Stevens vs. Justice

Black and white photo of several people marching down a street holding signs

Southern Exposure

Here come a wind

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 4 No. 1/2, "Here Come a Wind." Find more from that issue here.

“J.P. Stevens is so out of tune with a humane, civilized approach to industrial relations that it should shock even those least sensitive to honor, justice and decent treatment.” — Boyd Leedom, former chairman, National Labor Relations Board


“With scant regard for the means employed other than their effectiveness, Stevens interfered with, restrained and coerced its employees in the exercise of their rights under the labor act, flagrantly, cynically and unlawfully.” — Second Circuit Court of Appeals


On March 15, 1976, Congressman Frank Thompson (Dem., N.J.) settled into his chairman’s seat at the House Labor Subcommittee’s hearing room in Washington. The Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) was scheduled to testify on amendments to the National Labor Relations Act. He knew that they would focus on J.P. Stevens & Co., the nation’s second largest textile company and notorious “Number One Labor Law Violator.”

As expected, the union chiefs presented exhaustive documentation to show how Stevens has continued its intimidation and illegal tactics since the beginning of the long organizing campaign in 1963. But the Congressman had a surprise coming.

The TWUA organizing director completed his testimony and turned to Rep. Thompson. “Mr. Chairman, I would like to introduce you to Maurine Hedgepeth of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. She works at the J.P. Stevens Rosemary plant.” Maurine, an attractive heavyset woman with teenage children, approached the table “scared to death.” Then she heard Thompson comment to the hearing room. “I remember this lady from a meeting in Charlotte years ago. She was having a hard time then, too.” Maurine savors the Chairman’s remark. “He put me at ease. I felt like I was talking to a friend then.”

By the time she finished, Maurine had brought tears to Thompson and others in the chamber. She told them what it was like to be fired from Stevens because she worked for the union. And she told them how her family lived while she and her husband, also fired, had no income. “During supper, the kids used to ask me, ‘Aren’t you going to eat?’ I always said, ‘I ate while I was cooking.’ The truth was I went without food many nights. We just didn’t have enough.”

Rep. Thompson went home that night moved, more sure than ever that the National Labor Relations Act needed teeth to protect Stevens workers. And Maurine, a weaver, went home — to her loom at Roanoke Rapids. She knew all about the law’s weaknesses. But she was also committed to the union.

“I learned about unions from my daddy,” she explains. “He belonged to the old United Textile Workers local here. When the General Strike broke out in 1934, the union’s organizer lived with us. I was just two. Daddy was retired from the Navy and got $126 a month — a lot of money in those days — plus what he earned at the mill. He bought food for the strikers. Roosevelt convinced him that unions were good. He remembered FDR saying, ‘If I went to work tomorrow, I’d join a union today.’ Well, I believed that, too. But when I joined the union, they fired me. I got my job back, but we still don’t have a union contract here.”

Maurine Hedgepeth is one of 3500 workers in the seven-plant Stevens complex which dominates Roanoke Rapids, a town of 15,000 nestled in North Carolina’s farm country ten miles from the Virginia border. In August, 1974, a majority of the workers voted in an official National Labor Relations Board election to be represented by the TWUA. Labor leaders hailed the election victory as the milestone climaxing an 11-year organizing campaign among Stevens workers. And they trumpeted their hopes for a quick, breakthrough contract with the most intransigent of the anti-union giants. But to date no agreement has been reached.

Maurine and thousands of other Stevens workers are still waiting for justice. Unfortunately, the law of the land is not on their side. In fact, the Stevens campaign illustrates how the nation’s labor laws can be effectively used by corporations to suppress workers’ rights and cripple unions.

It is not the workers’ fault that only ten percent of the South’s textile industry is organized — anymore than it was the fault of black people that it took them 300 years to get the legal protection they needed to exercise their Constitutional rights. And like the civil rights movement, much of labor’s energy has centered on forcing the law to serve the powerless dissenter rather than the well-entrenched status-quo.


