Labor organizer Ray Rogers:; 'fighting power with power'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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."

"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."

Recommended: Baseball fans: Take a quick tour of all 30 major league ballparks

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."

"One of the best things that ever happened to me was that I had the living daylights beaten out of me by a bully."

Punching at the air again, the burly Rogers describes how, as a sickly child, he took up weight lifting and trained to fight.

"I was so scared stiff for three years," he says of those childhood bullies, "and it never happened to me again" after he finally stood up to them and made them run away.

"The only thing that might really rile me up, and it does rile me up, is for somebody -- unless they're a lot smaller and then it doesn't work, or there's more than one -- to come up to me and say, 'You're gonna do as we say' . . . and I don't care if there are 100 people there, I'm not gonna do it, and I'm not gonna run."

The same qualities of self-discipline and will that Rogers put into training himself to fight and overcome physical weakness is evident in his organizing work -- in what he says is often a seven-day, sometimes 12-hour-a-day, workweek.

His drive also shows itself in an ability to orchestrate a broad coalition of people and interests, as he did in the Stevens campaign.

"I've taken some people that would really like to come to heads with each other. You get the people together, you get them in a winning program, you get them working . . . you don't have time to fight among one another. . . .

"I think a lot of organizers make the mistake of rushing out and trying to get people to change their whole life styles for what they think is such an important issue. Me, no matter what the issue is, I view everybody as a little building block and I just want to get a little piece of their time, and by taking this huge force of little commitments I make one big powerful force."

Rogers thinks many labor unions today lack the qualities of a fighting movement, resorting to legal suits and demonstrations without any ongoing strategy.

"The reason I came up with this whole idea [of corporate campaigns] . . . is that I got so fed up with seeing community groups and unions build a demonstration and that was the beginning and end of their conceptualized strategy . . . unless it was to prepare for a bigger demonstration. . . .

"I hope I will be showing the unions during the coming year the kinds of strategy that's necessary to challenge the corporate and financial structures," says Rogers of his plans for a corporate campaign aimed at New York Air.

During the Stevens campaign, Rogers helped forge a coalition of unions, church groups, students, and others to pressure banks and insurance companies providing Stevens with necessary credit. They used shareholder meetings and elections, as well as publicity, demonstrations, and union investments, to challenge the companies' financial support of Stevens.

"Most people even today don't realize what really happened in the Stevens campaign," Rogers claims. "Most people only viewed them [successes in pressuring Steven's creditors] as isolated, they never viewed them in the context of an overall strategy that had a beginning A and an end Z."

He credits careful assessment and long-range planning for the success of his strategy. Rogers says that in 1976 he determined the major sources of Steven's credit, and he began to make the Stevens account more trouble than it was worth for these financial backers.

The union did not always follow his unorthodox advice, and he left it for a time in 1977. But his publicity campaigns, demonstrations, and organizing of investors and sympathetic activist groups, all targeted at prominent companies or investors, had an effect. Rogers claims that his threat to lead a costly contest in Metropolitan Life's shareholder elections was the final catalyst to last November's settlement -- which came after some last-minute moves by Metropolitan Life chairman Richard Shinn.

"The union will never admit it, Stevens will never admit it to the press, Metropolitan Life will never direct it to the press, but I know what happened -- I know that Stevens was threatened to have its credit lines cut off."

Whatever Roger's unsubstantiated claims, J. P. Stevens did insist on a clause in the new union contract prohibiting workers from using corporate campaign tactics against it in the future. He proudly points to this sharp prohibition as proof that his methods work.

"What I did is I took the power, all the power that Stevens had behind it, and I broke it down into segments that we could deal with, that we could confront and defeat. . . ."

Rogers says that business today is more dependent on credit and the political climate, and powerful financial institutions behind business are susceptible to both popular pressure and the influence of billions of dollars in union pension fund accounts. He says that he intends to take advantage of this credit and investment connection (which he terms the "Achilles' heel" of business) to use capital in the interests of what he sees as powerless people -- minorities and workers.

Because banking and financial structures are still centered in highly unionized areas like New York City, he sees union pressure on capital as a way to protect organizing efforts in Sunbelt states more antagonistic to unions.

Rogers's critics, found in both labor and business, claim that in his new capacity as a professional, free-lance organizer, he aims mainly to make money and a name for himself.

They note that his new case, New York Air, involves a highly paid profession (airline pilots) which is not as popular a cause as the Southern textile workers at Stevens.

Rogers admits that he will have to rely more heavily on a boycott campaign than he did at Stevens. Picketing by union airline workers has already started at airports serviced by New York Air, as has a mailing campaign and publicity drive. With AFL-CIO support, financial pressure on New York Air has begun.

As for his own salary, he said he is paid $425 a week by his corporation, consisting of himself and his assistant, Ed Allen. Any profits, Rogers says, will be plowed back into future campaign efforts and free aid to community and labor organizers. He would not specify these future efforts, but says he does have plans if the New York Air drive is successful.

He's fighting to see that it is.

"You take any antiunion organizer from out there, and I don't care, I'll take him on. . . . But what we do isn't easy . . . I can only say what I say to my mom all the time. I say, 'Ma, quite frankly I may fall on my face . . . but there's no question I believe that I've developed some concepts . . . that must be adopted if the underdog in society is ever going to have a chance, to create that dispersion of power.'

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...