Phil Cohen War Stories: That Time I Went Toe-to-Toe with The Ku Klux Klan…

First published in Work-Bites  https://www.work-bites.com/

Cornelius, North Carolina is located between Statesville and Charlotte. The small towns in this region have long been a Klan stronghold. During 1987, a Foamex plant in Cornelius signed a union contract with ACTWU (currently named Workers United.) The driving force among employees throughout the organizing campaign had been three Klansmen who worked as mechanics.

While on the surface this sounds like a political and social contradiction, consider this: Most Klan members are working people who don’t like being pushed around. The three in question correctly chose the union as a way to stand up to management. They were subsequently elected to lead Local 2500 and then proceeded to represent only the white half of the workforce. Within five years, the situation had degenerated into a state of utter chaos and resentment.

During 1992, I was assigned as an international representative to ACTWU’s Central North Carolina District. Directly to the south was the Rock Hill District, which included Cornelius. The union’s Southern director made an executive decision to move Local 2500 into my district so I could be inserted to break the Klan’s stranglehold and do an internal rebuild.

On a warm spring morning, I pulled off Highway 85 at the Cornelius exit and headed down a maze of two-lane roads searching for the plant. After traveling through miles of farmland, I entered a rundown industrial community and immediately sensed the potential for rage and violence on its streets.

Foamex, as the name implies, was in the business of manufacturing foam. A security guard opened a heavy metal door leading to the work area. I found myself surrounded by chemical tanks towering above, with absolutely no idea where to go. Two of the Klansmen, dressed in maintenance uniforms, stepped out from behind the tanks to introduce themselves: Mill Chair James Harlan and President Buddy Coltrane. Though only in his early forties, James’ head was bald on top, encircled by a thin ring of white hair. He embodied the old-South persona and spoke with a heavy drawl. Buddy was wiry with an all bone-and-muscle physique. Both were polite and friendly as they escorted me on a plant tour.

Foam manufacturing was the most fascinating industrial process I’d ever witnessed. Chemicals from the various tanks flowed through pipes into long, waist high metal troughs, depositing a shallow river of fluid that within moments mushroomed into blocks of foam several feet tall.

Conveyor belts transported hundred foot-long sections of foam for further processing and then to various machines where they were cut to customer specifications.

That afternoon I experienced my first grievance meeting at Foamex, flanked by the Shop Committee and business agent I was replacing. Four members of management sat facing us, seated at a table twenty feet away on the opposite side of the conference room.

Internal rebuilds were one of my primary responsibilities at the time, so I’d met my share of incompetent union reps. But Melvin Underwood was in a league of his own. A moment after the announcement of each grievance, he began shouting arguments at management without offering any legal or contractual basis. The human resource director responded in kind and they frequently interrupted each other.

Wiping spittle from the corner of his mouth, Melvin departed immediately after the last case was presented. I requested a caucus and received the Committee’s consent to talk candidly and off-the-record with management.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” I said once management was seated. “That was such a ridiculous spectacle, I was embarrassed to be sitting on my side of the table. Those days are over. I have zero tolerance for unprofessional behavior from either side. The purpose of grievances is to try to resolve legitimate issues. If that’s not possible, we can fight with each other in arbitration. I can guarantee I’ll always come to the table prepared. Each party will get to have their say without being cut off.”

Management was so stunned they just stared at me for a minute with blank eyes before agreeing to this unimagined approach.

James stayed behind and invited me home for dinner. He lived alone in a tiny mill house surrounded for blocks by similar structures. He explained the mill chair was the top officer in Local 2500 and he’d by my primary contract. James told me Melvin’s style of representation was to take every grievance to the top level, huffing and puffing all the way, and then not follow through. The local currently had fifty cases in limbo.

It felt like productive introductions had been achieved and exhaustion began descending upon me. As James continued talking, I lay back on his couch. Suddenly, there was a loud knock on the door. A tall, burly man accompanied by Buddy entered the living room. The imposing gentleman was shop steward Lloyd Bishop, completing the Klan trio. He immediately began screaming at me, “Where the hell do you get off taking us out of the Rock Hill District without letting us vote on it?!”

“It wasn’t my decision,” I told them. “I’m just a soldier and go where I’m sent. If you don’t like how things were handled, call the Atlanta office. But that said, have you really been satisfied with the representation you’ve been receiving?”

I felt not only displeasure but hatred emanating from the two men looming over me. The real issue wasn’t administrative. They sensed big changes were coming.  Engulfed by fatigue and lying on my back, I was not tactically well positioned. But part of an organizer’s job description involves being able to engage in conflict without notice under any circumstance. I held my own for two hours responding to endless loop arguments before James’ visitors finally departed and I could check into the Days Inn.

