THE STRUGGLE OF THE workers for unionization at J.P. Stevens, the nation's second largest textile operation, has been in the spotlight for a decade and a half. It has stimulated congressional and journalistic investigations, and a number of books and films, most recently Norma Rae . One cannot possibly overstate the importance of keeping the J. P. Stevens drama alive in the national conscience, and of documenting, recording and interpreting the social experience and the human conditions surrounding this struggle between labor and management.
Rise Gonna Rise attempts to do this by presenting J. P. Stevens workers' own accounts of their lives and of their roles in the historic moments in the transition to unionization. Their stories offer moving testimonies of suffering and courage, eloquent in their tellers' frankness and quiet dignity.
The book also supplies important glimpses into the community's social experience, revealing effectively the workers' own sense of betrayal by the Stevens Corporation, which replaced earlier paternalistic textile companies in Roanoke Rapids.
The description of race relations, particularly, reminds us that the labor struggle is also a civil rights battle against racial injustice - represented in the town by residential segregation of blacks and in the mill by the vestiges of Jim Crow. Black workers had access only to menial and unskilled jobs, and were even prohibited from using toilets in the mill building. Some were sent to mow the bosses' lawns.
One of the most moving accounts included by author Mimi Conway is that of a black worker's effort to overthrow the rule that black workers drink water out of a communal glass, while white workers could drink directly from the fountain. He complained to a superintendent with whom he had had friendly relations. The boss came up with the following solution: disposable paper cups for blacks.
But one craves an even deeper understanding of how community life changed as work relationships changed. Conway rarely leads us into the mill's work rooms, and she fails to provide an understanding of people's relationships to their work, their interactions with each other on the mill floor, and their relationships as neighbors and as families. How did white workers treat their fellow black workers prior to unionization? And did the common struggle against management really eradicate the scars of a century of racial hatred? Neither does Conway deliver an understanding of the larger community of relations within Roanoke Rapids. We must depend upon Earl Dotter's telling photographs of community life - such as the group portrait of black masons, the church, the sheriff, and the prison - to convey what is missing in the text.
As a result, the book's overall image is fragmented. It is difficult to understand, for example, the turning points in people's lives that finally led them to join the union. What was the threshold of suffering or passivity prior to that moment? And what were the community dynamics? How did people struggle with the decision to join the union, despite threats to their livelihood and their safety? And who were the workers who organized active resistance to the union? With the exception of one or two, all the people interviewed favored the union. The photo of anti-union workers wearing "Save Your Job, Stop the Boycott" T-shirts is not matched by statements from anti-union workers, by an exploration of their thoughts and attitudes. It is clear that company intimidation, combined with memories of the strike of 1934, played a major role in preventing many workers from joining, but what about the ones who campaigned actively against the union? There is no exploration of their circumstances, and of the forces pulling them against unionization.
The best integrated part of the book is the testimony on the devastating impact of cotton dust on workers' lungs. The role of "brown lung" (byssinosis) as a killer has already been exposed by the Bureau of Labor and Congressional hearings. Using some of those testimonies, the author follows the witnesses into their private worlds, and provides moving accounts of their suffering and frustration - at Stevens denial of the connection between cotton dust and disease and local doctors' evasiveness in diagnosing it. Yet the impact is weakened by the fact that most of the workers interviewed had been activists in the Brown Lung Association and were already accustomed to public testimony. We lack here the perceptions and experiences of people who had not yet encountered the media, and whose own testimonies might have had a greater freshness and spontaneity.
Nevertheless, some individuals are so eloquent that their stories transcend even the fragmentation and unevenness of book. This is one of the powers of oral history. The workers' voices come through loud and clear - a middle-class woman, surprised at the "new" racial hatred: "Another thing I don't understand is when the hate started. I never grew up with it . . . . I can't remember being taught hate . . . thinking 'You're black and I'm white.'" Yet the same woman recalled how her family would not allow her to go and play with the mill workers' children because they were "cotton mill trash." "My older people would say about these new people 'Don't go down to their house.'" Or listen to the wife of a black millworker: "Colored people weren't more than a dog the way they treated them." Or the man who finally joined the union, despite initial intimidation: "Back '65, when the union first come in, I was scared. Then you couldn't . . . say to your buddy, 'Hey, vote for the union'. . . . He's liable to go back to tell the Man you're for the union. If he did, you were gone. You were tired. So if you were for the union, you kept your mouth shut."