March 11, 2005

Cornellians View Union Film

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Last night, Bruce Raynor ’72, president of the UNITE-HERE union and Cornell University trustee, spoke following a screening of the new documentary Where Do You Stand?, which was shown to a nearly-filled 105 Ives. The film, produced and directed by Alexandra Lescaze, a former union organizer, chronicles the 25-year struggle of textile workers of Kannapolis, North Carolina to form a union.

The film follows the organizing campaign of the mill workers, from its roots in the early 1970s, through approximately five union elections, to the ultimate closing of the mill in 2003. The union organizers persisted through strong employer opposition, illegal terminations, company propaganda and a divided workforce, and ultimately won their campaign on June 23, 1999. However the union victory is a brief one, as the film quickly turned bittersweet when the mill closed on June 30, 2003 due to the declining financial state of the company brought on by the increase in importation of inexpensive foreign textiles. According to Raynor, “The best thing about this film is that the filmmaker let the workers tell their own story.”

The documentary includes many interviews with the mill workers who experienced the campaign from start to finish, and spoke to the workers’ persistence throughout much adversity.

The film showed the emotional ups and downs of the workers as they put exceptional effort into the union campaign, entered optimistically into each secret-ballot election, ultimately lost, and then had to return to the same low-paying, fast-paced jobs.

In response to the struggle faced by the Kannapolis workers and the limited legal protection afforded to workers, Patrick Young ’06, member of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA), responded that “after seeing that, it’s astonishing that anyone tries to start a union anymore.”

Following the approximately hour-long screening of the film, Bruce Raynor offered the floor to questions from the audience. Questions ranged from specifics regarding certain illegal tactics of employers during the union campaigning, to Raynor’s hopes for the future of the labor movement.

During the discussion, Raynor focused on the National Labor Relations Board’s failure to protect workers rights. Raynor put forth his opinions about how to remedy this problem. Among those mentioned were an “immediate way to redress unfair labor practices” and increased penalties for disobeying the National Labor Relations Act. Employers found guilty of unfair labor practices often only have to post a notice at the workplace outlining the unfair labor practice.

During the discussion over employer hostility to unionization, Raynor touched upon UNITE-HERE’s current campaign to unionize the employees of uniform supplier Cintas. While Cintas has responded to union activity with employee termination and shift restructuring, Raynor is certain that “Cintas workers will win. It may take us three to four years, it won’t take us 25,” as it did for the mill workers.

Raynor played an integral part in bringing the film to campus. He said that the film is important because it shows students the “ability, integrity and power of the working people,” the “problems workers have when they try to organize in our society,” and the threat that globalization poses to employment in America.

Ed Yoo ’06 enjoyed the film and found it “telling of the future of the American workers and workplace.” He was especially impressed with Bruce Raynor and described him as “one of the most progressive labor leaders out there.”

Prof. Kate Bronfenbrenner ’76, director of labor education research, was very pleased with the event, saying that the “turnout was wonderful” and the students did a great job of organizing the event. She felt that the message of the film was extremely important, “not just about worker’s organizing but corporate restructuring and the complete failure of American labor laws to protect the rights of workers.”

The film recently won a CINE Golden Eagle award for excellence in film and video, and is being shown intermittently throughout the country. In his talk, Raynor added that his union is doing as much as it can to get the film shown in the Southern textile towns.

Yesterday’s film screening coincided with Raynor’s longstanding interest in speaking to members of Cornell’s activist and labor communities during his annual visits to campus. In addition to the movie screening, he spoke to classes regarding his personal experiences in organizing and the current state of labor in America.

This event was co-sponsored by Labor Education Research, the Kheel Center for Labor Management Documentation & Archives, and COLA.

Archived article by Katie Pollack
Sun Contributor