Mimi Conway knows firsthand what it is to be among the nation's lowest paid industrial workers, to breathe noxious fumes and sweat nine hours a day over steamy, heavy machinery.
Her book, "Rise Gonna Rise," is the story of union organizing efforts at the J.P. Stevens textile plant in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., of workers earning $78 less than the average pay for other U.S. factory workers and millhands suffering from byssinosis, or brown lung, the incapacitating illness similar to the coal miner's black lung.
Conway knew factory life before starting the book, For four months in 1975, she worked in a clothing plant in Johnson City, Tenn., putting the permanent press in pants.
"We were called leggers," she recalls, sitting in her Adams-Morgan apartment. "We operated a bank of heavy presses. You had to measure the pants and be sure the crease was just right. The temperature was over 100 degrees.
"The presses were dangerously hot. We'd get awful burns. I thought I was going to lose my fingerprints every time I'd touch that thin, hot metal.
"Everything had to be done quickly. I really began to understand what a second meant as a unit of time. Sometimes supervisors would stand over us checking how many seconds it took us to do a certain job.
"We stood all day on a concrete floor. I understood why many women had varicose veins. Some of them had been begging the company for years to install some kind of linoleum. I'd go to home every evening and soak in the tub. I couldn't even walk."
Conway, the daughter of a civil engineer, native of middle-class, suburban Fairfield, Conn., and graduate of Trinity College, Worked as a researcher for Time and Newsweek before she took her factory job, earning $2.10 an hour.
"I needed a job and that was available," she says, shifting her 5 feet 4 frame. "When I came back to this country from Hong Kong (in 1971, from a research project), I saw with new eyes and I wanted to get to know the country better, especially the South. So that working in New York, writing a play, working at a radio station, I moved to Tennessee, where I had friends."
The job at the Johnson City factory lasted only four months. The workers overproduced and the plant manager said it was cheaper to close the mill temporarily rather than store pants in a warehouse.
Conway moved to the Roan Mountain area, near the North Carolina border, to live even more cheaply. She learned to quilt, can food and repair her own car.
Her one-room apartment, a thirdfloor walkup, is a storehouse of country furniture -- two sturdy beds, a finely crafted chest of drawers, comfortable chairs and a sprawling bookcase. Only a small television set on a nightstand disturbs the feeling of 19th-century America.
In 1976, she started doing oral history interviews for the University of North Carolina and eventually began writing magazine pieces about textile workers in nearby North Carolina. The chance to write the book came out of the latter.
The battle for unionization at J.P. Stevens, the nation's second largest textile operation, has gone on for 16 years. It has spawned congressional investigations, books and films, including the recent "Norma Rae." In the last two years the firm has been target of a nationwide boycott, and though company officials reported 1978 sales up 7 percent over 1977, they conceded that only 60 percent of Stevens' sales increase was due to additional volume. The rest was due to price changes.
Conway's book explores the human aspects of reluctant workers struggling over whether to join the union, making do on low wages and seeing company officers -- and sometimes fellow workers -- ignore the debilitating effects of brown lung.
Louis Harrell was the first mill worker Coway met in Roanoke Rapids.
"When I met him, I felt it was too late," she says in the soft voice that marks her conversation. "You could see what was left. He couldn't talk long when it was warm and humid. That scared me. I wanted to ask lots of questions, but I had to learn to pace myself, to talk with people who were sick. Some days I just went by and said hello."
Conway says that at first she couldn't understand why Harrell continued to work toward retirement, even though many times he could barely speak above a whisper. She didn't know either, that his retirement pay would amount to about $10 a month and that he could expect nothing in workmen's compensation for his lung disease.
Harrell, who died in 1978, two years after Conway met him, represented the older white workers who had come to union activity late in life. James Boone, 29, black and enthusiastic, stands for a generation of young blacks who are increasingly taking mill jobs left by young whites moving up.
"James Boone is an extremely impressive figure," Conway says. "He never seems to tire of union activity. He goes by the union hall after work looking for jobs, running the addressograph machine, leafleting, leading discussions. He's a deacon in his church. More than most people, he lives his life according to his own vision."
In the book he told Conway: "Blacks, I believe, and some white too, are gonna make some changes here. That's why I come here to the union hall and work so hard. That's why I get out there and leaflet in the cold, in the raw, and in the heat of summer."
Blacks and whites have come together in union organizing like never before in other walks of life in Roanoke Rapids, says Conway. She recalls that Stevens officials tried to scare white workers off by telling them that by joining the union they were submitting to a block-dominated organization.
The company even posted on the plant bulletin board a photograph of te white victims of the "Zebra Killings," racially inspired murder's by black terrorists in San Francisco. But the ploy had little effect, he says with a smile.
"I felt encouraged by the way people worked together," Conway says. "Blacks and whites went on fishing trips together. Still, institutionalized racism is very clear in Roanoke Rapids. The schools are predominantly white. Most blacks live outside the city. But I saw some very good personal race relations there."
The company continues to control the town despite unionization and a sliver of racial progress. The annual company meetings are usually sparring matches for union and management camps.
Conway left Roanoke Rapids in 1978 to live here and white a novel.
"I'm eager to go back down there." she says. "I keep in touch. They're people who're dear to me." CAPTION: Picture, Mimi Conway, by Joe Heiberger -- The Washington Post