sarah: It happened once. Even though it’s no longer there, it happened after all. That’s why I know it can happen again.
Paula Mclendon is a native of Jackson, Alabama who now lives in Birmingham.