Focus on Stevens

Unionism has endured a history of failure in textiles. The militance of the walkouts in the 1920s and ’30s was never institutionalized. Industrial unionism, spearheaded by the CIO, marched through oil, steel, auto, and rubber, but was interrupted by World War II before it could reach textiles. In the late 1940s, the CIO launched “Operation Dixie,” but its organizers faced the hostile Taft-Hartley Act and reactionary mood of Joe McCarthy instead of FDR and the pro-labor Wagner Act. The union scored significant gains, but employers rapidly learned to use the new laws to isolate and eventually destroy union sentiment. During the ’50s, the TWUA suffered internecine warfare and severe setbacks at Henderson, N.C. (where its regional director went to jail on trumped-up charges and a bitter strike was totally crushed), and in Darlington, S.C. (where Deering-Milliken closed its plant when workers voted for the union.) Membership in the South steadily declined from its high of 120,000 in I948.

When the AFL and CIO merged in head Walter Reuther was the direction of a separate division committed to industrial organizing. Through this Industrial Union Department, Reuther hoped to preserve the old CIO technique of drawing organizers from numerous unions to fight holdouts — especially in the South and especially in textiles. The idea still worked. In a one year period from 1961 to ’62, the IUD organizers captured a beachhead on the precarious South Carolina front by winning seven of eight NLRB elections. Bakers and butchers, weavers and seamstresses, steelworkers and paperworkers - all gained the protection of a union. The campaign concentrated in the Piedmont’s Spartanburg and Greenville, but the big boy in town — J. P. Stevens — remained untouched.

By the early ’60s, the task of organizing the giant textile chains appeared as inescapable as it did impossible. Every effort was met with highly successful anti-labor tactics, including the ultimate weapon: closing down any plant where the workers voted for a union. To counteract that strategy, the union chose to resurrect the CIO’s practice of targeting one leading company to break the industry open for unionism. By organizing at all the company’s plants at once, the union could wield far greater negotiating power and prevent the shifting of production to unrepresented shops. 

The IUD and TWUA began to consider which textile giant to take on. Burlington, the Carolina-based industry leader, had vigorously resisted unions in the ‘40s. And Spencer Love, Burlington’s founder and an ally of Gov. Terry Sanford, presented a formidable foe. Number Two Stevens, on the other hand, had honored several union contracts in New England and had established their Southern headquarters in Greenville. Word of the ’61-62 election wins had spread into their plants, and Stevens workers were openly asking for union protection. But Bob Stevens, the super-patriot, former Secretary of Army under President Eisenhower, led his company with an iron will. Finally after much debate,exhaustive research, and innumerable plant-gate flyers, the IUD and the TWUA made a joint decision to undertake a J.P. Stevens organizing drive. To crack textiles at all costs.

They knew it wouldn’t be easy. Stevens had grown from a single mill in Andover, Mass., in 1813 to one of the most diversified and tightly controlled firms in America. Following his ancestors’ advice, Bob Stevens kept the family in charge — even as he expanded into new territory. In the late 1940s, Stevens made its major foray south, buying up some 15 separate firms including the Roanoke

Rapids complex, several Greenville enterprises, and the Carter Fibers chain. The acquisition policy continued throughout the ’50s and by 1963, the company’s annual sales topped $600 million with 55 plants employing 35,000 workers. Steady growth and conservative management spelled predictable profit margins and regular dividends. Bob Stevens didn’t think he needed anyone telling him how to run his business or treat his employees — least of all the American labor movement.


The Campaign Begins

During 1963-64, the IUD brought new blood from the IUE, Steelworkers, Mineworkers and other unions to bolster the forces of the TWUA. Some 30 organizers blanketed 20-odd Stevens plants with handbills, built organizing committees, and signed up supporters on union cards, the first step towards an NLRB election.

“I got a leaflet and sent it back to the union,” recalls Al Sanders of Greenville, S.C. “I was at the Dunean plant, had been since 1948. I was always for the union. I used to visit my two brothers up in Detroit. They worked for Ford and Chrysler and were in the union. Up there, you were funny if you weren’t in a union. And those miners during the Depression — I knew about them.”

In August 1963, Al Sanders was fired because his work “was insufficient.” Over a hundred workers like Sanders were fired at virtually every plant where organizers were building committees. The pattern became clear very quickly. Stevens intended to fire union supporters rather than allow them to organize. And that was only the beginning.

