North Carolina textile workers win union recognition from J. P. Stevens, 1976-1980

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionPDF versionPDF version
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Workers at Stevens's Roanoke, N.C. plants had voted in 1974 to be represented by the union, but J. P. Stevens failed to negotiate a contract in good faith, so this campaign was launched in 1976. Settlement was negotiated in 1980 between the company and the union.
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Roanoke Rapids, NC
Location Description: 
complex of seven textile plants, representing 3,600 workers
primarily to force J. P. Stevens to negotiate a contract with the labor union representing workers at its Roanoke Rapids, NC plants; secondary goals included higher wages, safer working conditions, an end to sex discrimination and racial discrimination in employment, and an end to company interference in unionization efforts at this and other J. P. Stevens plants

In 1974, workers at seven textile plants in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina owned by the J. P. Stevens company voted to be represented by the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA). However, the company refused to sign a contract with the new union. In 1976, the TWUA merged with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) to form the American Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (ACTWU). The new union immediately launched a campaign to pressure J. P. Stevens to sign a union contract. The hope was that once Stevens capitulated, the ACTWU would be able to unionize workers at the other large textile companies in the south. In addition, the ACTWU sought to publicize the company’s practices of racial and sex discrimination in promotion and pay and to the unsafe working conditions in the plants.

The ACTWU’s strategy was threefold: to conduct a nationwide consumer boycott of J. P. Stevens products; to pursue legal cases against the company, which had violated numerous labor laws; and to conduct a "corporate campaign" to use negative publicity to isolate the company from other corporations and banks. The union established boycott field offices states around the country. It created an organization headed by several prominent people, Southerners for Economic Justice, to promote the boycott in the southern states.

The boycott was quickly endorsed by religious groups, labor unions, women’s organizations, student groups, municipal governments, and prominent individuals who included religious leaders, elected officials, civil rights leaders, authors, and celebrities. Boycott supporters engaged in nonviolent action to persuade and pressure stores to stop selling Stevens products. These included writing letters, circulating petitions, picketing outside stores, and meeting with store managers. Activists also publicized the boycott to other consumers through marches, rallies, distributing literature published by the ACTWU, and the like. College and university students conducted teach-ins and demanded that their schools stopped purchasing Stevens products. The ACTWU declared November 30, 1978 as Justice for J. P. Stevens Workers Day, and activists in seventy-four cities held rallies and marches.

In March 1978, thirty national women’s organizations formed an umbrella group, the National Women’s Committee to Support JP Stevens Workers. In October 1979, religious organizations similarly formed the Inter-Religious Conference on Justice at J.P. Stevens.

One aspect of the corporate campaign involved large numbers of activists attending J. P. Stevens’s annual shareholders’ meetings and speaking out publicly about the company’s mistreatment of workers, as well as proposing related shareholder resolutions. Another was to pressure corporate officers from other companies to resign from the Stevens Board of Directors, and to pressure Stevens corporate officers to resign from the boards of other companies. This pressure was brought to bear by sending letters and making phone calls to the companies and to individual corporate officers, attending companies’ shareholders’ meetings and speaking out about J. P. Stevens’s mistreatment of workers, and withdrawing funds from banks that did business with Stevens, and other actions. Several corporate officers did resign from corporate boards as a result of this pressure.

The pursuit of legal action against J. P. Stevens is not considered nonviolent action so is not discussed here.

In 1979, the film "Norma Rae" was released, starring Sally Fields, which was loosely based on the experiences of Crystal Lee Sutton, a textile worker who helped organize the union at the Roanoke Rapids plants. This helped publicize the campaign, and the ACTWU organized a nationwide speaking tour for Sutton.

In mid-1978, representatives from J. P. Stevens entered into secret negotiations with the ACTWU. In October 1980, a settlement was announced. Stevens agreed to enter into a contract with the union that included a retroactive pay raise; seniority protection for workers; a check-off provision that allowed union dues to be directly deducted from workers’ paychecks; and a grievance procedure for workers that included independent arbitration. In return, the ACTWU agreed to end the boycott and the corporate campaign.

Research Notes

1. The boycott was influenced by United Farm Workers' successful boycott against grape growers (1965-197) and by Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America's successful boycott against Farah Manufacturing Company (1972-1974.

2. The "corporate campaign" strategy, pioneered by Ray Rogers and used first in the Farah campaign and then in the J. P. Stevens campaign, was subsequently used extensively by labor and human rights groups in the U.S.

"ACTWU vs. J. P. Stevens: 1976-1980: Birth of the Corporate Campaign." Accessed June 4, 2013.

The Associated Press, May 9, 1978.

The Associated Press, October 25, 1979.

"Committee Collects Signatures Against J.P. Stevens Products." The Harvard Crimson. March 10, 1979.

D'Au Vin, Constance. "Church Groups Lend Support To Textile Workers' Boycott." The Washington Post. April 21, 1978.

“J.P. Stevens Boycott.” The Washington Post, July 5, 1980.

Massad, Timothy G. “Battling the Modern Sweatshops.” The Harvard Crimson. May 3, 1977.

Minchin, Timothy J. “Don’t Sleep with Stevens!” The J. P. Stevens Campaign and the Struggle to Organize the South, 1963-80. University Press of Florida, 2005.

Minchin, Timothy J. "Don't Sleep with Stevens!": The J. P. Stevens Boycott and Social Activism in the 1970s.” Journal of American Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Dec. 2005), pp. 511-543.

New York Times, July 25, 1977, Monday

Nicholson, Tom, with Pamela Lynn Abraham and Melinda Beck. “Labor: Squeezing Stevens.” Newsweek, March 6, 1978.

“Protesters Greet Alumni at Princeton." New York Times, Feb. 27, 1978.

Raskin, A. H. "Show 'Em The Clenched Fist!" Forbes, October 2, 1978.

Raskin, A. H., "J. P. Stevens: Labor's Big Domino." New York Times, Aug 15, 1976.

Stetson, Damon. "Stevens Labor Policies Assailed at Annual Meeting." New York Times, March 2, 1977.

Warren, James. "How the Union Conquered Stevens." Sunday Sun-Times, October 26, 1980.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Abigail A Fuller, 13/05/2013