There’s a scene in the movie “Norma Rae” in which organizer Reuben Warshawsky prods Sally Field’s title character to lead her fellow textile workers to form a union. “If you were in the State Department,” he says, “we would be in a war.”
The 1979 film was a fictionalized account of the effort to unionize employees at the J.P. Stevens Mill in Roanoke Rapids. One of the real-life leaders in that war was Bruce Raynor, who started his career with the Textile Workers Union of America in 1973. After a couple of mergers with other unions and 2 1/2 decades of (mostly Southern) organizing drives, Raynor was named president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees in 2001.
Raynor is often referred to as part of the composite that formed the Reuben character in “Norma Rae.” His biography on the union’s website says he is “responsible for the national organizing program for UNITE, in which capacity he is credited with innovative and aggressive tactics that have led the way for the entire labor movement.”
The J.P. Stevens battle marked a historic turning point for labor unions, because it established a tough new strategy: Corporate campaigning. The tactic has been embraced by almost all unions in an effort to refortify their flagging memberships, and one that Raynor employs effectively.
“A corporate campaign is a form of reputational warfare waged through broadsides, half-truths, innuendo, and a staccato rhythm of castigation, litigation, legislation, and regulation,” writes Jarol Manheim, a George Washington University professor of media, public affairs, and political science. He is the author of The Death of a Thousand Cuts: Corporate Campaigns and the Attack on the Corporation.
“It is fought in the press and on television, on the Internet, in the halls of government, in the marketplace, on the trading floor, and in the boardroom,” writes Manheim. “Corporate campaigns … attack the essential corporate character of their targets and challenge the legitimacy of the corporation as a social form.”
Raynor is recognized as one of the most effective organizers in the labor movement, and is considered a possible successor to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Throughout the 1990s unions saw their influence diminish as overseas competition sapped domestic manufacturing jobs. However, Raynor’s drive to replenish UNITE’s ranks kept the numbers steady. Today the union boasts about 250,000 members.
Raynor seems to relish fights in which he is the underdog. Besides the difficulty of representing industries that are rapidly losing jobs, he has specialized in beating the odds in right-to-work states and in the traditionally antiunion South. As Southern regional director of UNITE’s predecessor, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, he led a drive that unionized more than 20,000 workers over a 10-year period.
Perhaps Raynor’s most proud achievement was the unionization of six Pillowtex-Fieldcrest-Cannon mills in the Kannapolis area. The first vote at then-Cannon Mills was conducted in 1974, the same year as the successful J.P. Stevens election. The union lost. The union then lost three more votes to organize by employees in 1985, 1991, and 1997, in the face of vehement company opposition.
Cannon, in its various incarnations, was cited several times by the National Labor Relations Board over the years for unlawful labor practices and for intimidating employees to not support the union. But Raynor’s persistence paid off in 1999 when the union broke through with a 2,270-2,102 victory.
“It feels like we just organized GM,” Raynor told the New York Times. “Suddenly, we’ve got a beacon to show other textile workers that they can do it.”
Leon Fink, a labor historian who was then at the University of North Carolina (and is now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago), said at the time, “It’s the biggest breakthrough in a traditional Southern industry for probably the past quarter century.”
But a year later Pillowtex was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and after briefly emerging in 2002 went out of business in July 2003. Raynor is blamed in many corners for scuttling a deal Pillowtex had with Springs Industries in April 2003, which could have salvaged some of UNITE’s Pillowtex jobs. Instead, Raynor went for broke to try to save most of the jobs, but came up empty-handed.
The fervency that won him his victories, some say, is also what costs the people he purports to represent their jobs.
“He’s a bombthrower — an absolute radical,” said Bill Adams, CEO of Kentucky-based Adams, Nash, Haskell & Sheridan, a consulting firm that helps employers avoid unionization and counter union campaigns.
“He’s effective from a rhetoric standpoint and from a values standpoint,” Adams said of Raynor. “The problem he has is his tactics are unrealistic and almost always damaging to the people he says he wants to represent.”
UNITE is targeting low-paying service and retail distribution industries because those jobs are least likely to move overseas. One example that Adams points to is Raynor’s current effort to unionize the laundry industry, which mostly employs at low wages.
The jobs are filled with a heavy concentration of immigrants and minorities, and Business Week reported that Raynor capitalizes on their common bonds “by getting them to reach out to recruits with similar backgrounds.” Since 1998 UNITE has added 40,000 laundry workers.
Raynor’s chief target is now Cintas Corp., the nation’s largest commercial laundry and uniform supply company. Raynor is waging a corporate campaign against Cintas, accusing the company of racial discrimination and harsh working conditions. He told left-wing magazine In These Times, “I don’t know how long it will take to bring Cintas down, but mark my words: We will.”
Raynor has also pressured Starbucks and United Parcel Service to stop using Cintas’s services until it accepts unions.
Stan Greer, senior research associate with the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, said Raynor pours millions of compulsive dues money into attacking businesses he doesn’t like.
“It’s not his future that’s on the line,” Greer said. “He’s putting someone else’s money on the line.”
Chesser is an associate editor at Carolina Journal.