"Don't Sleep with Stevens!": The J. P. Stevens Campaign and the Struggle to Organize the South, 1963-1980.
This author has written a valuable case study of the seventeen-year effort to organize the workers employed by J. P. Stevens, the South's second largest producer of textile products. The union effort cost over thirty million dollars, making it the most expensive such campaign ever conducted in the United States against a single firm. The organizing drive ended in 1980 with a compromise settlement that labor leaders tried to portray as a victory.
Timothy J. Minchin does an admirable job in describing strategies used by both sides in the campaign. By the 1960s, the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) had no choice but to launch a Southern drive because its membership had severely declined with the shift of production from unionized plants in the North to ones in the nonunion South.
Any effort to organize Stevens faced formidable barriers. Stevens employed 46,000 workers at seventy different plants, and success even at one large plant did not necessarily carry over to other operations; workers knew that previous organizing drives had ended in failure; and although local elites in the Piedmont small towns, where most Stevens plants were located, firmly sided with the employer, many employees feared the company would close or move if unions gained recognition. Above all, the company openly defied National Labor Relations Board rulings, forcing the union to spend considerable time and effort defending discharged union members. Even when the TWUA won a 1974 election at the large Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, facility, the company refused to bargain in good faith.
Faced with such determined opposition, the TWUA decided to launch the first "corporate campaign," though the term had not yet been coined. To aid the effort to expose J. P. Stevens as "the nation's number one labor law violator," the TWUA merged with a larger union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, which had recently conducted a highly successful boycott of Farah, a manufacturer of men's pants. The new union, known as the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU), stepped up the Southern organizing drive, committing over thirty full-time organizers to it, and simultaneously launched an effort to boycott all Stevens' products. Along with hammering away at J. P. Stevens' contempt for the law, the boycotters publicized unhealthy working conditions that led to byssinosis (brown lung disease).
Minchin describes these events in a straightforward manner, though the prose style is overly dry and dull. Some of the most intriguing analysis comes in the section in which the author describes efforts by the company to improve working conditions and to comply with the law in reaction to the negative publicity. In a development unanticipated by the union, many Stevens employees resented a boycott, which would cast aspersions on the company.
Despite its considerable strengths, the book is weakened by an overreliance on archival sources, which means the union organizing drives feel remote. Little information is provided about the organizers in the field. The workers are also faceless and without a voice. By the 1970s, increasing numbers of African-Americans worked at Stevens, and, influenced by the civil rights movement, they provided strong support to the union. As a result, many white workers began to view ACTWU as a "black union." But the author gives little sense of the working lives of white or black employees, and there is no mention of Southern white culture or the possible ways individualistic or religious attitudes of Southern white workers might have shaped their response to union organizing efforts.
Nevertheless, this is an extremely valuable study of a labor conflict in an industry that at one time played a pivotal role in the South.
David J. Goldberg
Cleveland State University
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|Author:||Goldberg, David J.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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