A reporter in North Carolina’s textile mills

As a very new reporter for the Wall Street Journal, before I started medical school, I was sent to North Carolina to report on efforts to unionize the workers in large textile mills.  My visit took place well before the story of textile worker Crystal Lee Sutton made it into headlines; her part in the union’s work was dramatized in the movie Norma Rae.   No one could have predicted then that those huge mills would disappear, losing their market to overseas competitors.  Here’s my report, which was published on November 13, 1974, as well as an epilogue about the subsequent fates of the then-dominant American textile corporations.

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Militant Mills

Textile Unions’ Fight To Organize in South Is a Tough One to Win

 KANNAPOLIS, N.C., —One evening last March, a deputy sheriff in this small, unincorporated town spotted Mrs. Robert Freeman, 50, at the side of the road, clad in her pajamas and clutching a beer can.  As the official story has it, Mrs. Freeman was drunk and was duly arrested; she was convicted of public intoxication.

Talk to her husband, though, and you’ll hear a different account.  Mr. Freeman, an organizer for the AFL-CIO Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA), says his wife merely stepped outside their home, spied a beer can on the lawn and picked it up to dispose of it, whereupon the deputy hauled her off to jail.  Mr. Freeman says she was refused permission to take a breath-analysis test.

“There’s no difference between Kannapolis and Moscow,” he declares in disgust.  “In fact, there’s probably more democracy in Moscow.”

Mr. Freeman has filed suit alleging that his wife’s arrest was an attempt to harass and discredit him by order of Cannon Mills Co., the Kannapolis-based manufacturer of towels, sheets and pillowcases.  The company, which has 17 plants, 14 of them in the Kannapolis area, denies Mr. Freeman’s allegation, replying mildly that it doesn’t control the Kannapolis deputies.

Hardly Popular

But the fact remains that Mr. Freeman is hardly a popular figure among Cannon executives, for he is in charge of the first union attempt to organize Cannon Mills.  The National Labor Relations Board has ordered a union-representation election for Nov. 20 at Cannon’s Kannapolis-area plants. It did so after Mr. Freeman persuaded 11,500 of the 16,000 Cannon workers in the area to sign cards asking for such an election.

That sort of activity doesn’t sit well in the South, and particularly in the Southern textile industry, where, organizers say, unions face corporate opposition and intimidation that have long subsided in the North.  Even today, only 12½% of the South’s 700,000 textile workers are under union contract, down from about 20% of 550,000 workers just after World War II.

But unions are fighting to reverse that trend, counting in part on hard times and fears of inflation to help their cause.  While the sagging economy isn’t entirely a weapon on the union side—many workers are fearful of rocking the boat and losing their jobs—union organizers nonetheless expect to make gains because of workers’ greater need for job security now.  A strong union selling point is that many textile mills offer only minimal pension plans, or profit-sharing plans that shrink workers’ shares each time the stock market tumbles.

Progress at Stevens

The organizers can point to some significant recent progress.  In August, for example, the TWUA won a union-representation election by the 3,100 workers at J.P. Stevens & Co.’s seven plants in Roanoke Rapids, N.C.  The union regards the victory as a big step in organizing Stevens, which, with some 45,000 employees in 83 U.S. plants, is the second-largest textile maker.  Burlington Industries Inc. is first.

Raymond and Charlotte Moseley, both Stevens employees at Roanoke Rapids, say the union’s talk of getting them guaranteed pension benefits was a big reason they decided to vote for the union.  Stevens has already cut back workweeks in several plants, as have many other textile makers, and the Moseleys say they worry about a really serious recession’s decimating the employees’ profit-sharing funds.  They are a lot happier now that the union has a clear-cut election victory in Roanoke Rapids, and they say they are confident of enjoying contract benefits within a year.

The Moseleys’ optimism about a quick contract settlement may be entirely unrealistic if the history of other “victories” at Stevens plans is any teacher.

