Fighting Union Busters in a Carolina Carpet Mill
by Phil Cohen
I’ve been a union member since 1974 and a player in the world of organized labor since 1980. I was chief steward at a bus garage for eight years, turning a worthless local into one that effectively represented workers. This led to my being hired as a lead organizer and troubleshooter by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in 1988.
I took to the field in the wake of a painful divorce. For six years, my exploits were seasoned with a succession of wild, beautiful, crazy women….a lifestyle that might have been the envy of most guys, if one factored out the heartache and instability that came with it.
But I always kept my balance and wits about me while on assignment. I’d emerged from a rough blue collar background, knew the streets and how to handle myself. It earned the trust of union members, and perhaps more important, put me in a position to pass on what life had taught me. I became one of the union’s key assets in fighting professional union busters, negotiating first contracts, and rehabilitating troubled locals.
On November 17, 1993, I was home in North Carolina for the weekend and went to a party. It was a pleasant evening and most of the guests were outdoors. The first thing I noticed was an attractive woman sitting in a chair beside the house, crying hysterically. One of my former girlfriends sat beside her, trying to offer comfort. Melanie loved to talk and give advice but listening wasn’t her strong suit. Everything she said only served to heighten the frenzy.
I put my hand on Melanie’s shoulder and said, “How about giving me a shot.”
She paused in her litany of self-help rhetoric, glanced up at me and gracefully exited. I took her seat. The woman beside me was named Patricia and we’d briefly become acquainted at a party the previous year. We’d chatted for half an hour about space travel and government conspiracies, while I bookmarked her perfect derriere in snug jeans for future reference. But she was currently in the midst of a total meltdown. All I wanted was to find a way to get through and ease her misery.
“I’m a terrible person,” she wailed through the ocean of tears flowing down her face. “I don’t deserve anyone’s help!”
I looked deep into her hazel eyes and asked “Why?”
“I broke up with someone three days ago.” Her sobbing eased just enough to enunciate the words. “I packed all night long, and then totally trashed his place on my way out at dawn. I didn’t even tell him I was leaving. I just drove and drove without stopping all the way back from Texas. Only a totally worthless piece of shit would do something like that.”
Tears were still streaming from Patricia’s eyes, but she seemed to be stabilizing and becoming more coherent. Her boyfriend was a recovering alcoholic who’d promised to remain sober if she moved in with him. She was just getting over another relationship with a substance abuser. One night she returned home to find him sitting in a chair, passed out next to an open case of beer with empties scattered across the floor.
Her volume rose and a fresh wave of tears tumbled down her cheeks. “Three nights ago I just couldn’t take it anymore!!!”
“You’re not a bad person,” I said. “You just got pushed too far. Let’s go for a walk.”
We strolled down rural pathways for hours. Alcohol had been Patricia’s constant companion since early childhood. Her father was a drunk who beat her mercilessly. She’d become a heavy drinker in college.
“I felt like I just wanted to die once I got back,” she said. “I had nowhere else to go, so I went to my parents’ house. I had a long talk with God, and decided that instead of killing myself, I’d NEVER let alcohol back into my life. Never, fucking never!!”
It was a cloudless night and the sky was illuminated by galaxies. I looked up and it felt like the heavens had opened and we were being embraced by angels.
“Wanna come home with me?” I asked.
Over the next fifteen years, free trade agreements made it impossible for domestic clothing and textile manufacturing to compete with third-world wages and working conditions. As plants shut, my union began organizing in other business sectors, changed its name to Workers United, and eventually became affiliated with SEIU.
In 2011, I retired from the labor movement at age sixty. For the next twelve months, I considered it my job to rest and recover from twenty-three years in the field. But I wasn’t cut out for life in a recliner-chair. I wrote a book about one of my campaigns, got a publishing deal, did a lot of press interviews and went on a book tour. By the fall of 2017, this flurry of new activity was winding down.
Meanwhile, the most anti-union president in our nation’s history got himself elected and ushered in a new era for forces opposing workers’ rights. The assault was spearheaded by the National Right to Work Committee, an organization funded by big business and right wing fanatics. Their attorneys insert themselves into labor disputes across the country, using them as platforms to sponsor legislation that would dismantle protections enjoyed by American workers since 1935. For corporations resenting employee representation, it was now open season.
Patricia and I were standing in the kitchen one afternoon during October, 2017. “I miss the action,” I told her. “I’m starting to feel that itch again. I want a mission.”
On the afternoon of November 3, the message light on my landline was blinking. “You have…one message…from…336-3…” As soon as I heard the fourth number, I sensed it was going to be Anthony Coles, the union’s Carolina director. I also knew he wasn’t just calling to say “hello.”
“Phil, this is Anthony. We got us a problem up here in Eden, maybe you could help us with. Give me a call at the office.”
I immediately dialed and his secretary transferred the call. Anthony and I shared a lot of history. When we met in 1988, he was a barely-active shop steward in a crumbling South Carolina local I’d been assigned to salvage. Within five minutes I recognized him as the person to train and mentor to become the local union’s next president. Two years later he was hired by ACTWU as an organizer and became state director in the late 1990’s.
“We got us this situation at the Karastan plant,” said Anthony. “This group of anti’s been circulating a decertification petition. They been running all over the plant getting signatures, and we know the company’s behind it, but we need someone who can go up there and build a case with the Labor Board…..”
I heard Anthony slowly exhale and felt a wave of relief pass over him. I asked when the decert window had opened and how long the petition had been in circulation. The window is a 30-day period shortly before a union contract expires. If 30% of hourly workers sign a petition to remove the union, an election is scheduled to determine its future. Federal law requires management to remain neutral during this process. The National Labor Relations Board will block an election if the union can prove company involvement. Anti’s is common vernacular for anti-union employees.
