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Ray Rogers Hits J. P. Stevens Where it Hurts

By James L. Tyson

His office in the New York headquarters of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) is unpretentious enough, strewn with pro-union posters and staffed by an assistant and a secretary. His stockiness, kind eye and tempered assertiveness create an image more of a humbled, once-great football player than of a powerful and controversial leader. But labor organizer Ray Rogers happens to wield a new weapon that may give workers a power far more effective than the traditional boycott or strike.

His weapon, innocuously labelled the "corporate campaign," uses labor's pension and shareholder power to forcefully alienate corporate and financial supporters from uncompromising corporations. And his target happens to be the monstrous textile manufacturer J.P. Stevens, a corporation Rogers labels "the largest, most ruthless and powerful anti-labor, anti-union corporation in the United States."

The goal of the corporate campaign, Rogers says, "is to cause those institutions that are tied to J.P. Stevens--either through investments or in the form of corporate connections--to exert influence on the company to recognize the rights and dignity of workers and to sit down and bargain in good faith, realizing that their own real interest is the interest of workers."

Labor groups think Stevens must become the first domino to topple if they are to successfully organize the largely non-union South. Since 1963, Stevens workers have voted against unionization in 13 of 14 elections held in the company's plants. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determined that the workers voted under coersion and the threat of illegal firing. When Stevens did not respond to the charges, the ACTWU organizers tried a new tack and joined with the AFL-CIO in launching the much-publicized boycott of J.P. Stevens products in 1976. But like the NLRB warnings, the boycott seems to have left J.P. Stevens unmoved. The corporation, despite all efforts, continues to ignore allegations of unfair practices and court rulings finding it guilty of price fixing, wiretapping, tax fraud, violation of health and safety standards, and racial discrimination.

In leading the campaign against Stevens, Rogers views the corporation as something other than a traditional Wall Street monolith with unassailable domestic and international financial operations and ties. Rogers likes to think of Stevens simply as a Board of Directors, a group of "human personalities" that give the corporation its powers, with self-interest their primary consideration. Rogers is a strategist; he tries to use the enormous financial power of the ACTWU and other unions to threaten the personal interests of Stevens directors and to force them to resign their directorships on the boards of Stevens and other corporations.

In a little more than two years, to the astonishment of the financial world, the corporate campaign has driven Stevens' chairman from the boards of Manufactures Hanover, Inc. and New York Life, forced the resignation of a second director from Man Hanny and compelled two outside directors to resign from the Stevens board. Rogers' campaign is so effective that Stevens' director of public relations calls it the financial equivalent of "knee-capping"--the tactic used by Italian terrorists to immobilize political and corporate leaders.

Rogers launched his corporate campaign in 1977 armed with a fraction of the budget and administrative personnel assigned to the boycott. The campaign keyed first on the Stevens' annual shareholders meeting, bringing 4000 demonstrators to protest outside the meeting and crowding 600 pro-union shareholders into the corporation's New York headquarters. To Rogers, the raucous shareholder meeting and Stevens' decision to hold all subsequent meetings in Greenville, S.C., re-emphasized the need for mass labor support if any type of effort--even one demanding as few organizers as the corporate campaign--was to succeed. Thirty-one years earlier, Stevens had also fled the unionizing North and the threat of a coordinated strike and headed to the non-unionized South. In 1977, though, the directors were running from angry shareholders armed with proxies. Rogers and other labor leaders believe labor had launched itself into a new era in which, as Rogers says, "the struggle would be brought from the doorstep of the oppressed to the doorstep of the oppressors."

Rogers lifts from his desk a simple record of the struggle--a list of Stevens' present and former corporate directors with black lines through the company boards they have been forced to leave. He grins sheepishly and says, "We're isolating the company pretty well." The forced exile of Stevens directors began in March 1978 when labor unions, backed by the ACTWU, threatened to withdraw more than $1 billion in pension funds from Man Hanny unless it dumped two of its directors that were also on the Stevens board. Four months later the bank accepted the resignation of Stevens Chairmen James D. Finley and David W. Mitchell. About his resignation Finley said wryly, "You don't stay where you're not wanted." A few weeks later, Mitchell, chairman of Avon products, resigned from the Stevens board in response to letters from union sympathizers threatening a boycott of Avon products. Mitchell explained that his continued directorship at Stevens would not be in the best interests of Avon--the company which merited his greatest allegiance.