The Statesboro Case

Consider, for example, the case of the J.P. Stevens plant in Statesboro, Ga.  Back in 1968, more than 50% of the plant’s 300 workers signed cards of support for the TWUA, and the National Labor Relations Board ordered Stevens to bargain with the union on the basis of that showing.  (An election wasn’t necessary because Stevens didn’t contest the 50% figure.)

After a good deal of court skirmishing initiated by Stevens, contract negotiations finally began, but in 1972 the union became convinced that the company was only “surface bargaining,” with no intention of agreeing to a union contract.  The NLRB investigated and asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for a civil-contempt citation against Stevens for refusing to bargain in good faith.  Today the case is still going on, with no contract anywhere in the offing.  “For the next 10 years it will give you lovely material to work on,” union spokesman Steve Mrvichin tells a reporter.

Many workers won’t bother to support the textile unions because they’re aware of the vast legal imbroglios that companies will stage to stop any union inroads; the workers figure it’s a losing cause, so why get involved?  Many mill hands remember violent, unsuccessful strikes of decades past that hurt workers far more than management, and tell of grandparents’ refusal to accept so much as a union leaflet.

“The first time anyone came to my door, I like to of fainted,” recalls Mrs. Joyce Blackwell, a Stevens worker in Roanoke Rapids who was gradually converted to the union side.  One young organizer telephoned repeatedly, she says, but she refused even to speak to him at first.

Other workers shun involvement with a union because they know of instances where companies have shut plants down rather than knuckle under to union demands. That would cause economic chaos in many Southern towns.  The textile mill is often the only big nonfarm employer around, and while some of the big Southern mills are doing better than the textile industry as a whole—which has been in a slump of late—one reason they are doing better is their low labor costs.

Some workers think their company is just fine.  One woman employee at Cannon Mills here explains that seven of her 12 brothers and sisters also work for the company, have been able to buy their own homes and wouldn’t vote for a union out of loyalty to Cannon.  She says average mill pay of $3.20 an hour isn’t bad in rural areas where costs are low.

Still other employees won’t support a union drive because they say mill bosses could fire them or retaliate in subtler ways.  Even Raymond Moseley, who considers himself a die-hard union man, says that his outspoken support of TWUA at Stevens has caused him some hardship.  He claims that his bosses at Roanoke Rapids refuse to transfer him to another department although his job as a loom-fixer amid the steam and lint of the weaving room has given him severe bronchial trouble.

What with unfriendliness on the part of many workers as well as outright hostility from the mills, the Southern representatives of textile unions can’t match the power held by their Northern counterparts.  Last month some 8,000 members of the TWUA in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania went on strike against a number of firms for three weeks, idling 150 plants and demanding a 31% raise over a three-year period.  They got the 31%.  In the South, organizers count themselves lucky if they can persuade a worker simply to wear a union lapel button within sight of his supervisor.

Silver Linings

It is a discouraging business for the Southern organizers, but their outlook isn’t entirely bleak.  They derive considerable cheer from the fact that the work force in many mills is not 20% to 40% black, as opposed to the days before the civil-right movement when textile mills hired only a few blacks—and then only for the grimiest jobs—and refused to rent them mill-owned houses.  Black employees as well as young white workers tend to support the unions’ cause untroubled by the fears held by many older whites.

Further, the textile unions today can point to Southern firms that have a reputation of tolerance in union circles:  Fieldcrest Mills Inc., Burlington Industries, Dan River Inc.  Fieldcrest has the largest number of workers under union contract of any Southern textile company, 6,700 out of a total of 10,000.  Burlington has two mills under union contract; these comprise only a small percentage of Burlington’s 70,000 workers, but the company’s attitude contrasts sharply with that of hard-line, anti-union mills like J.P. Stevens and Cannon.  And Dan River and the AFL-CIO United Textile Workers of America peacefully settled a recent nine-week strike that won the workers a paid holiday, more life insurance coverage, and a reduction in the amount they have to contribute to the pension plan.

A Mill is Closed

Anyone who thinks the Southern mills are about to all it quits in their fight against unions, though, had better recollect the case of Deering Milliken Inc.  That firm is still arguing an 18-year legal battle with the TWUA, and tops all other textile makers, even Stevens, for anti-union tenacity.

