Sunday, April 16, 2017

J.P. Stevens: Not a Person, Just a Mill




J.P. Stevens was one of many textile plants that formed from some of the assets of J.P. Stevens & Co., one of the leaders of the textile industry dating all the way back to 1813. In the mid-1980’s, the company ran 59 textile plants, employing 27,800, in the Carolina’s, South Carolina being it’s base of operations. Stevens had always been known as an opposer to unions and was so anti-union in fact that the company would buy out smaller unionized mills just to shut them down. The particular facility pertaining to our class resided in Roanoke Rapids, NC. It was there that Crystal Lee Sutton struggles incited union workings and those dramatized events later became the Academy Award-winning movie Norma Rae.
For decades, J.P. Stevens was a menace in Roanoke Rapids, paying poverty wages and offering deplorably unsafe working conditions. Workers would lose fingers, inhale cotton dust, and lose their hearing due to the deafening nature of the machinery used. Even though J.P. Stevens was anti-union and put a lot of effort into keeping workers in their place, Crystal Lee Sutton was determined to bring in a union to better the conditions for herself and her fellow workers.
Around the end of May after hearing some rumblings of unions, the management put up a letter addressed to the mill workers on the company bulletin board. Not only did the letter contain anti-union rhetoric, it implied that the union was a front for a black power movement that would take over the plant and the town. Management at the plant knew that the union could bring charges against them before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for posting a racially inflammatory message on company property, so when Sutton tried to copy the letter they tried to stop her. Sutton was subsequently fired and they attempted to remover her from the property but only after she performed a famous act that can be seen in the film (I don’t want to spoil anything). Even though she was fired, Sutton's effort were not in vain and the union prevailed in the plant.

In 2003, the mill closed permanently after the labor force had declined steadily over the years. Some say the union was to blame for the closure of the mill, but that is considered speculation since most mills shut down in North Carolina over the course of the decade.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Ella Mae Wiggins Murder Solved

Ella Mae Wiggins was a textile worker and union organizer born in the mountains of Cherokee County. She began working in a nearby mill to help support her family after a tragic accident in a lumberyard, which killed her father. Later, she married a fellow mill employee, John Wiggins, and they left for Gaston County where they went to seek work in the rapidly growing industrial region. Everything was swell for around 10 years. They settled in Bessemer City and found jobs in the American Mill. Between the two of them, they had seven children. Johnny, one day, decided to desert his whole family, leaving his family struggling to survive. Ella Mae had to switch to the night shift to see her children during the day. Even with this switch, she was not able to make enough money for the eight of them to survive. Two of her children suffered from malnutrition, and this developed into rickets, causing them to die.
Wiggins lived in a very poor diverse area where she became a central figure in a network of family and friends who supported her through troubles. She grew ties with poor white and black families, which contradicted rigid racial mores of the twentieth century South. She realized that her future was bound to the collective destiny of those around her. 

In twenty years, the number of mills in the county doubled while the marking declined. Prices of materials grew, and manufacturers began to change operations. People began getting laid off, and a new system called the "stretch-out" was set in place. This was when they paid people low prices and while putting on more work. Increased hours and reduced pay. Ella Mae struggled to support her five children with only $9.00 a week.

She organized a union, and demanded a minimum weekly wage of $20 for a 40-hour week, equal pay for women, and abolition of the stretch out. These strikes got violent, and included the detainment of several union workers and people in charge began to notice Wiggin’s power in the union. One day, she found that the spring she used for water had been poisoned.

She continued to go to rallies and strike, but one day, she and a group of 22 unarmed union members traveled to a rally site and took a bloody turn. They were stopped at a roadblock, and they were given the option of turning around or die. They turned around as they were told, but several cars followed them. The truck stopped suddenly and Ella Mae fell out of the vehicle. She stood up, and the mob opened fire. 7 men were indicted, but even with over 50 eyewitnesses, the men were let off on no charges.

Her death caused pressure from local strikers and some mills changed their working hours and extended other benefits. She was a sort of martyr in the eyes of her community.



Eli Zivkovitch and the Textile Workers Union of America

Eli Zivkovitch was an American labor organizer and coal miner from West Virginia. He was Crystal Lee's inspiration for joining the labor movement in the 1970s. He inspired her to join the Textile Workers Union of America. This union has its origins in the early 1900s with the United Textile Workers of America, formed in 1901. The union went on strike in 1934, but was unsuccessful. UTW had its greatest support in the North, but it was largely unsuccessful in the South. The Textiles Workers Organizing Committee was formed in 1937 and merged with UTW in 1939 to form the Textile Workers Union of America. TWUA worked hard in the South and fought against the union-resistant government and shop owners. TWUA was concerned with gaining higher wages for textiles workers as well as benefits like health insurance. It was later a leader in Operation Dixie. This was an operation by the Congress of Industrial Organizations and affiliated labor unions to help unionize the South and included many industries, like paper manufacturing and textiles. It ran from 1945-1954 and was defeated by the South's conservative and more business-oriented politicians. In 1973, TWUA sent Zivkovitch to the J.P. Stevens textiles mill to unionize their workers where he met Crystal Lee Sutton, who later became an important figure in unionizing the textiles industry. Later, TWUA was not the only textiles union in the South and itself to be in competition with said unions, leading it to merge with other unions to form the Amalgamated Clothing and Textiles Workers Union in 1976. In 1978, after Sutton was fired from the J.P. Stevens, ACTWU began to represent workers at the mill.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Martin Ritt

Martin Ritt was born in New York City in 1914 to a Jewish immigrant family. He went to school in the Bronx and later, played college football at Elon College in North Carolina. His New York upbringing and depression era experience instilled on him a passion for expressing himself, his struggles, inequality. This brought him to theater, he worked for the Work Progress Administration as a playwright and later, for the Group Theater of New York City. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army Air Force where he was an actor  Winged Victory.

