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.

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