Strikes, Lies, and Videotape

Strikes, Lies, and Videotape

Strikes, Lies, and Videotape

Aug. 29 1997 3:30 AM

Strikes, Lies, and Videotape

In fighting unions, Fieldcrest draws on an old Southern tradition.

Start with a "union advocate" celebrating a successful election late-Hoffa style, waving a can of beer and shouting: "We won, baby! Whoo-hoo!" Proceed through a docudramatic depiction of an angry strike and a consumer boycott that forces the company to shut down. End with a union member standing in front of a shuttered factory, looking blitzed, and saying, "I guess we showed them."

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Is this the ultimate morning-after video, or what?

The video was produced by Fieldcrest Cannon Inc., the Kannapolis, N.C.-based company that is the nation's largest manufacturer of furniture coverings and textile bath products, and mailed to the homes of 5,500 Fieldcrest workers three days before they were due to vote in a union election just two weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the workers ended up voting against unionization, by a slim margin. After all, no one likes people who yell "Whoo-hoo!"

This was the second union election at Fieldcrest's factories in six years, and the first in which the company faced UNITE, the newly invigorated textile workers' union that, in the last 18 months, has won 29 of 34 union elections in the South. In 1991, Fieldcrest defeated an organizing drive by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, but committed innumerable--well, OK, more than 150--labor-law violations in doing so, which is why the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually got around to ordering a new election. At this point, Fieldcrest hopes UNITE will pick up and move away, but that seems unlikely at best. A week after the election, union reps filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the company. In fact, perhaps in 2003 I'll get to write this story all over again. "Just once I'd like to see the union say, 'We lost fair and square, and now it's over,' " says Dick Reece, the company's point man on labor relations. "But they never do."

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F ieldcrest Cannon's history suggests that, when it comes to keeping unions out of its plants, it's a firm believer in the Malcolm X approach--use any means necessary. In the 1991 election, among other things company supervisors interrogated employees about their attitudes toward the union, dismissed 13 activists, and refused to give union reps access to the company's factories. More interestingly, although this was not held to be a violation, following the election Fieldcrest gave a 5.5-percent raise to workers at its nonunion plants--plants that had just rejected the ACTWU--while delaying a 4.5-percent raise for workers at its unionized plants. This was, Fieldcrest insisted, a coincidence.

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In all this, Fieldcrest builds on a venerable tradition. In a 1985 election at its plants, the last paycheck employees received before the vote contained a note from the company telling them that the union was planning to take their money. In a race at Cannon Mills that same year, billionaire financier David Murdock--who had purchased the mills from the Cannon family in 1982--promised workers that if they supported him by voting against the union, he would support them by keeping the company independent. The union went down in an overwhelming defeat, at which point Murdock sold the company to Fieldcrest. (He had already dumped the workers' pension funds into insurance annuities run by a company eventually seized by federal regulators.) And if you want to go way back: In 1934, the Cannon family averted labor unrest by calling in the National Guard and decorating the tops of their factories with machine guns and barbed wire. Even as most of North Carolina's textile workers walked out, Cannon workers stayed put. Seen in this context, what's a mere video threatening plant closings?

But Fieldcrest has not kept all except three of its plants "union-free" simply by pushing the limits in fighting organizing drives. The company also has benefited from the special obstacles that its Southern location adds to those that have eroded labor's strength nationally. Every state in the South is a right-to-work state, which means that closed shops and union shops are illegal. Much of Southern industrialization took place outside metropolitan areas, encouraging development of a company-town mentality and hindering industry-wide organizing. Kannapolis was owned--schools, houses, stores, and police force--by the Cannon family until after World War II.

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For most of this century, in fact, the history of unionism in the South was one of broken strikes, employer violence, and unkept promises. In 1921, for example, workers at Cannon Mills walked off the job. They returned after two-and-a-half months, when the National Textile Workers Union failed to come through with the food supplies it had promised them. In 1946, the AFL-CIO launched "Operation Dixie," an abortive attempt to organize the entire region, but it collapsed when unions proved more interested in raiding other unions for members than in organizing new workers. There's little evidence that an ingrained conservatism among Southern workers has kept unions out. But it certainly seems true that the absence of a tradition of Southern unionism has made it easier for employers to play on fears about union corruption and greed, and to suggest that plant closings are an inevitable consequence of unionization.

The question, of course, is whether the employer should be able to play on those fears. The National Labor Relations Act embodies a rather romantic view of democracy, in which workers coolly consider both sides of the unionization issue and then vote. The problem is that the NLRA, in a curious way, saw workers making that decision primarily by talking among themselves. The act envisioned the employer standing to one side as the vote was held, perhaps expressing its opinion but certainly not playing an active role in shaping the debate (which is simply to say the NLRA was designed to encourage unionization). When employers want to play that active role--as, of course, they all do--all sorts of complicated questions come into play.

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If, for example, a company wants to argue that unionization will raise labor costs to the point where it will be forced to shut down operations, should it be allowed to do so? Is it coercive for people with supervisory authority to ask workers how they plan to vote, or for management to give anti-union speeches on company time? Answering these questions requires a constant redefinition of the difference between an argument and a threat. And while there are many situations--like the dismissal of workers for organizing--where this difference seems inarguably clear, elsewhere things are fuzzier. And Fieldcrest has used that fuzziness to great advantage. It has, in the words of UNITE's Michael Zucker, "banged on workers' fears."

To say it's banged on them, of course, is not to say the fears are not real. The striking thing about workers' comments after the vote was how many of them mentioned the possibility of the company shutting down its operations. The mills in North Carolina exist because textile capital migrated from the Northeast in pursuit of low wages, no unions, and cheaper materials. It's easy for today's textile workers to imagine that the Caribbean or the Far East is the next stop on this trip. As it happens, there's no evidence at all that Fieldcrest Cannon is contemplating moving manufacturing abroad, or outsourcing. But in this case, I guess, videotape speaks louder than words.