Vol. 8, No. 2
April, 1999



How a Corporate Campaign
Defeated J.P. Stevens

By Ray Rogers

In 1974, after a 14-year struggle, the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) won an election to represent 3,000 workers at seven J.P. Stevens & Co. plants in Roanoke Rapids, N.C.

A few years later, Sally Field won an Oscar as best actress for her performance in "Norma Rae," a movie based on the organizing struggle at Stevens and the experience of TWUA member Crystal Lee Sutton. In the movie, many of the names are changed — for example, Stevens becomes "O.P. Henley & Co." — to protect the moviemakers from legal liability.

In the final scene, a jubilant crowd of workers loudly celebrates their victory over an industry well known for brutal working conditions and a company regarded as the nation's worst labor law violator. A happy ending, but not the whole picture.

Real Life vs. Reel Life

Actually, the Stevens workers didn't get the fruits of their victory — a contract — until six years later. The company stopped resisting the union only after ACTWU (the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, formed by the 1976 merger with the smaller TWUA) made Stevens the target of the first corporate campaign by organized labor.

Today, the abuses of corporate power are multiplying as rapidly as the lists of lawless acts by Stevens back in the '60 and '70s. Community, public interest, environmental and religious groups, as well as labor unions, want to challenge irresponsible corporate behavior. How to do this, and greatly increase the chances of success, will be the subject of this column in The Labor Educator.

The J.P. Stevens Corporate Campaign, which I directed for ACTWU, was not the only reason for the happy ending that occurred with labor's victory over Stevens in 1980. But it did provide irrefutable evidence that there are methods other than long and costly traditional strikes and boycotts to challenge powerful institutions and force them to behave responsibly.

Boycott Wasn't Enough

When ACTWU was formed in 1976, its leaders and George Meany, then president of the AFL-CIO, announced the kickoff of an international "consumer boycott" against Stevens to pressure the company to sign a contract. While on the union staff, I had researched Stevens and concluded that such a strategy, however well intentioned, was insufficient.

I reasoned that a consumer boycott could never bring enough pressure on the company to force a contract settlement, nor could any kind of moral suasion, even with thousands of political, religious, civic and labor leaders signing on as supporters. Less than a third of Stevens' products were sold to consumers and even those were mostly sold under names other than J.P. Stevens or could only be identified by checking lists of registration numbers.

Also, it was illegal at the time for unions covered by the National Labor Relations Act to pressure retailers to stop selling products by boycotting their stores; unions and their supporters could only appeal to consumers not to buy a product. (After the Debartolo decision in 1988, unions are no longer prohibited from engaging in such "secondary boycott" activity.)

I wondered how, in 1976, all those labor leaders with so much at stake could make such a bold commitment based on a strategy that had about as much chance of succeeding as the proverbial snowball in hell.

Stevens Surrounded on All Sides

So I conceived a multi-faceted campaign of strategy and tactics to empower the union. I did this by drawing a chart with a circle representing J.P. Stevens in the middle. Then I drew several arrows converging on the circle from all directions, each representing a key element for building a comprehensive campaign.

The union needed a plan that would allow no means of escape for Stevens. At the heart of the concept I called a "Corporate Campaign" was one arrow on the chart labeled "Confronting the Web of Power Behind the Company."

Unions and others fighting for justice cannot confront powerful adversaries and expect to gain any meaningful concessions unless they are backed by a significant source of power themselves. A real corporate campaign is a mechanism to confront power with power.

They Run, But They Can't Hide

In 1976, TWUA sent a group of 11 people to attend Stevens' annual meeting; about 30 others carried signs outside. Such a public presence, particularly in New York City, made the union look weak and its cause almost inconsequential.

A year later, ACTWU's Corporate Campaign organized hundreds of people to buy a share of Stevens stock in order to attend the annual meeting, while thousands demonstrated outside. The company, which had for decades held annual meetings in New York, was so stunned that it moved the following year's meeting to South Carolina and never returned to New York.

In an article published in 1981, I wrote that a corporate campaign "takes on the power behind a company. It shows clearly how to cut off the lifeblood of an institution... Since powerful institutions are both economic and political animals, they must be challenged in both the economic and political spheres." Workers' and poor peoples' struggles must be moved "to the doorsteps and into the boardrooms of the corporate power brokers."

That's what happened with J.P. Stevens. Eventually, several top corporate officers resigned or were dismissed from the boards of Manufacturers Hanover Trust, New York Life Insurance and Stevens itself. The company's corporate allies, led by Metropolitan Life Insurance, finally gave Stevens an ultimatum: "Settle or else!"

The vitality and relevance of corporate campaign strategies was underscored in 1995, when prominent business leaders — including Thomas Donahue, president of the American Trucking Assn.; Gary Hess, head of Associated Builders and Contractors; R. Bruce Josten, a senior V.P. of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and Paul Huard, senior V.P. of the National Association of Manufacturers — demanded that Congress make such campaigns illegal (because, as Donahue said, "this kind of reprehensible conduct has no place in America.")

Cutting Off the Cash Flow

One year after contracts were signed at Stevens, a company vice president, Hal Addis, addressed the annual meeting of the South Carolina Textile Manufacturers Assn. "Of the three major tactics employed (by the union) during its confrontation with Stevens," he said, "the corporate campaign designed to cut Stevens off from the financial community was the most effective."

The veteran labor reporter A.H. Raskin of the The New York Times made a similar point: "Pressure on giant banks and insurance companies and other Wall Street pillars, all aimed at isolating Stevens from the financial community, helped generate a momentum… that could not be achieved through the 1976-80 worldwide boycott of Stevens products or through more conventional uses of union muscle such as strikes and mass picketing."

As part of the 1980 Stevens settlement, the company demanded what the news media called "the Ray Rogers clause," which stated in part: "…the Union will not engage in any 'corporate campaign' against the Company… (and) will not in any manner attempt to effectuate the resignation of members of the Board of Directors of Stevens, or to effectuate the resignation or removal of Stevens executives from the boards of directors of other companies, or to restrict the availability of financial or credit accommodations to Stevens, or by deliberate conduct to affect materially and adversely the relationship between Stevens and any other business organization."

Next month: More on Stevens, subsequent battles, and how today's unions can take the offensive and win.

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