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Battling the Modern Sweatshops

By Timothy G. Massad

Kathy Pease, 18 years old, was running a tufting machine at a textile factory on her first day on the job. She had received no instructions about how to run the machine. After two hours of operation, the machine chopped off two of her fingers. Incidents like these were common in the "sweatshop" textile factories of Lowell and Lawrence Mass. 100 years ago. But Pease works at a J.P. Stevens Company plant in North Carolina and her accident occurred last year.

The huge, red-brick buildings which housed those old Lowell and Lawrence factories still stand. Some are now museums; the factories are no longer operating. J.P. Stevens has closed down 21 such plants in the Northeast within the past 25 years. Stevens' plants, and those of other textile firms, are known as "runaway shops." They went south, in search of cheap, exploitable, non-unionized workers. They found them, and have taken extraordinary measures to keep them that way.

J. P. Stevens is the second largest textile manufacturer in the country. It employs 44,000 people in 85 plants, 63 of which are located in North and South Carolina. Wage levels there are about $1.50 per hour lower than the national manufacturing average. Wages in the South are generally lower; unions are much weaker there, and are practically nonexistent in the textile industry. To keep things this way, for years Stevens has conducted a massive campaign of illegal actions--discharge and intimidation of workers, interference in union activities, overt racial discrimination, and wiretapping. It has been found guilty of repeated labor-law violations and fined almost $1.5 million in the last 15 years. While Stevens is not a household word (yet), it is infamous to people in the industrial relations field. Boyd Leedom, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), said: "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." Because of its barbaric practices, NLRB officials have labeled Stevens the nation's leading labor law violator.

A brief review of the company's actions over the past 15 years suggests how well-deserved its reputation is. The National Labor Relations Act gives workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, and forbids employer interference in that process. It outlaws the discharge of or discrimination against union supporters; it forbids companies to intimidate workers or to encourage or discourage membership in a labor organization in any way. Since 1963, the company has been found guilty of violations of that law in 15 cases. The company unsuccessfully appealed eight cases to federal courts and three to the Supreme Court. In five instances, the company was found to be in contempt of court.

In August 1974, in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, Stevens' workers in seven plants voted to be represented by the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA). Stevens kept fighting, however: it stalled at the bargaining table, refusing to negotiate in good faith. The union never got a contract. The company was fined, but it succeeded in delaying long enough to defeat the union.

The union won an election at the company's Statesboro, Georgia plant, in spite of what the NLRB found to be a series of illegal actions by Stevens during the organizing drive. The NLRB ordered the company to bargain; rather than do so, the company shut down the plant and transferred the production to other plants. Their action had ramifications in other factories as well. Workers in nearby plants feared the same reprisal if they voted for the union. In fact, Stevens circulated rumors saying that a Wallace, N.C. plant might be shut down if the union won during an organizing drive at that factory.

The discharge of workers who sympathize with the TWUA is Stevens most frequent tactic. Stevens has been found guilty of illegally discharging 289 workers in 15 cases, and was forced to rehire tham with backpay totalling $1.3 million. However, legal penalties come only after two to four years of litigation, and thus long after an organizing drive hay been strangled. As a result, Stevens can effectively ignore labor laws.

It s practice has been to defeat the union, pay the fine later, and deduct it from its taxes as a business expense. Violating the law is cheaper than signing a contract with the union.

The company has been found guilty of threatening union supporters. It has violated the law by refusing to employ relatives of union sympathizers. It was found guilty of widespread racial and sexual discrimination in its hiring, promotion, and pay practices in a 1975 case in Roanoke Rapids. Statistics presented in the case showed the company paid its black workers an average of $670 less than its white workers. It has also been accused of exploiting racial tensions to divide workers.

In 1973, a federal district court found Stevens officials guilty of wiretapping a phone used by union organizers. In 1975, a North Carolina tax official found the company had not reported $75 million of taxable income in 22 plants since 1969. A secret agreement was then reportedly discovered proving that county officials and Stevens had made a deal to lure the firm there.

The company also violates the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Its plants have been found to contain cotton dust, a cause of lung disease, at levels three to 20 times higher than those permissible by law--and many argue the legal limit itself is too high. The health and noise standards in the plants are much worse than the national norm. The company pension plan paid on average less than $10 a month to each worker in 1975. It paid nothing in 1970, 1971, and 1972. The company said there was no profit to share.

The company has decided that all the illegal actions, fines, backpay settlements, lawyers fees and court costs are still easier and cheaper than dealing with the union. And so far, the strategy has worked.

Other firms in the textile industry have emulated Stevens practices. The industry employs 700,000 workers, less than 10 per cent of whom are unionized. As of 1974, about 15 per cent of the nonagricultural workers in the South belonged to unions; compared to the national average of 26 per cent. Wages in the South, and especially in the textile industry, are correspondingly lower than national averages. Unionism is the only way to equalize these differentials. Unless that occurs, other industries will flee South. Labor leaders feel the key to unionizing the South is to unionize the textile industry. And the key to that, in turn, is J.P. Stevens.

The company's position has been that workers do not want unions and that the company has a responsibility to resist them. They cite the fact that the union has lost elections in several plants. But they fail to mention that the company fired union sympathizers and intimidated workers during these campaigns. This not only influenced those elections but chilled the desire for unions in other plants.

In response to a charge of being the nation's leading labor law violator, the chairman of the board of J.P. Stevens, James Finley, said at a stockholders meeting in March: "There have been occasions when we made interpretations of the labor laws which we fully believed at the time to be correct and the Labor Board later disagreed."