Jess Cudd, a spinning doffer for fifty years, worked for Stevens in Whitmire, S.C.; his son, Donald, returned from the service and went to work at the same plant. They were the first two employees in tiny Whitmire (3500) to join the union. Stevens fired Donald, but he continued to organize in the mill village. Then they tried to bribe Jess to quit with extra pension payments and guarantees of child custody for his son’s kids. Jess recalls the plant manager’s appeal. He said, “If I’d run Donald off, and adopt them two young’uns and quit myself, it’d be all right.” Jess refused the humiliating offer to break up his family and stood by the union; he too was soon fired.

During the summer of 1964, Stevens workers from throughout the Carolinas gathered together in Charlotte for the first time. Jess Cudd was there, and Al Sanders, and Maurine Hedgepeth, along with hundreds of others, mostly middle-aged whites and a few blacks (the plants were 85-90 percent white at the time). It was at that meeting that Maurine got the assurancesshe needed to stick her family’s neck out for the union.

“During the first union campaign in Roanoke Rapids in 1959, lots of people lost their jobs,” she explains. “I didn’t work in that campaign be¬ cause nobody would offer me any protection. But at the Charlotte meeting, Jim Pierce (IUD Southern Coordinator) told me, ‘Maurine, if you get involved, we’ll never leave that town until all of you people (who might get fired) are reinstated.’”

That was enough support for Maurine. And it came just in time. The first NLRB hearing regarding abuses against Roanoke Rapids workers were held in September, 1964. Maurine decided to testify against the company, on behalf of those who had already been fired. “A few days later I went on pregnancy leave,” she says. “I was supposed to go back to work in January, 1965. When I went back to get my job, they told me there were no jobs available. And they’d fired my husband the day before Christmas, after 25 years as a loom fixer. A new baby and neither of us had a job. Stevens made it clear that they didn’t like me telling the truth to the Labor Board.”


At the Bar of Justice

The Union filed charges with the Labor Board to re-instate Hedgepeth, Cudd, Sanders and literally hundreds of others, claiming Stevens had violated the law. Specifically, Section 8 (a)(3) of the National Labor Relations Act states: “It shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer, by discrimination in regard to hire or tenure of employment... to encourage or discourage membership in any labor organization.” Despite the clarity of the law, the remedies it provides against offenders are so few and so long in coming that they are virtually ineffective. Finding that a worker was fired for supporting a union, the Labor Board has only two basic remedies: it can order the worker re-instated at the same job, and it can award back wages for the time out of work. The company can appeal the rulings into the courts delaying any action until the frustrated pro-union worker has given up. Meanwhile, the Board can not block a flagrant violator from repeating the same offense.

The Labor Board itself has no punitive powers to issue either an injunction or contempt citations. It has to seek enforcement powers through the courts. Furthermore, the Labor Act does not allow workers to sue for civil damages, even though the same Act does permit employers to sue unions for damages from secondary boycotts and to request the court to enjoin picketing.

Four years and 21 days after losing her job, Ms. Hedgepeth returned to work. “Four years is a long time to wait. I had faith and thought I’d get my job back. But it seemed like forever. Jesse Butler, an NLRB attorney, felt responsible. He begged me to testify before the Trial Examiner. He made sure I got my job back. And the union kept their word. They stayed in town until I got back to work.”

“When I got my job back,” Sanders explains, “they gave me one of the hardest jobs in the mill. I had to work on the oldest looms; I’m a fixer. But the letter from the NLRB said that I was supposed to get the same job. I told the supervisor to give me back my regular job or I’d call up the NLRB and the union.” Mr. Sanders got his old job back and $27,000 in back pay. But he had to wait for five years. By that time the momentum for organizing the plant had been broken.

Thus rather than protect workers, Section 8(a)(3) functions more like a “hunting license” for Southern textile executives. They can discharge employees illegally, pay peanuts in penalties several years later (if the worker is still around), then deduct the amount as a legitimate business expense. In other words, the law itself makes firing pro-union workers a relatively inexpensive way to stifle individual expression and undercut a union drive. Exploiting that sinister aspect of the Labor Act is exactly what J.P. Stevens has done.

The company literally eliminated the first wave of organizing in 1963-64 by firing Sanders, Hedgepeth and other leaders. Less courageous workers were bought off and intimidated. “Stevens had so many pimps in the mill,” Sanders says angrily. “They promised them good jobs, made people afraid they’d get fired. People turned their back on the union. They onlywant to use the union to get more money.”

