Five years ago today J.P. Stevens and Co. executives, labor leaders and textile workers kept watch here as National Labor Relations Board officials counted the ballots in a representation election.
When the last vote was in, the labor movement had scored its first victory -- 1,685 to 1,448 -- over Stevens since it picked the company 11 years ago earlier as its chief organizing target in the southern textile industry. The scene and circumstances were depicted later with usual fidelity in the film "Norma Rae."
The old Textile Workers Union of America's 1974 victory at the seven Stevens plants was followed by one of the largest organization and boycotting campaigns waged against an American company since the CIO heyday of the 1930s. This once-obscure North Carolina milltown is the subject of two books, a second movie and sustained national news coverage.
Yet after five years of negotiations, Stevens workers here still do not have a contract. In 1978 the NLRB found the company guilty of bargaining in bad faith. Administrative law judge Bernard Ries observed in his decision that the textile firm went into the Roanoke Rapids negotiations "with all the tractability and open-mindedness of Sherman at the outskirts of Atlanta."
Speaking at a spirited fifth anniversary rally here Sunday, Scott Hoyman, the union's chief negotiator and executive vice president, said it had filed new bad-faith bargaining charges against the company, alleging that Stevens had been using its organized employes' lack of a contract in Roanoke Rapids as an argument to dissuade workers at its other plants from joining the unions.
Stevens, the nation's second-largest textile corporation, has 76 other plants, all except four of them in the antiunion South. It employs 43,000 people in this nation and has subsidiaries and affiliates in in France, New Zealand, Mexico, Japan and Belgium.
Stevens' director of public relations, Paul Barrett, said last week that the union had rejected many reasonable contract proposals made by the company. Hoyman said the company's recent proposals for the arbitration of grievances, seniority, work loads, company rules of conduct and contract language are unacceptable.
"We don't just want a contract, we want a strong contract," said Carolyn Brown, a spooler in the Roanoke No. 2 mill and a member of the union's negotiating team.
"Whatever contract is reached in Roanoke Rapids will have a conclusive effect on contracts in other locations," Hoyman told about 800 workers from textile towns in North Carolina and Georgia.
Union officials have said from the beginning that a strike involving only the Roanoke Rapids mills, which account for less than 10 percent of the company's total production, would not result in a contract. The textile workers union, whose membership shrank after World War II as mills moved to the South, merged with the larger and richer Amalgamated Clothing Workers in 1976 to form a new 500,000-member union capable of an expanded organizing campaign at other Stevens plants and a nationwide boycott.
Sol Stetin, senior executive vice president of the new Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, said it has 50 organizers at Stevens plants in the South. Stetin, who was president of the textile workers before the merger, said the union's membership dues will be increased $2 a month to help finance the Stevens drive.
The union has not had an election at a Stevens plant since it lost one in 1975 in Wallace, N.C. Earlier this month the NLRB awarded the union bargaining rights there on the grounds it would have won the election had it not been for the company's unfair labor practices.
The union has petitioned for another election in October in High Point, N.C. The union secretary-treasurer, Jacob Sheinkman, said it was considering a call for elections in as many as six of the other 15 mill towns where it has been conducting organizing campaigns.
Sheinkman said the boycott has hurt the company's consumer sales, but that Stevens may have compensated for the losses by boosting industrial sales and discounting some goods. The textile firm reported total sales of $1.65 billion in 1978, up from $1.5 billion in 1977. Only 34 percent of Stevens' products are home furnishing (sheets, towels, tablecloths) vulnerable to a consumer boycott. Most of its fabrics are sold to the automobile and apparel industries.
The boycott has attracted broad support beyond the labor movement. Supporters range from actress Jane Fonda to Philadelphia May Frank Rizzo and includes U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and the governors of most northern industrial states. The National Organization for Women and numerous church groups have added their endorsements.
Sheinkman said the union's "corporate pressure campaign" has forced Stevens' chairman and chief executive officer, James D. Finley, to resign from the boards of the New York Life Insurance Co. and Manufacturers Hanover Trust.
When Finley left the board of Manufacturers Hanover in early 1978, he said, "You don't go where you're not wanted."
But Stevens is not defenseless. After the union brought a $12 million suit in July charging that the company has conspired with two other textile companies, Grumman Aerospace Corp. and the mayor and police chief of Milledageville, Ga., to spy on workers and organizers, the company retained King and Spalding, the prestigious Atlanta law firm that boasts presidential adviser Charles Kirbo as a senior partner.
The union has worked to keep up the morale of workers in Roanoke Rapids until they get a contract, said one union official. It spends about $300,000 a year on its operation here, challenges company disciplinary actions through an informal grievance procedure and holds fiery rallies exhorting workers to be strong and patient.
Sheinkman praised the endurance of the Roanoke Rapids workers at Sunday's rally. "You've asked yourself the question people have always asked themselves, 'How long, oh Lord, how long?'" he said, "and you have given the answer, 'As long as it takes.'"
"Five years is nothing," said Maurine Hedgepeth, a weaver whose parents took an organizer into their home during an unsuccessful nationwide textile strike in 1934, when she was two years old.
Hedgepeth was out of work more than four years before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an NLRB decision that she had been fired illegally for union activity in 1965.
"Anything worth having is worth waiting for," she said. "You don't get something for nothing."