Following the largest union- organizing campaign in the South in the last decade, textile workers at North Carolina's Cannon Mills have overwhelmingly rejected unionization. The National Labor Relations Board said yesterday that the 10,500 employes voted 63 percent to 37 percent against a union.

The result, which came after a costly 15-month election campaign, represents a setback for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) and a victory for David H. Murdock, the California financier who owns Cannon, the nation's largest maker of towels, and who spent a substantial sum combating the union drive.

"I'm proud of you. I am thrilled of what you have done for your company and yourselves," Murdock told a crowd of Cannon employes gathered outside company headquarters in Kannapolis, N.C., on Thursday. "You've proved we don't want a union," he said, calling the outcome "a victory for the employes."

But ACTWU's southern regional director, Bruce Raynor, said the outcome was the result of a "sophisticated campaign to scare the workers" into thinking that voting for a union would result in Murdock closing the mill, the largest employer in Cabarrus County.

The union drive was prompted by Murdock's sharp cutbacks in staff, salary and workers' hours, reductions he said were forced by the increasing foreign competition that has battered the textile industry.

A strong majority of Cannon workers favored union representation when the union petitioned the NLRB to conduct an election, according to Raynor. Labor law requires that at least 30 percent of workers sign union cards requesting an election. ACTWU said it had gathered more than 50 percent.

But the tide turned during the campaign, when Murdock and the rest of the Cannon management team waged a battle using mandatory meetings during the workday at which videotapes were shown and Murdock urged workers to vote against the union. In these tapes, professional actors portrayed anti-union employes. The union lost 5,982 to 3,530.

"The video campaign was the most sophisticated and extensive I've seen," Raynor said. "It is a very powerful device; and when your campaign is designed to scare people, the video screen is a powerful way to do it," he added.

"It took us 17 years and three votes to win at J.P. Stevens," said Raynor, referring to the textile-mill organizing drive that inspired the movie "Norma Rae."