My assignment spanned North Carolina and included several hot zones but I made a point of visiting this outlying local twice a month. Management, delighted to be dealing with a rational representative, worked with me from the onset to resolve grievances. They were part of a tough bargaining, but not anti-union corporation.

James Harlan underwent a remarkable conversion, inspired by a combination of my influence and joining a new church that preached against racism.  He broke from the Ku Klux Klan and embraced the obligation of representing all union members equally. This was easier said than done in a community where children were born and bred into the Klan. It was equivalent to resigning from the Mafia, and put one in the crosshairs of former friends. We worked together to transform the local, understanding it meant neutralizing the influence of his former comrades. James took me into his confidence about Lloyd Bishop, whose primary vocation was bootlegging. He was reputed to be a notorious knife fighter who had killed five men.

The union hall was located in an old, dingy cement-block building owned by the Veterans Administration. Lloyd and Buddy attended the monthly meetings, standing to scream accusations at me and James for refusing to enforce nonexistent contract language. Both resented their control of the local being challenged.

During November, James informed me his two former colleagues had requested a 9 p.m. meeting at the union hall following an upcoming grievance meeting. The local rented a small office adjoining a larger meeting area.

I left the Days Inn at 8:45 on the appointed evening and drove a short distance to the rendezvous. The weathered, musty building was situated amid a half mile of barren field in every direction. I headed slowly down a bumpy dirt driveway toward the parking area, fully aware that an ugly confrontation was about to unfold in the perfect place for an ambush.

I entered the building and found all three me men standing in the small office. I took a seat behind the desk, directly facing Lloyd and Buddy at about seven yards. James was positioned at an oblique angle halfway in between. The tension in the room was so thick that if someone had struck a match, the whole place would have lit up in flames like kerosene.

My two adversaries launched into their inevitable tirade, complaining how James and I were now running the local and pushing them off to the side. What did you expect, morons, I thought to myself. That’s exactly what I was sent here to do. But I remained calm and explained it wasn’t my doing that aggrieved workers now sought representation from James because he understood the contract and offered equal representation to all.

“Now there’s a bunch of bullshit!” bellowed Lloyd. “Buddy and me been representing people in this local long before you ever showed up. This is discrimination, plain and simple! We want you the hell out of here so things can go back to how they were. Put us back in Rock Hill, you son of a bitch!”

As the engagement spiraled downward, I noted Buddy’s hand twitching within a thigh pocked of his hunting trousers. Lloyd and James both had one hand resting on their hip beneath an open jacket. I was carrying a .38 special in a shoulder holster, taking in the room to see whose hand would move first. Time slowed and began unfolding in freeze frames. I knew that, if necessary, James was prepared to step in front of a bullet to protect me. There’s no explaining how I knew  someone who’s never been in a similar situation. But even as I sit here decades later and write about it, tears still come to my eyes.

I finally managed to talk my adversaries through their objections, pretending to understand everything yet promising nothing. The meeting broke at midnight with an uneasy round of handshakes.

“Wanna come back with us to drink some likka?” offered Lloyd, pausing in the doorway.  I said that while I’d enjoy nothing more, I had to get up early and travel across the state to another local.

In retrospect, this had been the closest I’ve ever come to a shootout at the OK Corral: heavily armed opponents squaring off in close quarters with no place for cover. But it demonstrated to the Klansmen that James and I weren’t intimidated. Over the coming years, they gradually quieted their rhetoric, stopped coming to meetings, and accepted the inevitable. I successfully represented Buddy in arbitration regarding an unjust suspension and that smoothed the waters between us. Lloyd was eventually terminated for stealing maintenance supplies.

During the spring of 2010, I was walking with James through his neighborhood after returning from our dinner at a local restaurant. He suddenly told me wait where I was and walked across the street to speak with a man in a pickup truck.

“You’ll never guess who that was,” said James upon returning. “That was Lloyd Bishop.”

“You’re kidding me.  I’m surprised you’re still friends.”

“Not really friends, but we do run into each other around town and talk sometimes. He says if he ever sees you again, he’s gonna kill you.”

“Some things are easier said than done,” I told him.

Phil Cohen spent 30 years in the field as Special Projects Coordinator for Workers United/SEIU, and specialized in defeating professional union busters.  He’s the author of Fighting Union Busters in a Carolina Carpet Mill and The Jackson Project: War in the American Workplace

 Contact Phil at  pc1@bellsouth.net