The J.P. Stevens Boycott of the 1970s

The activism that the [J.P. Stevens] boycott encouraged certainly shows that not all social protest died when the 1960s ended.”

Historically speaking, the Southern textile industry has been very non-union. In fact, northern firms had been attracted to the South because of cheaper wages (around 40 percent lower), longer work hours, and the absence of unions. At the time of J.P. Stevens boycott in 1978, only 10 percent of Southern industry was unionized, compared with 46 percent of New England.[1]

On November 30, 1978, thousands of people from across the United States took place in the boycott called, “Justice for J.P. Stevens’ Workers Day.” In 74 cities across the country, citizens took a stand against one of the largest textile companies who had consistently violated labor laws and attempted to squash their workers right to organize through rallies, press conferences, marches, and more. More than 3,000 people in New York City alone marched on the companies headquarters, a move that was endorsed by Governor Hugh L. Carey and his city council. Protests were even occurring in smaller cities, such as Albany, New York, where Secretary of State and Lieutenant Governor-elect Mario Cuomo declared, “to shun the products of J. P. Stevens as you would shun the fruit of an
unholy tree.”[2] Across the country, protesters urged consumers to stop using the textile giant’s sheets, their staple product because “insisted [consumers] should not ‘sleep’ with the products of a company that had repeatedly violated labor laws and was guilty of racial and sexual discrimination against its workers.”[3]

The boycott against Stevens brought the textile giant to the attention of America. In the years before the strike, the company had had fifteen different violations brought against them according to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and had to pay $1.3 million in back wages.[4] Now rushing to the side against Stevens were organizations like the AFL-CIO, NAACP, CORE, and NOW. The cause also garnered support from college students and celebrities alike, including Jane Fonda and John Kenneth Galbraith.

Before the boycott, the company certainly held the upper hand against the unions. Their practices of manipulation and straight intimidation, and even firing, practices stopped its almost 440,000 employees from trying to unionize. Every time the union tried to hold elections, it failed. Every time a worker tried to get back pay, it took Stevens so long that when the money was actually received, it did not even matter anymore. But when union leaders thought to call off the efforts, one final attempt was made, in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, the plant where Crystal Lee Sutton, the real Norma Rae, took her stand. While the union did win their election at that plant, the company ultimately failed to sign a contract, thwarting all the attempts made by the union.

But after the 1979 release of Norma Rae and a national tour by Sutton, the popularity of the cause was reignited. The cause secured fifteen national stories, 57 newspaper feature stories, 63 local television appearances, including Good Morning America, and 39 radio programs.[4]

While the Stevens company withheld many of its documents concerning the economic impact of the strike, the leaders of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) found that the portion of profit with regards to home furnishings (one of the main boycotting points) fell from 34 percent of the company’s profit to just under 29 percent, signaling that the boycott did have an impact.[5]

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[1] Minchin, Timothy J. “‘Don’t Sleep with Stevens!’: The J.P. Stevens Boycott and Social Activism in the 1970s.” Journal of American Studies 39 no. 03 (2005): 511-543.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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