NEW YORK —?James D. Finley, who led the former giant textile mill J.P. Stevens & Co. during a period of labor turmoil in the Seventies, died Saturday in Gulfstream, Fla., according to a published report. He was 86, according to Frank Foley, a friend of the family.
Finley was named president of Stevens in 1969, when the company was battling to prevent the former Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union, a predecessor to UNITE, from organizing its South Carolina mills. In 1977 Finley famously tried to shout down a group of about 1,500 protesters — including Coretta Scott King — who turned up at the multibillion-dollar firm’s annual meeting.
The struggle inspired the movie “Norma Rae,” which was released in 1979, the same year Finley stepped down as chairman of the company. The next year, under the leadership of Whitney Stevens, the mill reached an accord with the union and negotiated a contract.
The day that news was reported, Finley described how much the campaign had affected his life. Asked if he’d seen “Norma Rae,” he responded, “I didn’t see it…I was afraid that someone would see me. I hear it’s a good movie, but it had nothing to do with the settlement, nor did it represent Stevens Mills.”
UNITE president Bruce Raynor was a plant-level organizer for the ACTWU at the time of the Stevens campaign. He said of Finley, “He was a very tough guy and had he not left the company, I think that dispute would not have been settled.”
Textile consultant David Tracy, who worked at Stevens shortly after Finley’s retirement, said, “He got a very bad rap on the union thing. He listened to the lawyers too long, which is bad for any of us. But he was a very kind man underneath.”
Roger Milliken, chairman and chief executive of Milliken & Co., said Thursday, “It is with great sadness that I learn of the loss of another great leader of the textile industry. Jim Finley as president of Stevens made a great contribution to his important manufacturing enterprise.”
Foley, who worked for Finley and today serves as ceo of Crown Home Furnishings, said in focusing on the labor dispute, people have overlooked some of Finley’s other accomplishments as an executive.
“There was a lot more going on,” he said. “The whole process of the imports versus domestic manufacturing was starting to build.”
He noted that under Finley’s leadership, Stevens opened its first foreign operations. Finley also served as president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute from 1976 to 1977.
J.P. Stevens, which was founded in 1813, started to break up in the Eighties and Nineties. Pieces were sold off to various textile investments and the last descendant company with a direct link to the apparel industry — JPS Apparel Fabrics — closed its doors in September 2001. In 1993, the former WestPoint Pepperell acquired Stevens and today operates as a home furnishings manufacturer. It has since adopted the name WestPoint Stevens.
Stevens is survived by his wife, Nancy, and three sons, Dan, Bill and Fred, according to Foley.