Inside the AFL-CIO
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Column #18 July 24, 2001

A Standout in Organizing the South
Takes Over as President of UNITE!

By Harry Kelber

Bruce S. Raynor, president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Workers (UNITE!) since July 1, is considered by many to be a new type of union leader. He never worked in a garment or textile factory. He was never a lawyer, as were several of his predecessors. Drawn to the labor movement while in college, he later spent more than 20 years as a union organizer in the South.

“I went to college in the late 1960’s in the midst of the anti-war and civil rights movements,” he said in our July 3 interview. “I was attracted to the labor movement as a way to change society, to get more power for people who lack it and need it. In my freshman year at Cornell, I changed my major from biochemistry to labor relations. I was intent on working for a union, so shortly after I graduated, I got a job with the Textile Workers Union of America, whose president, Sol Stetin, assigned me to the South to help organize the anti-union textile factories. I was then 22 years old and I’ve spent my entire adult life working for this union and its predecessors.”

Soon after becoming an organizer, Raynor met his wife, Joan, who worked in a North Carolina textile mill for 20 years and was a shop steward and president of her local. They have five children, three of whom graduated from high school this year.

Raynor gained a reputation as a highly skilled organizer after he helped win contracts at 10 textile plants where the notoriously anti-union J. P. Stevens & Co. had committed hundreds of labor-law violations. The 1980 victories were a major breakthrough in the region that has historically been most hostile and resistant to unions. In 1998, Raynor was elected secretary-treasurer of UNITE!, a merger in 1995 of two apparel unions, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers.

As the union’s president, Raynor faces challenges that will severely test his leadership abilities. UNITE! still has about 240,000 members, but is losing 10,000 a year just from plant closings. “There are still about one million apparel and textile workers to be organized, but that’s going down at a drastic rate. Itšs down by 50% of what it was 15 years ago,” Raynor said. The exodus of apparel and textile jobs will continue “unless trade laws are adjusted so there is some government support for the manufacturing base in our country,” he predicted.

“We’ve got to organize at a faster pace than what we lose,” he added. “Right now, we spend 32% of our budget on organizing. Our aim is to increase it to 50%…We believe we can achieve top-notch representation for our members by training and developing in-plant leaders who can enforce the contract and run the union. We are conducting an aggressive membership education program because we find that the union is stronger when the members are enforcing the contract and not waiting for the business agent to come around. This enables us to put the saved resources into union growth.”

In the past four years, Raynor noted, UNITE! has added 30,000 workers employed in industrial laundries to its rolls. There will be stepped-up efforts to organize the remaining 140,000 workers in the industry in the next two years. “We hope to set national wage and benefit standards for the low-paid workers in this industry,” Raynor said.

A union campaign to get municipal governments to buy uniforms from unionized apparel factories is also gaining ground, and UNITE! is planning organizing drives in the retail apparel field. Like other AFL-CIO unions, UNITE! has gone out of its traditional jurisdiction to attract hundreds of workers at Duane Reade (a drug store chain), a hospital and a plastic bottle manufacturing company, among others.

The union has been sharply criticized, especially in New York’s Asian community, for its failure to enforce contract standards. Many sweatshop employers get away with paying unionized workers substandard wages and benefits. Working conditions are often terrible. Raynor and other union leaders point to the difficulties of maintaining control over shops that can close down, change their names or file for bankruptcy overnight. They say that many workers are afraid to mention their grievances to the union for fear of being fired. However, critics contend that too many union business agents cannot deal with cultural and language barriers and are too cozy with clothing makers and mobsters.

When asked about allegations of gangsterism in some UNITE! locals, Raynor replied: “There are gangsters around in the industry that we continue to fight with, but there are no gangsters in our union. When we organize workers, some gangster may show up and sign a sweetheart contract with the employer. We have a bunch of them in the New York-New Jersey area, and we’re confronting them. We’re not afraid of them.”

What about organizing in the South? “Our union is definitely committed to it,” Raynor said. “Unfortunately, I don’t see the same commitment from other national unions. One of the things I want to try to do is to encourage other unions to make a commitment to the South.” (If Jay Mazur, the former UNITE! president, steps down from the AFL-CIO Executive Council, Raynor would likely fill the vacancy, in accordance with past practice.)

Once you choose an organizing target, you must be patient enough to see it through to the end, Raynor insisted. As an example, he cites Fieldcrest Cannon (now called Pilltex), a manufacturer of towels, pillows and blankets with 8,000 workers at 15 southern plants. “I started working on the Cannon campaign in 1973. It took us 25 years and five elections before we finally unionized the company in 1999,” he recalled.

UNITE! has 100 organizers nationwide and runs its own organizer training program. There is one staff member whose sole responsibility is to recruit and develop new organizers. While some don’t make it for various reasons, those who stay “are among the best in the labor movement,” according to Raynor.

“Richard Bensinger, who started the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute, is a good friend of mine,” he added. “He did a great job, but the Institute is not in the best shape as it was several years ago. I think it needs to be looked at to see how it can be improved.”

Because of the need to bring immigrants from various parts of the world into the union, UNITE! recently assigned a Punjabi organizer to a Canadian factory where large numbers of Punjabi workers are employed. It trains both organizers and staff people who speak a variety of languages, including Tamil from Sri Lanka. “Our union traditionally has been a haven for waves of immigrants who came here to seek a better life,” Raynor said.

Regarding the shrinking percentage of the work force that is organized, Raynor said: “Clearly, the labor movement has not done what it has to do in the way of organizing workers. But we shouldn’t lay the blame on (AFL-CIO President John) Sweeney and the federation. They can use the bully pulpit, provide resources, encourage and facilitate — but it is the individual unions that have to do the organizing.”

Why are some national union leaders and their local subordinates reluctant to devote resources and staff for organizing? Because it’s difficult, costly and frustrating, as Raynor points out, and many members simply don’t want their dues money spent on organizing. Sometimes, he suggested, members need constant reminders that unless their union grows, their jobs and economic standards are placed at risk.

Raynor has high praise for the AFL-CIO’s political initiatives. “In the last six years, the labor movement has done an outstanding job in politics,” he said. “It has become much more of a political power than at any period during my lifetime. Sweeney, Rich Trumka, Linda Chavez-Thompson, Gerald McEntee and others deserve a lot of credit.”

Discussing his own union’s political stance, Raynor said: “My view is that we’re not going to be allied with either of the political parties. I believe that labor has been mistreated by the Democratic party. The Clinton Administration did little or nothing for the labor movement, so we’re going to be open to support any candidate or party — Republican, Democratic or independent — who will do things in the interest of our members.”

He added: “We’re going to be practical and very energetic. We don’t plan to match corporate campaign contributions, but we’ll raise a respectable amount of money. Wešre going to train hundreds of volunteers and put them to work in those campaigns that matter to us.”

Promising to “run an issue-oriented campaign in 2002,” Raynor said worker rights should be one of the main issues. “I also think that labor law reform ought to be put before Congress. We ought to make our legislators support it or not support it. It’ll be clear who our friends are and who they aren’t,” he said.

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