Follow-up

When you’re working like the devil for a pay raise

William Lowther November 17 1980
Follow-up

When you’re working like the devil for a pay raise

William Lowther November 17 1980

When you’re working like the devil for a pay raise

Follow-up

After one of the longest, roughest and toughest labor battles in history—it spawned folk-songs, books and a movie—textile workers have made a major breakthrough in America’s staunchly anti-union southern states. After 17 years, $30 million, street fights by the dozen and court cases galore, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union last month signed their first-ever contract with one of the region’s largest employers, J.P. Stevens & Co. “We can live decent now, we got a chance at a

better life,” beamed Syretha Medlin, a mother of seven, after the ratification vote.

On the face of it, the 21/2-year agreement with the textile giant is rather weak and wobbly. But it could have enormous significance for the South where the average wage paid to production workers is $1.59 to $2.24 an hour less than the same worker would earn in the North. The poor black, and white, families of Dixie are among the worst off in the U.S. The new contract covers

3,000 Stevens employees working at seven plants in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. It brings no sudden jump in their standard of living: their new wages will average just $5.50 an hour. But it gives them security, a base on which to work for improved safety conditions and the promise of a better deal in the future. It has also opened the door for the union to recruit the 40,000 other Stevens workers who remain outside its jurisdiction.

Two years ago, Maclean's (Nov. 27, 1978) reported on the J.P. Stevens saga

and the way southern businessmen and politicians had conspired to keep unions out and wages low. Since 1963, when the union first started its drive to organize Stevens, the battle has been bitter and costly for both sides. Twenty-two times the courts have found the company guilty of unfair labor practices. As part of the contract the company now promises for the first time to recognize the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, giving employees the right to join a union. The concession rankles company officials. “The union spent a lot of money spreading their poison and we don’t think they got much for it,” a

spokesman said later. And company Chairman Whitney Stevens added: “We will continue to oppose the unions.”

In the end, it was probably an unusual union tactic introduced by negotiator Ray Rogers that won the day. Realizing that no amount of union pressure brought directly against Stevens would do much good, he turned to the large insurance companies that help finance Stevens. “You can only fight power with power,” he said. Rogers threatened to run two union dissidents for election to the board of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., which controls about 43 per cent of Stevens’ long-

term debt — and thereby disrupt company plans.

After Metropolitan Chairman Richard Shinn calculated that the union plans might cost his company as much as $9 million, he met with Whitney Stevens. “I applied absolutely no pressure,” he said later. “I merely wanted to find out how the negotiations with the union were going.” But the meeting was the message. J.P. Stevens & Co., which previously had simply refused to recognize the union’s existence, began to bargain. The result “is a major victory for all the working people of America,” trumpeted Lane Kirkland, president of the American Federation of Labor and

Congress of Industrial Organizations. “It is a tremendous forward step for the textile and apparel workers of the South.”

First estimates suggest that the union and its supporters spent $30 million on the great textile war; the company refuses to disclose its costs. But, says union chairman Finley, “you just can’t measure this kind of thing in dollars. This was a campaign for human rights and justice.”

The Stevens company has been the chief symbol of industry’s determination to resist unionization in the South. Its decision to recognize the union is certain to have a great impact on other companies. Kirkland says the Stevens victory will provide “a major psychological boost toward organizing workers throughout the South.” It’s about time: the South’s union participation rate is about half the level for the country as a whole. “In a way,” The Washington Post editorialized, “labor unions trying to organize the South have picked up where the civil rights movement left off—but the economic struggle for low-wage blacks and whites is much more difficult and frustrating.” William Lowther