Last September the ACTWU once again exploited the proxy power of policy holders by contesting the reelection of Ralph Manning Brown Jr., chairman of New York Life, and Finley, a director of New York Life. To save New York Life the multi-million dollar cost of holding directorship elections--and to ensure that two union-backed candidates were not elected to the board--both Finley and Brown resigned from the other's corporate board.

Stevens filled Mitchell's and Brown's vacated seats with a senior partner in a southern law firm and a president of a small southern college. Rogers claims the appointments are a sign of the success of the corporate campaign. Corporate leaders are increasingly reluctant to be associated with Stevens, he asserts. In fact, Rogers says the major reason Man Hanny accepted the resignations of Finley and Mitchell was not because it feared the loss of over $1 billion in labor pension funds, but rather because it feared its reputation would be tarnished if it were publicly linked with J.P. Stevens. Banks are especially vulnerable to the corporate campaign, Rogers says, because their success depends on their public images and because "what they control they don't own."

The campaign will revert to the traditional power of numbers on October 11, when 5000 laborers will rally outside the Seaman's Bank headquarters to call for an end to the "J.P. Stevens-Seaman's Bank connection." It will be the visible sign of what Rogers claims will be increasing pressure on Stevens Director E. Virgil Conway, who doubles as chairman and president of Seaman's Bank. Next on the campaign's hit list is Sidney Weinberg Jr., a partner of Goldman, Sachs, the investment banking firm. When and if he is forced off the Stevens board, the campaign will once again attempt to drive Finley off the boards of Sperry Rand and Borden.

Rogers says his major skill, and the key to running down Stevens' directors, is organization, not labor leading. He claims his founding of a Vista anti-poverty group called "Human Love in Action," and his successful drives to unionize Farah Manufacturing Company, Inc. and the Yale Coop helped to shape the concept of the corporate campaign. But Rogers' thoughts and actions are as much influenced by his past as they are by Saul Alinsky and his book "Rules for Radicals." He directs the campaign against Stevens directors adhering to Alinsky's proposition that "it is not man's 'better nature' but his self-interest that demands the he be his brother's keeper." He forces Stevens directors to take what he calls "the low road to morality," or to make a moral decision not because of a sincere moral concern, but because of a threatened personal interest. And his overall strategy against Stevens is directed by Alinsky's gospel, "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it."

Rogers says the campaign's polarization of Stevens will not end when all the Stevens directors with financial and corporate ties are driven from the board. Rather, at that time the corporate campaign will "move into phase two and mobilize personal and institutional shareholder power against Stevens," Rogers says. Just like the Stevens directors, shareholders will feel the pressure of the corporate campaign. But first, Rogers says, "we've got to study who really owns the company."

Stevens, meanwhile, remains relatively silent on the corporate campaign, making neutral but subtly alarmed statements like "If, in the future, we are to see the potential use of bank deposits and pension funds to dictate the operating policies of banks and corporations, then the future of our economic system will obviously be dramatically different than its past and present." The financial newspaper Barrons is a bit less muted. In an interpretive piece it said, "The ACTWU vs. J.P. Stevens is no labor dispute; it is class warfare in disguise."

Rogers is not reluctant to see that this "class warfare" carries over to struggles other than that with J.P. Stevens. He is advising the United Food and Commercial Workers in their effort to force Seattle-First National Bank to recognize the union as the bargaining agent for the bank's employees. He says he has recommended possible tactics to anti-nuclear activists and claims he could force banks to clear out of South Africa in a matter of months. "I'm willing to help any group fighting for labor or some just cause as long as that group supports us," he says.

Rogers is raising labor power to a new level, up from the streets, the factories and picket lines and into the safe seclusion of corporate meeting rooms. Unlike the boycott or strike, his corporate campaign does not demand titanic funding, deny the public a certain product, or force a laborer to stop work and fall back on union payments. Instead, it hits corporate directors personally, not just in terms of profits and production. Undoubtedly, Stevens directors who resigned their corporate posts felt the same pounding frustration and anger that Stevens workers feel in their attempts to secure fair employment benefits.

In the past, strikes and declining sales were the major "irritations" for corporate directors. But today, the corporate campaign threatens them in a more personal way, leaving many directors outcasts from the financial world, a world in which their faith is no doubt shaken.

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