Faced with a company willing to beat back its workers “by any means necessary,” the union offensive shifted from the plant gates to the courtroom. TWUA had to prove to both the workers and the Stevens management that the union would not abandon its commitment to those who wanted union protection. So while organizing continued at a reduced pace, union attorneys fought to get people their jobs back and the right to express freely their union sympathies.

The cases accumulated throughout the ’60s finally began to pay off. (See box for details.) To date, a total of of 289 illegally fired workers have received $1.3 million in back pay awards. In addition, the company has been found guilty of such tactics as promising benefits two days before an NLRB election to influence the voting; electronically spying on union organizers; downgrading union members’ jobs; firing workers who testified before the NLRB: and refusing to hire workers whose relatives were union members. Stevens quickly achieved the dubious honor of breaking the nation’s labor laws more often than any other company in history.

As the number of offenses increased, the NLRB became more incensed with Stevens’ blatantly illegal behavior. It began going to US Circuit Courts on its own to force the company to obey the law. Before long, the Courts became outraged. In 1972, for example, the Second Circuit Court held Stevens in contempt for failing to obey its previous order that the company stop violating the law. The Court’s decision read in part, “Our system of justice cannot survive if litigants are seized with the notion that they can ignore the lawful orders of a court simply because they disagree with them. In addition, the record here strongly justifies the inference that Stevens deliberately took their chances in ignoring our decrees because they thought it profitable for them to do so.”

The Court’s remedies went well beyond the Labor Board in providing both short term relief and the basis for further union organizing. Workers were reinstated; the union received lists of employees’ names and access to plant bulletin boards; and the company had to send letters to its workers acknowledging that it had broken the law many times over.

Two other dramatic court decisions set the stage for significant union victories and the current impasse in the campaign.

In 1971, the Fifth Circuit Court declared that Stevens had committed “massive” violations of the law during the 1968 organizing drive at Statesboro, Georgia. The Court was so disturbed that it chose a novel remedy to restore justice: it threw out the results of the “biased” representation election and awarded bargaining rights to the union.

For the first time, the TWUA had been certified as the legal bargaining agent for a group of Stevens workers in the South. But the victory held a hollow promise, for the company refused to negotiate a contract. Gradually, Stevens reduced production at Statesboro, and by the time the Circuit Court had found the company guilty of “bad faith bargaining,” the plant was closed down. It was the old Darlington story: when the union gets in, throw the workers out the door.

“Before we started organizing, it wasn’t too much different than slavery,” explains Addie Jackson, a young black mother of two, who worked at Statesboro. “No lunch hour. Just eat your sandwich while running your machine. I thought that was the most terrible thing I ever heard of. And then Stevens closed down the plant. They shut us out.”

In the other dramatic decision, the Second Circuit Court ruled in 1972 that union officials could make speeches inside the plants at Roanoke Rapids. Having access to company bulletin boards and an audience inside the shop offered the union unique advantages to counter directly and personally the anti-labor propaganda spread by the industry.

With these tools, the Roanoke Rapids drive picked up steam. Bold organizers — a Mineworker from John L.’s day, college-bred liberals, and seasoned TWUA vets — challenged the startled Company officials by conspicuously posting Union notices in the plants and building local committees. N.C. AFL-CIO President Wilbur Hobby traveled to Roanoke Rapids time and again to boost people’s spirits with his colorful support, from hard-hitting speeches to playing Santa Claus at the Christmas party. A TWUA cheerleader crew took to the streets and gained community support. In the closing days, IUD Coordinator Harold McIver went inside the plants and answered Company captive audience speeches with the bluster and enthusiasm of his youth in the Georgia steelyards. And Congressman Andy Young and others led an optimistic rally in songs and cheers just days before the vote.

The final count was tense. The late August heat hung heavy over the expectant assortment gathered at the polls. When the victory was announced cheers rang out. But there was a certain hush as well. No one was really prepared for such a clearcut decision. The black vote (the plants were 30-40 percent black by 1974) had carried the day. Union and Company officials caught their breath for the next round of battle. Negotiating a contract wouldn’t be easy.

