Labor organizer Ray Rogers:; 'fighting power with power'
Ray Rogers is a unique kind of fighter -- a labor organizer who says he has the timing and technique necessary to KO opponents of unions. Last November the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers' long, 17-year organizing drive against J. P. Stevens, which Rogers started engineering in 1976 , left the textile giant on the ropes -- with a brand new union contract that forbids future use of Rogers's unorthodox tactics against the company. He looks forward to more "skirmishes."Skip to next paragraph
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"It was like Muhammad Ali doing Sonny Liston," says Rogers, who is mild-mannered but not overly modest, jabbing the air in his small office suite near New York City's Union Square as he describes the Stevens victory.
"He jabbed him here and he jabbed him there, he danced around, and boom boom boom, weakened him, always knowing that he was going to come in with a final knockout blow, but he could not take his adversary head-on, he had to figure out ways to go in the back door before he could actually deal that knock-out blow."
But Rogers didn't use physical violence against Stevens -- he planned what he calls a "corporate campaign," using organized labor, the press, and other groups to pressure the sources of the company's financial capital in a carefully timed strategy aimed at disorganizing its strength as well as organizing labor. He claims this is the new look of labor struggles in the 1980s -- and last spring he started his own firm, Corporate Campaign Inc., to advise unions on how to use capital to pressure capitalists.
The next opponent: New York Air, the new low-cost non-union airline started by the heads of unionized Southwest Airlines. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) has a half-year, probably renewable, contract with Rogers for a sum he would not disclose (though he denied press reports that it was for $1 million dollars) to force New York Air to accept Southwest's union contract. Already Rogers has prevailed upon the AFL-CIO's executive council to advise its 102 unions to remove invested pension funds from New York's holding companies, major investors, creditors, and corporations represented on New York's board of directors. In 1978 he helped ALPA negotiate a settlement with Northwest Airlines using his tactics of pressuring a company's financial backers.
As a young social worker in Appalachia during the 1960s, frustrated by the inaction of government and community groups in the face of poverty and malnutrition, Rogers began reading the writings of labor organizer Saul Alinsky, which formed the basis for his belief in the importance of involving "middle Americans" with influential political and financial power, in labor struggles. His first success, an organizing drive at the clothing manufacturer Farah, utilitized a boycott to meet his ends.
Now he has a new office, a staff of about 15 (up from two permanent staff members during the Stevens compaign), calls for advice from unions and community groups around the country, and a controversial reputation with businessmen and old-line unionists alike.
The son of blue-collar parents from Massachusetts and a former VISTA worker, Rogers says his desire to "disorgaize the power structure" comes more from empathy with "the underdog" than any doctrinaire socialism.
Growing up as something of an underdog himself, he says he learned early to "fight power with power."