Next thing, Ritt became a famous television director after an already successful career in theater. His connections and friendliness with the leftist movement and his keen with some Marxist principles got him, essentially, blacklisted. He was mentioned in an anti-communist letter published by a group made of former FBI agents called Counterattack. So, Martin returned theater for a little bit but in 1956, he turned into film and overall directed more than 25 films.
In the 1970s, Ritt received acclaim for a lot of his movies, including Norma Rae. He won the Technical Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Norma Rae. Martin Ritt died at 76 in California, in 1990. 

Fun fact: Actress Sally Field (who got an Oscar for Norma Rae) starred in his last three movies.



Harriet Frank Jr and Irving Ravitch

Harriet Frank Jr and Irving Ravitch married after meeting at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer young writer's training program in 1946. They wrote screenplays for multiple movies over the course of a few decades, and were nominated for an Academy Award for Hud. They worked on Conrack and The Cowboys before taking a break from screenwriting for a while. After the break, they wrote Norma Rae and won two Academy Awards for the work. They collaborated with director Martin Ritt seven times before he died in 1990. Ravitch died in 2010 at he age of 89, and Frank Jr is still alive today. The pair worked together on almost everything they produced during the second half of their careers, and received honors right as their works came out and long after. Both Frank Jr and Ravitch attended UCLA but met after their time there. They worked on adaptations of William Faulkner and Pat Conroy and wrote famous movies such as "Whiplash".

Frank Jr and Ravitch had a great working relationship that transcended their personal relationship. Interviews with them revealed moments that didn't come through in their products. Frank called Ravitch easy to work with, agreeable, and open to compromise, which is why they could work so well together. They always talked about their ideas together and then laid out individual scenes that they were interested in producing. The pair maintained both their personal and professional relationships throughout their lives and created beautiful works that were and are loved by many people.


Crystal Lee Sutton

Crystal Lee Sutton was born on December 31, 1940 in Roanoke Rapids, NC, to parents who worked in the textile mills, just as their parents before them had.  Although she had other aspirations, Sutton followed suit and took a job with J.P. Stevens when she turned seventeen.  She worked looms for two years, leaving the mill only when she became pregnant with her first child and married.  Within a year, however, she found herself widowed and with another baby on the way.  She would remarry after the birth of her second child and eventually have a third a few years later with her second husband Larry Jordan.  Dissatisfied with the life she led as a housewife thereafter, Sutton found work for a time in a hotel and then a diner before finally deciding to return to the textile mill.

Conditions at J.P. Stevens were just as bad as Sutton recalled.  A few months after returning to the mill, she attended her first union meeting.  Immediately drawn to the movement, she began collaborating with Textile Workers Union of America and organizer Eli Zivkovich.  Sutton quickly drew the ire of factory bosses for her outspokenness.  One anecdote in particular captures her staunch defiance and strength of will.  Zivkovich had gifted her a notebook entitled "What the Company Will Do for You"--a book full of blank pages.  Whenever she was called into supervisors’ offices to be reprimanded for miscellaneous, petty offenses like loitering in the bathroom or "talking too much," Sutton brought the book with her and, ever-attentive to their valid complaints, took notes in it.  This rendered management dumbstruck, astonished that anyone would have the gall to behave like this in the face of their authority.

Things came to a head when Sutton violated company policy to copy down an anti-union propaganda letter that had been posted on a bulletin board.  Knowing that they could get in trouble with National Labor Relations Board for the racist content of the letter and already looking for a reason to get rid of the rabble-rouser, factory bosses summoned the police to arrest Sutton.  Before she was taken away, however, Sutton seized the chance for one last show of resistance, climbing onto a worktable and holding up a makeshift cardboard sign on which she had scrawled the word “UNION."  This iconic moment of defiance would feature famously in the film Norma Rae, a work that she was the inspiration for.

Sutton continued her work in labor organizing and advocacy for the rest of her life, scoring a hard-fought victory in court against J.P. Stevens several years after she was fired.  Though she succumbed to cancer in 2009 at the age of 68, she has left her mark on labor history in the south and as portrayed on the silver screen.

Bruce Raynor


Image may contain: one or more people and people standingA native of New York, Bruce Raynor was raised in a blue-collar family, the son of a truck driver and a retail worker. In 1972, Raynor graduated from Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations after years of student activism and involvement in the civil rights movement. (He gave up a biochemistry scholarship to work in labor organizing.) The following year, he began working for the Textile Workers Union of America, helping coordinate their seventeen-year battle against North Carolina textile magnate JP Stevens. Following the success of this campaign, he organized in several other Southern states, including Mississippi, and was elected as the leader of the 50,000-member union.

Raynor served as the second president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, or UNITE, a consolidation of two older unions. In 2004, it merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) to become UNITE HERE. However, after what Raynor called a "hostile takeover" of power by other union officials, whom he accused of diverting funds to their favorite locals, the two split up again, with Raynor becoming president of a new group called Workers United.

He also oversees the Sidney Hillman Foundation, named for the founder of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (one of the unions that comprised UNITE), which rewards journalists who cover social justice issues as well as previously serving as chairman of the Amalgamated Bank, the only union-owned institution in America.