The months dragged on. Black and white workers grew stronger in their resolve for a union, but little happened at the bargaining table. Rather than close down the seven-plant complex, Stevens has turned over the bargaining chores to a professional anti-union attorney, Whiteford Blakeney, creator of the infamous negotiating style known as “Blakeney’s Formula.” Briefly stated his approach gives the semblance oof fair bargaining by discussing nonessential points; but Blakeney refuses to even talk about the two keys to building a union in a new plant: the dues check-off and arbitration of grievance. Without these provisions an under financed local would be forced to go out on strike to settle even minor grievances for their members — clearly an impossible position for the new union.


Beyond the Courts

Union leaders have become quite adept at using the latest rulings as levers in the next round of organizing Stevens. But now that they have bargaining rights at Statesboro and Roanoke Rapids, new pressures are needed to actually win a contract for the workers that have survived with them. The courts will continue to be important, and several other key decisions are possible from cases now in process. But the union knows it can’t depend on the courts for a meaningful contract. The laws are simply not strong enough to make a corporation respect the wishes of a majority of its workers.

The Thompson Committee hearings during the past year might have remedied the situation with legislation giving labor laws more teeth. Included in the package of amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, was one informally known as the “Stevens Amendment.” It would have prohibited the government from giving federal contracts to flagrant violators of the NLRA, just as those guilty of abusing the Civil Rights Act forfeit their chance for business with the government. Since 1968, Stevens has landed $106 million in federal contracts, supplying everything from space shields for the moon shots to parachutes for the military. Losing that much income from his buddies at the Pentagon would definitely upset Bob Stevens. But the amendment will probably not reach a vote this session of Congress. With Ford in the White House, the labor movement has all but given up efforts at legislative reform of the NLRB. The union must look elsewhere for help.

After careful planning and lobbying within the AFL-CIO, the union is ready for a new strategy based on the dedication of workers like Maurine Hedgepeth and Addie Jackson and the unified power of their brothers and sisters in the labor movement. On June 2, 1976, the TWUA merged with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) and delegates at a joint convention shouted approval for a three-fold offensive to force Stevens to sign a contract: a national consumer boycott more extensive than the Farah boycott undertaken by ACWA; a broad-based organizing drive larger than the one begun in 1963 against Stevens; and a sophisticated legal attack to increase access for organizers and penalties against the company.

And the merged Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) is learning from the civil rights movement and coalition styles of the sixties — especially important since many of Stevens’ 85 plants are now over 30 percent black. At the 1976 annual meeting for Stevens stockholders a handful of ministers, Southern liberals, college students, black and white workers and union officials lambasted the company’s arrogance toward the law and its employees, giving the company a glimpse of what’s to come in the new StopStevens campaign. Inside Stevens’ meeting room, Addie Jackson, still unemployed since the Statesboro plant shut down, rose with her proxy in hand and slowly turned to the crowded room of New York businessmen, slightly nervous, but proud and straight. “I wish you could go back home with me to Statesboro and see that big, beautiful, EMPTY Stevens plant that YOU own.” Her cadence and manner came from the black community, a staunch ally for the union.

In the end, the textile workers themselves will determine whether a new labor movement sweeps the Southern milltowns and completes the old CIO’s trek of the 1930s. A legal victory might net a good contract with valuable protections. But unless workers are organized at the same time — at the multiple Stevens plants in the Carolinas — the Company will use the contract in the same way that Burlington manipulates their few plants covered under contract.

Union cards are pouring into the IUD office from Stevens workers in rural Georgia, North Carolina’s Piedmont and from Greenville — where things began. The labor movement of the ’70s can combine the experiences of Walter Reuther’s era with lessons from the civil rights movement, for the constituencies have merged in the mills to include both traditions. Cracking Stevens is like taking on US Steel and Bull Connor at the same time. Only massive mobilization throughout the Stevens chain, combined with a full-scale campaign to garner support of the media, liberals, labor, women and civil rights groups, can allow the deep desires and just demands of hundreds of thousands of people to be expressed and fulfilled.

Maurine Hedgepeth has been through a lot since she first heard about unions from her father. And she’s not about to quit. “Now we’ve voted in the union. It’s only when we stick together and show how strong we are that we’ll get something out of them. Til then, they’ll never change. Money is important and we need it to live. But it’s not as important as my self-respect — to have a little dignity.”