If its record is so hideous, one wonders why the public is just now hearing about Stevens. In part the reason is that while the company has been found guilty in lower courts consistently, it has taken years to accumulate a record against Stevens. Each case takes two to four years to wind its way through the courts.

The NLRB processes are so slow that they are ineffectual. As a panel of law experts said, "In labor management relations, justice delayed is often justice denied. A remedy granted more than two years after the event will bear little relation to the human situation which gave rise to the need for government intervention." Frustrated by the company's deliberate evasiveness, the NLRB is seeking to impose fines of $5,000 per day for continuing violations. Citing the company's "unfair labor practices of unprecedented flagrancy and magnitude," the NLRB's general counsel wants the ability to bypass several legal steps and go directly to an appeals court for a contempt order if the company fails to bargain.

About a year ago, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and TWUA merged to form the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers (ACTW). ACTW and the AFL-CIO are now beginning a massive campaign to unionize Stevens and the textile industry. They plan to fight the campaign on two fronts: first, unlike previous attempts to organize a few plants at a time, the unions will try to organize in all 85 plants simultaneously. Second, a nation-wide boycott of J.P. Stevens products is beginning, aided by support from church groups, civic leaders, politicians, and many others.

The boycott is a risky tactic. First, unlike the Farah pants or Gallo wine boycotts, Stevens makes no single product. Stevens goods are sold under a variety of brand labels--eight brand names of sheets, three of towels, and carpets, hosiery and linens under a mix of labels. Supporters of the boycott will have trouble making the consumer aware of what brands not to buy. In addition, only 34 per cent of Stevens's sales are in consumer products; the rest is in sales to the government and in unfinished textiles to other manufacturers. As a result, the boycott may focus on forming local support groups which will ask local retailers and government agencies not to purchase Stevens products.

Second, the boycott could backfire. Stevens will probably try to persuade the public and its workers that the boycott is forcing them to layoff workers and thus is hurting, not helping, employees. The union insists the purpose of the boycott is to pressure the company to obey the law; it is necessary because no other tactic has succeeded. "It was the company that created the conditions of the boycott by making it impossible for us to get fair elections in the first place," says the union's secretary-treasurer.

A group of Southern church leaders and politicians has endorsed the boycott. George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, has promised the federation's "complete, total, all-out support." It has earmarked millions of dollars for a long campaign.

In the New England area, the groundwork for the boycott has just begun. Last Friday, at a Fanueil Hall rally, recently fired Stevens workers described their experiences in the plants. But major retailers of Stevens products, including Jordan Marsh and Filene's, have announced sales of Stevens goods--presumably to get them off the shelves before public awareness grows.

The Cambridge City Council passed Mayor Alfred Vellucci's resolution supporting the boycott last week. At Harvard, a support committee consisting of students, tutors, and professors has been formed. So far, the committee includes Phillips Brooks House (Steering Committee), H-R Democratic Club (executive committee), Radcliffe Union of Students, Education for Action, the Task Force on Affirmative Action, Prof. John K. Galbraith and Robert Ginn (OCS-OCL). The Coop Board of Directors has agreed to discontinue purchase of Stevens products until the labor conflict is resolved. This Thursday, the Orson Welles Cinema will hold a benefit showing of Harlan County, U.S.A., a film about contemporary miners' struggles. All proceeds will go to the boycott fund.

One thing seems certain: the boycott will be a long fight. Union supporters predict a two to five year effort. Having battled this long, Stevens is unlikely to give in without a tough fight.

At the Stevens stockholders meeting, representatives of civil rights, church and labor groups led by Coretta Scott King (the widow of Martin Luther King Jr.) attempted to introduce a resolution demanding data on Stevens's labor practices. The overflow crowd soon turned raucous. In response to the questions and outbursts from the audience, Chairman Finley declared, "This is my meeting and I'm running it." Someone then reminded him that it was supposed to be a stockholders meeting, and Finley apologized. Later, when asked what rules were being used to run the meeting, Finley answered, "Our rules."

Despite the antics at the meeting, the company's policies remained unchanged. It will change only if forced to do so.

For the union, the boycott represents the only tactic left to organize the plants. If the general history of American labor is any guide, unionization of the plants is the only way workers will ever achieve better wages, improve safety measures, and health conditions, and secure decent pension plans. For the AFL-CIO, the campaign is the first step toward unionizing the South and improving the conditions for Southern workers. That, in turn, could curb the pattern of Northern "runaway shops" moving south to avoid union labor, and help the economic development of the North-east.

But the Stevens executives are betting on the American public. They are betting that people won't give enough of a damn about Southern textile workers to become outraged over a situation that is clearly outrageous. They are betting on popular lethargy, and hoping people will rationalize, such as: the situation is far away and doesn't concern me; we have had enough of such causes; the issues are complex and there must be two sides; I don't have the time.

To support the boycott of J.P. Stevens products, one does not have to be a "radical" or an "activist," although many people who wear those labels will be involved. One does not even have to believe that unions are a good thing. For at the simplest level, the purpose of the boycott is to allow Stevens workers to choose for themselves whether or not they want a union--without company intimidation, interference or reprisal. It is to prevent a company from buying the power to break the law. It is a matter of simple justice. If for no other reason than this, the boycott of J.P. Stevens deserves support.

[Timothy G. Massad, a Lowell House junior, is a member of the Committee to Support the J.P. Stevens Boycott.]

"J.P Stevens is so out of tune with a humane, civilized relations that it should shock even those least sensitive to honor, justice, and decent treatment."

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