A New York-based, private concern that owns or controls some 30 Southern mills, Deering Milliken years ago took the unusual step of incorporating many of its mills separately.  Then, in 1956 when the 500 employees at Darlington Manufacturing Co., in Darlington, S.C., voted to join the TWUA, Deering Milliken simply shut down the mill within a week on the grounds that any corporation has the right to terminate itself.

The union, of course, didn’t buy the company’s argument, and the suits and countersuits reached the U.S. Supreme Court after a Court of Appeals supported the company.  The Supreme Court didn’t quarrel with Darlington’s absolute right to go out of business but held that Deering Milliken had controlled Darlington all along.  If Deering Milliken’s purpose in closing it was to “chill unionism” in other mills, the court said, then Deering Milliken was out of line.  The court left it up to Deering Milliken to prove its case to the NLRB.

Deering Milliken insisted before the NLRB that chilling of unionism wasn’t its idea at all.  It said the Darlington mill was obsolete and would have folded soon in any case.  The NLRB lined up a panel of textile engineering experts.  The panel disagreed with the company and, at the panel’s recommendation, the NLRB ruled that the shutdown had been improper and that the affected workers were entitled to back pay.

Today, 18 years after the vote, meetings are still being held among the NLRB, the union and the company to determine proper back pay for the Darlington workers, many of whom are no longer alive.

Almost as a postscript, the union last month sued the NLRB for “foot dragging” in the Deering Milliken case.  The union says it believes the long delays in settling back pay are linked to a $363,000 contribution by Roger Milliken, the company’s president, to the reelection campaign of former President Nixon.

Mr. Milliken hasn’t returned a reporter’s calls, but Sol Stetin, TWUA general president, is quite vocal on the subject.  He says that for President Nixon’s campaign organization to have accepted a contribution from the president of a company that had a case before the NLRB was a conflict of interest “symptomatic of the current Watergate syndrome.”  The union alleges that the NLRB allowed “outrageous and unconscionable delays” in the Darlington case at the behest of the Nixon administration.  The NLRB denies this.

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Author’s note:  The union victory at J. P. Stevens was showcased in the 1979 film Norma Rae, which won a best actress Academy Award for Sally Field.  The union cause also prevailed in the suit against Deering Milliken’s closure of its plant in Darlington, S.C., when the Supreme Court ruled that a plant could not be closed in order to discourage unionism.  In 1980 (after 24 years of litigation), back pay was finally awarded to the Darlington workers and their survivors.

However, no one in the 1970s had an inkling of how the American textile industry would collapse in the next decades.  Flooded with cheap textile imports from abroad, manufacturing plants closed and jobs went overseas.  Cannon Mills declared bankruptcy in 2003, and its main plant in Kannapolis (as large as the Pentagon) was demolished.  J.P. Stevens was the target of a takeover in 1988 by West Point-Pepperell, and subsequently became part of WestPoint Home, a distribution company for textiles manufactured overseas. 

Of all the original American textile manufacturers, Milliken alone has survived as a success story.  The company diversified out of traditional textiles and moved into innovative uses of textiles and specialty chemicals.  Today, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Milliken “makes the fabric that reinforces duct tape, the additives that make refrigerator food containers clear and children’s art markers washable, the products that make mattresses fire resistant, countertops antimicrobial, windmills lighter, and combat gear protective”. 

4 COMMENTS

Mikel Eblen

Labor relations is the study and practice of managing unionized employment situations. In academia, labor relations is frequently a subarea within industrial relations, though scholars from many disciplines–including economics, sociology, history, law, and political science–also study labor unions and labor movements. In practice, labor relations is frequently a subarea within human resource management. Courses in labor relations typically cover labor history, labor law, union organizing, bargaining, contract administration, and important contemporary topics.^:.:

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[…] This article is by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was sent in 1974 to North Carolina to report on efforts to unionize the workers in large textile mills. It is a lengthy discussion of struggles between the textile companies and the unions, including the movie’s unionization, and of the government’s involvement in settling disputes. […]

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