Short Takes: Book Review – Under the Workers Caps: From Champion Mill to Blue Ridge Paper

Beth Wellington is a Roanoke, Virginia based poet and journalist. She is a contributing editor to the New River Free Press, a book reviewer for the Roanoke Times and a member of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (SAWC) and the Appalachian Studies Association. From 1980 to 1997, she was the founding Executive Director of New River Community Sentencing, Inc. in Christiansburg, Virginia and its predecessor, New River Community Action’s Community Sentencing Program. She contributes to both and Beth’s blog on culture and politics is The Writing Corner.

With April 28 observed each year by trade unionists as Workers’ Memorial Day, I thought this month would be a good one to review George W. Loveland’s Under the Workers’ Caps: From Champion Mill to Blue Ridge Paper, (University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2005, 201 pp.)

The slogan for this day, depicted on Mike Konopacki’s poster, is a quotation by Mother Jones, “Mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living!” Anker Coal (site of January’s Sago mine disaster) and now Delphi highlight the hazards of new ownership for workers when companies go bankrupt. [Delphi, UAW go to brink: Union warns of `long strike’; timing very bad for ailing GM by Stephen Franklin, Jim Mateja and Rick Popely, Chicago Tribune staff reporters, April 1, 2006].

Western North Carolina’s Champion Mill could have been another example. On October 7, 1997, Champion International stunned Canton and Waynesville, offering its plants there for sale as “non-strategic assets.” George Loveland’s Under the Workers’ Caps recounts how six men in Smoky Mountain Local 507 “transform[ed] a potential disaster into a new opportunity for themselves, their families and their entire community.”

By 1999, Vanise Henson, Richard Haney, Doug Gibson, Kenny Sutton, Alton Higgins and Daniel Gregg had preserved jobs and increased investment in environmental abatement by recruiting financiers who agreed to buy Champion and sign a union contract trading salary and pension reductions for 40% of company stock. Loveland writes the six “had nothing in their background that might suggest that they would one day carry out something as extraordinary as leading one of the largest employee buyouts in U.S. history. They were factory workers with no special training and little formal education. Yet they chose to persevere and, against all odds, accomplished a heroic feat.”

Loveland depicts Local 507’s 1966 formation in a “right to work state” with only 4.1% of the workforce unionized as of 1996. Founded in 1906, Champion Fibre Company’s family feel engendered loyalty, even as its owners, Peter Thompson and son-in-law Reuben Robertson, grew rich, while workers suffered dangerous jobs which polluted the local air and water.

After a 1924 lockout and strike, employees gained continuation of three shifts and current wage. Champion, however, refused to recognize their union, rehiring only replacement workers and those who would turn in their union cards. In the sixties, Robertson’s son brought on a manager who, employee John Scroggs says, “started cutting and slashing like some corporate raiders do now, searching for the bottom line.”

Union activity again started and Champion punished organizers with job cuts and transfers, held compulsory anti-union sessions and persuaded facilities such as the armory and YMCA to bar union meetings. Finally, a supervisor, Charles Cable, agreed to help, if organizing would become a local effort. After certification, Champion waited four months to sign a contract; membership swelled after the union saved the jobs of three men fired for refusing to ride along with a reckless driver.

Loveland traces the employee ownership plan’s development, the campaign to gain environmentalists’ and politicians’ support, consultant Frank Adams’s role in his capacity as founder of the Southern Appalachian Center for Cooperative Ownership and Champion’s demand for confidentiality which engendered suspicion on the part of the rank and file. Throughout, he maintains suspense, using the workers’ words to tell their story. Praising Adams and the buyout organizers, Loveland details their disappointment when 40% ownership (now 45%) did not result in the hoped-for measure of workplace democracy.

A librarian at Ferrum University, George Loveland has written articles for the New River Free Press, Journal of Research in Rural Education, Journal of Appalachian Studies, and Virginia Libraries, Under the Workers’ Caps is his first book; I hope others soon follow.

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