SEPTEMBER 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 9
L A B O R
Organizing the South
by Robert Weissman
"People in the textile industry here are among the most unfairly treated people in America," says Pete McIntyre, a fixer with the Fieldcrest Cannon Co., a textile firm headquartered in central North Carolina. "We are overworked, work in unsafe conditions with unsafe equipment and receive low wages." Blue collar workers have "no rights, no say-so," he states. Things are done "the company way or no way."
Working conditions at Cannon Mills, where McIntyre is employed, have become increasingly difficult in the last 10 years, he says. "In the last 10 years it went downhill in terms of caring for people."
The company was sold twice in the last decade. In 1982, the Cannon family, which had owned and run Cannon Mills from its beginnings at the turn of the century, sold the company to a California financier, David Murdock. Long-time owner Charlie Cannon ran the company in a paternalistic style and owned much of the property--including the houses surrounding the company's mills--in Kannapolis, North Carolina, a classic company town. When Murdock took over, many jobs were cut and the remaining jobs were "stretched out" (meaning workers had to take on additional responsibilities or work at a faster pace). In 1985, Murdock sold the company to another textile corporation, Fieldcrest. Under Fieldcrest, more jobs have been eliminated and the remaining jobs have again been stretched out. "Every time they sell the place, working people have to pay for it," says McIntyre.
Many Fieldcrest Cannon mills are unionized,but the old Cannon Mills is not. Given the hardships inflicted on its workers in the last decade, it would seem to be ripe for union organizing. In 1985, before Murdock sold the company, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) attempted to organize the company. An election was held, and the union lost by a vote of 5,982 to 3,530.
Six years later, ACTWU decided to try to organize the plant again. Following three months of intense campaigning by both the union and the company, an election was held August 20-21, 1991. The union improved its performance dramatically. The final vote count was 3,233 to 3,034 against the union, but ACTWU has charged Fieldcrest Cannon with illegally instructing clerical workers who were not part of the bargaining unit to vote. Union activists are hopeful that the National Labor Relations Board will order a new election, and believe they will ultimately succeed in organizing Cannon Mills.
If ACTWU is successful in organizing Cannon Mills and adding several thousand new members to its union, it will have won a major victory: the biggest union organizing victory ever in the Carolinas, in fact, and one with significant implications. A corridor of textile mills weaves its way through North Carolina's Piedmont region, and most of these mills are unorganized. A victory at Cannon Mills could have a ripple effect, sparking organizing efforts at neighboring mills.
Conflict in Kannapolis
Progressive elements in the labor movement have long made "Organize the South" a rallying cry, but with little effect. Most unions do not even attempt to organize in the region, believing it to be too difficult. As a result of both the South's unique impediments to unionizing and labor unions' reluctance to devote resources to the region, the South has the lowest levels of union membership in the United States.
The struggle to organize Cannon Mills highlights many of the difficulties of organizing in the South, but it also suggests that they can be overcome.
The most significant obstacles to organizing the South are actually the same as those posed throughout the rest of the United States. Employers can make increasingly credible threats to workers that they will lose their jobs if they unionize. Labor law prohibits corporations from threatening to close plants if they are unionized or to fire workers for supporting a union, but companies are able to circumvent this restriction by claiming that workers may lose their jobs due to business developments directly related to unionizing. They point to competition from producers--often U.S. companies--employing low- wage labor in foreign countries, and claim that their plant will not be able to compete if it is unionized. They assert that strikes accompany unions and that they will permanently replace striking workers [see "Replacing the Union," Multinational Monitor, April 1991]. And they employ anti-union consulting firms to effectively package their message to workers [see "Confessions of a Unionbuster," Multinational Monitor, April 1991].
Fieldcrest Cannon's "scare tactics made the difference" in the August election, according to McIntyre. Fieldcrest Cannon representatives did not respond to repeated requests from Multinational Monitor to answer these and other claims of ACTWU supporters.
The company told workers that they would put their jobs in jeopardy if they supported the union. One company leaflet asked, "What do Fieldcrest Cannon's Bedspread Mill and Sheeting Mill in Eden have in common?" Its answer: "Both plants were unionized by ACTWU. Both plants closed due to economic conditions. Union dues didn't buy job security." Another leaflet, pointing to the same closed factories, said, "The future depends on profitability, not unions." A radio advertisement opposing the union urged workers not to be left "home alone."
Fieldcrest Cannon also emphasized the possibility of strikes and the hiring of permanent replacement workers. After referring to the economic costs workers bear during strikes, a letter from James Fitzgibbons, chair of the board of Fieldcrest Cannon, sent to all Cannon Mills workers and addressed to "fellow employees" stated, "We know how ACTWU operates. They would not hesitate to pull you out on strike if they thought it would serve their purposes." If there was a strike, Fitzgibbons wrote, "We would exercise our legal right to hire permanent replacements for anyone who went on strike over wages, benefits, or other 'economic' matters.... We would hate to see it come to this, but we would use every legal means to keep our plants running. We will never give in to the ACTWU."
Individual supporters of the union were harassed as well. McIntyre says supervisors told workers that, if the union lost, they would "remember" those who supported the union. One staunch union supporter told Multinational Monitor that he was harassed on the job because of his support for the union, that he "could feel the supervisor watching over him," even when he was just taking a cigarette break.
