Distributed by California Newsreel, Order Dept., PO Box 2284, South Burlington, VT 05407; 877-811-7495 (toll free)
Produced by Alexandra Lescaze
Directed by Alexandra Lescaze
VHS, color and b&, 61 min.
Jr. High - Adult
Human Rights, African American Studies, Women's Studies
Reviewed by Patricia B. McGee, Coordinator of Media Services, Volpe Library & Media Center, Tennessee Technological University
Date Entered: 11/15/2004
Where Do You Stand? is a riveting documentary about the struggle of the textile workers of Cannon Mills to bring a union into their plant. The Cannons owned and operated the mills and Kannapolis, a quintessential company town just outside of Charlotte, NC. Workers lived in company owned homes with the company providing police and other town services. For the workers, the drive for unionization was a struggle that was about more than money. They wanted fair working conditions and to be treated with respect.
In 1934 labor unrest was widespread across southern textiles mills, but Charles A. Cannon, son of founder James W. handled the problem decisively. He employed the National Guard to protect the mills, and since Cannon owned everything, including the roads, the unionization effort was doomed. Unionizing efforts would continue in the South, but in the next election held in 1974 workers rejected unionization.
After the death of C. A. Cannon, in 1982, financier David Murdock bought the company. Murdock sold off the houses, laid off workers, doubled up on jobs, and brought in industrial engineers to evaluate workflow and to justify cutting wages. In bitter electioneering in 1985, Murdock vowed that if the company became unprofitable, he would close the mill. Two weeks after the union was again defeated, Murdock sold the mill and took the accumulated interest on the pension fund with him.
In 1986 Fieldcrest assumed control of the complex. Once again workers responded to management’s labor practices by seeking to unionize the plant. Fieldcrest’s tactics were such that the NLRB voided the election and after six years of legal battles, the court ruled that Fieldcrest had used a “scorched earth, take-no-prisoners approach to stop unionization.” Fieldcrest’s James Fitzgibbons had called on the workers to be loyal to the company; two weeks after the election Fieldcrest sold the company to Pillowtex. Once again workers rallied support for a union election; this one was to be supervised by the NLRB.
With Pillowtex management there was a change in corporate mentality. Pillowtex was unwilling to use Fieldcrest tactics, and in a 1999 NLRB supervised election the union won. The workers gained sick days, their first raise in 19 months and changes in their 401(k) plan. While a triumph for the union, at the same time other economic and social forces were creating drastic changes in the domestic textile industry. Pillowtex, burdened by excessive expansion and debt load, was totally liquidated in 2003.
This tightly crafted film, with a music soundtrack that very effectively enhances the story, includes both historical footage, TV news clips, and interviews with those who were actively involved union activities. Where Do You Stand? is an excellent tool for both classroom instruction and for public programming. The careful viewer will note how the racial and ethnic make up of the mill workforce has shifted over time from almost totally white to a more realistic reflection of today’s multicultural America, and how the number of workers employed by the Cannon complex has also decreased as the industry became even more automated and consolidated. What ultimately doomed the workers’ struggle in Cannon Mills was the changing economic climate of the 21st century. While globalization may have made it more cost effective to produce textiles abroad, the problem of protecting the welfare of the lowest paid and least skilled of America’s workforce remains unsolved. Finally, in a superb bit of irony, the Salisbury [NC] Post recently announced that David Murdock has once again purchased a piece of the former Cannon empire, a move welcomed by Kannapolis city officials.