Anthony told me the petition began circulating during early October and the signature threshold had been achieved.
“Please don’t tell me the petition has already been filed,” I said
“I got a notice from the NLRB that it was filed two days ago.”
The National Labor Relations Board is a regulatory agency overseeing relationships between unions and employers. It establishes and eliminates union locals based on election results governed by strict protocol.
“Why the fuck wasn’t I sent in a month ago?” I asked with exasperation. “I could have probably shut this thing down from jump street.”
Anthony explained that he’d finally received authorization following several frustrating weeks of making requests to the union’s regional office in Atlanta. It had been hoped union attorneys could document illegal employer support for the decertification and file the necessary charges to block the election, but they hadn’t gotten to first base. A successful investigation can only be conducted with boots on the ground and a desk at the union hall, earning the trust of bewildered workers who harbor the evidence but are afraid to come forward.
I asked who would be negotiating the new contract and learned that early negotiations had already transpired, and the agreement would take effect in January if we survived the current crisis. It was a Friday afternoon but I explained that due to personal obligations, I wouldn’t be able to travel until Tuesday. I requested the phone numbers of committee members so I could begin my interviews over the phone.
Committee is an informal reference to a local union’s elected officers comprising its executive board. Anthony provided three names and I asked, “Tell me one person in this local I can trust with my life.”
Without hesitating, Anthony replied it was Vice President Bill Pettigrew. He was far more experienced than the other officers, having spent several years on the road assisting with organizing campaigns. “He’s kind of a redneck, and me and him sometimes don’t see things eye to eye….but he’ll always have your back. Only other things I know are he’s a confirmed bachelor and rides motorcycles.”
“Can he keep his mouth shut? Can I tell him anything, and he keeps it to himself no matter what?”
“Yeah. I believe that much about him.”
I inquired about the others. The director described them as “a good bunch of guys” with their hearts in the right place. But they’d never been through a fight like this.
I learned the Karastan plant manufactured rugs in Eden, North Carolina, had been union for seventy-nine years, and was one of the few surviving textile operations in Workers United. It became part of Fieldcrest’s textile empire shortly after opening in the 1920’s, and was purchased in 1993 by Mohawk Industries – a Fortune 500 company with an international market in a variety of floor coverings. Karastan once employed seven hundred hourly workers and split its operation between two Eden facilities. Several years ago, there had been a major layoff and many senior union members had opted for an early retirement package.
In 2016, the business was restructured and new jobs created, filled by workers in their twenties and thirties. They knew nothing about the union’s struggle to make this the highest-paid plant in Rockingham County, taking for granted rights and guarantees provided by the contract. Some of them were imports from a nonunion Mohawk facility, recently shut in Landrum, Georgia. Local 294-T currently represented 200 hourly workers, all housed at the main plant. Union membership stood at only forty percent, an open invitation for a hostile employer to exploit its weakness.
We got off the phone and I paced about the room for fifteen minutes, staring out my window at the bird feeder, wondering if I could still run a campaign at my age. I asked myself if I sensed danger. Decertification fights can get ugly. But a switch had been tripped in my head and I felt ready for whatever awaited me. I picked up the phone again and started with Local President Jeff Totten. It was 3:30 pm and his shift had ended.
“I been waiting for your call,” he said. “Anthony told me he was going to try and get you. I met you at the conference in Atlanta last year, when you signed a copy of your book for me. You remember that?”
“Oh, sure,” I lied. One of the challenges in my line of work is meeting far too many people to keep track of. Its hard knowing how to respond when being fondly remembered by someone you’ve utterly forgotten.
“Look, we got us a real mess up here,” said Jeff. “All these crazy peoples been running all over the plant, trying to get everyone to sign this paper to get rid of the union. Now they know better than to come up on my job, but peoples be coming to me and telling about it…”
I’ve learned from hard experience that it’s impossible to conduct an investigation without controlling the interviews and keeping them focused. One must instinctively know when to give someone just enough room to vent, and then how pull them back on-track. I interjected and instructed Jeff, as I had countless witnesses before: I would ask a series of very specific question and he needed to stay on point by limiting his responses to what I was asking. Otherwise we could be on the phone for hours and I’d be no closer to building a case.
To put the grueling process in context, I offered Jeff a crash course in how the National Labor Relations Board functions and the pivotal role it would play in the coming weeks. The NLRB is a law enforcement agency of the United States government. It enforces the National Labor Relations Act, a statute governing how unions and companies interface. It’s analogous to IRS jurisdiction over the tax code, or FBI authority in criminal matters.
Workers have the right to circulate a petition to decertify a union. But under the law, it’s illegal for companies to assist them. They’re supposed to remain neutral. Even though I’d barely gotten my feet wet here, all my instincts told me this employer was neck-deep in the current situation. There’s no way a group of anti’s can be roaming all over the plant during working hours, coming into other people’s departments with a petition, unless management is allowing it.
“What would happen if you left your work area to go around the plant signing union cards?” I asked Jeff.
“I’d get wrote up. But listen here, Daphne and Robin been talking all sorts of trash about the union, saying the plant’s gonna shut if we don’t get rid of it….”
I apologized for cutting him off again, explaining there wasn’t time for me to be polite if he wanted to save his local. We were attempting to build a case before the Labor Board. He needed to answer questions in the order asked, so I could quickly wrap my mind around the situation. “I’ve been doing this shit for thirty years. You don’t know me and I don’t expect you to trust me right off. Trust has to be earned over time. But right now, time is one thing we don’t have. You gotta take a leap of faith, act like you trust me, follow my instructions, and let me prove myself as we go along. Because at this moment, I’m your last best hope.”