The belligerents reached a truce today in one of the longest and most draining labor campaigns ever fought, and as far as many of the foot soldiers are concerned, peace, it's wonderful.
"I'm tickled to death," Frances W. Taylor said of the contract agreement that was overwhelmingly approved today by workers at seven J. P. Stevens Co. plants in Roanoke Rapids, and at Stevens' plants in High Point, N.C. Boylston, Ala., and Allendale, S.C.
"People around here have had a hard time," said Taylor, a Roanoke Rapids resident who said she came to work at the company's Rosemary plant seven years ago, about a year before the union, after a protracted and bitter struggle, won the right to represent the company's workers.
Negotiators for Stevens and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union agreed on a contract Friday, and cheering union members ratified the agreement this afternoon
Stevens has stubbornly fought the labor movement in its plants, to the point of being cited for contempt of court for persistent violations of federal labor law and enduring a union-organized nationwide boycott of its textile products.
"I personally feel like they wouldn't have given in if they hadn't been wrong in the first place," Taylor said.
"I've got a good job, and I'm perfectly happy with it," she said of her work, which she described as manual drawing-in, or preparing a warp of fiber for the mechanized looms.
But she said she was entitled to fair pay for the work, and had not been receiving it before the settlement.
At one time, Taylor said, while she was going through a divorce, "I had only $10 a week to buy groceries for me and my son."
The prospect of a contract also pleased Spurgeon Ricks, a twister-creeler at Stevens' Patterson plant for three years.
"I really think it'll be a good thing," Ricks said. "The way prices are, good gracious, it's been really rough for us here in Roanoke Rapids."
"I feel the same way," said Justice Stone, a general electrician at the Patterson plant for 18 years. "I think we deserve it as much as anyone else."
Ricks and Stone said the company had denied raises to nonsupervisory workers in Roanoke Rapids for the past three years, while employes elsewhere in the Stevens system had gotten pay increases.
As to why the company finally agreed to a contract, Ricks said, "I'll tell you why: boycott. I'll tell you why: they can't sell their goods."
Because of the boycott, he said, the Stevens system had been on "short time for the last year or so. I know, because I've been on four days [a week] for the last year or so."
Ricks said the contract would mean that his wages would rise by 80 to 90 cents an hour and that he would get about $1,000 in back pay "for the raises we didn't get."
The settlement was voted on by about 750 ACTWU members who turned out on a mild, rainy afternoon near the Roanoke Rapids' paper mills, which long ago accepted union representation. The contract covers as many as 3,000 workers, but only union members were authorized to vote on ratification. Union officials say more than 2,000 of the company's employes here belong to the ACTWU.
The workers seemed cheerful, if not wildly exuberant, as they filed into a high school auditorium in this northeastern North Carolina town of about 15,000.
Union officials sorted them out according to plants where they worked for the voting, and when the vote came, it came with the force of six years of pent-up frustration as the membership stood and roared approval of the agreement.
They had reason to cheer, said Joel Ronald Ax, deputy general counsel for the union. "It's an excellent collective bargaining agreement," Ax said. "Also, it comes from a company who for 17 years has said it would never sign a collective bargaining agreement."
"The contract compares favorably with other ACTWU contracts with southern textile companies," said Scott M. Hoyman, the union's executive vice president. "It regulates work loads and provides the security of a seniority system for job changes and promotions."
"It feels damned good," Hoyman said of the settlement at a new conference after the ratification. He said the vote, which he described as unanimous, could assist other efforts to organize the southern textile industry.
"The pace of those campaigns . . . may well be accelerated," Hoyman said, singling out ACTWU's efforts to enlist 16,000 employes of Cannon Mills in Cabarrus and Rowan counties in Piedmont North Carolina.
Clyde Bush, an international representative of the union, said he did not hope for instant harmony with Stevens.
"We've had a war with this company for 17 years," Bush said. "I'm not expecting them to roll over and die tomorrow."
One person who has closely watched the developments is Crystal Lee Sutton, a former Stevens worker whose unionizing efforts in 1974 got her fired from the company's Burlington plant. The incident inspired the movie "Norma Rae," which won actress Sally Field an Academy Award.
Asked by The Associated Press before the union membership vote what she thought of the settlement, Sutton said, "I always have my hopes up, but I always think it could be another dirty trick. I won't believe it until I see it."
"The textile workers have had hope since 1974," said Sutton, who now lives in Burlington and works for the AFL-CIO. "And that's something they never had before. Until then, they watched workers retiring and there was nothing to retire on."