In the face of the power culture
These types of threats and harassment are effective everywhere in discouraging workers from supporting unions, but they work especially well in the South, where the regional culture militates against resisting authority. Workers in the South, says Robert Freeman, a longtime organizer in North Carolina for ACTWU and its predecessor union, "are under the impression that whatever the company tells them is the truth, that it comes straight from heaven."
In some ways, the plantation culture still exists in the South. Jack Sheinkman, president of ACTWU, told the August 31 Solidarity Day labor rally in Washington, D.C. that "in the South, textile mills stand on old cotton fields--but the plantation mentality hasn't disappeared. Today's mill owners are yesterday's slave owners." The lingering effects of the plantation economy are evident at Cannon Mills, where black and white workers--as they do at other companies--refer to their supervisors as "bossman" or "Mr. Bossman" without intending any irony. Some reportedly call their supervisors "overseers."
The challenge unions pose to business is unfamiliar to many workers who are not well acquainted with unions or unionism, and it brushes up against what Jerry Tucker, former director of United Auto Workers Region 5, which includes Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, and currently the coordinator of the dissident New Directions Movement, calls the "power culture" of the South. Tucker says that, in much of the rural and small-town South, "a business elite directs all of the economic activity in league with bankers." In many places, the Chamber of Commerce exerts a virtually unchecked influence over local politics. Business power is especially strong in company towns like Kannapolis.
The black-white divide
Intertwined with the plantation mentality and the cultural dynamic of the South is racism, long a tool used by employers to pit workers against one another. "Dividing workers based on race is a time-worn ploy" of employers, says Tucker, noting that it is by no means limited to the South. Companies "do it as consistently today as ever," he says.
In the early part of the twentieth century, companies would often hire blacks to cross picket lines set up by white strikers and to work as scabs. That is a thing of the past; today, black workers are usually more pro-union than whites.
One of the main ways employers now use racism is to scare white workers by contending that "blacks will take over the union," says Mark Fleischman, director of organizing for ACTWU's Southern region. They also try to turn blacks against the union by arguing that the union is run by white outsiders, he says.
Though one area where many Cannon Mills workers live is considered a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, race was not a major issue in the Fieldcrest Cannon union drive, according to union organizers. Race relations at the Cannon Mills are generally held to be pretty good. One leaflet opposing the union and signed by an otherwise unidentified "Concerned Citizens of Cabarrus & Rowan Counties" did ask, however, "Why do union organizers target plants where more than 25 percent of the workforce is black?" It answered, "They take blacks' votes for granted."
At other companies, race is a more fundamental issue. Ida Boddie, a worker at the Rocky Mountain Undergarment Co. and a member of Black Workers for Justice, a group of African-American workers in North Carolina and Georgia, says company favoritism toward whites divides workers at her overwhelmingly black worksite. Whites "get more money for doing the same jobs" as blacks and also "get better jobs.... That's the way [the company] keeps them separated from us," she says.
The union and the South
The special obstacles notwithstanding, it is clear that the South can be organized. ACTWU and a few other unions have devoted resources to the region and been successful. Most unions simply do not try to organize in the South, creating a self- fulfilling prophecy that it cannot be done.
Freeman argues that Southern workers "have never been educated on who their enemies are." Once unions succeed in doing that, he says, Southern workers will join. Tucker says that the South' s anti-union ethic "does not stand up when unions take the time to work in the community" to show workers that supporting a union is in their interest. Once Southern workers are organized, he says, they can be "more dedicated advocates [of unions] than their counterparts in the North."
The historic importance of organizing the South was to remove corporations' ability to threaten to shift production facilities from the unionized North to the South, where workers received lower wages and fewer benefits and unions did not interfere with management's prerogative to organize the workplace. While the U.S. South is "still a major battleground," says Tucker, its strategic importance to the labor movement is diminishing. If the proposed U.S.-Mexico free trade agreement is enacted, he explains, U.S. companies will be able to transfer production to Mexico without penalty, and Mexican wage and benefit levels will set a new low standard with which U.S. workers--in both the North and the South--will be forced to compete.
But Fleischman sees a continuing political importance to the South. "As the South goes, the country goes," he claims. He believes labor organizing in the South could make the region more politically progressive. "Politically, the South is horribly conservative for all the wrong reasons.... An active labor movement, if it were able to do significant organizing, would be able to move [the region] along the political spectrum very quickly."
And, of course, union organizing is critically important to the Southern workforce, the most exploited in the country. Bonnie B. Quick, vice president of ACTWU Local 1584 and a worker at Cone Co., a textile firm in Salisbury, North Carolina, was active in aiding the organizing drive at Cannon Mills. She speaks with passion about her father, a retired textile worker, who lives with her mother on their social security checks. Her father has lung problems, which she suspects are due to brown lung, a condition contracted by breathing cotton dust; he has arthritis in his feet, which she believes is a result of his standing at work for 42 years; and he has severely impaired hearing, which she thinks comes from his working with loud machinery for so long. Quick says that her father does not apply for workers' compensation because he "does not want to fight the company." Now Quick herself is beginning to suffer ailments related to working in a textile mill.
"I hope my children never have to work in a cotton mill, but they might," she says. "If they do, I want it to be better for them than it was for my dad and me." That is why she is active in the union, she says, and that is why workers in the South need to be organized.