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Subject: James Finley, Textile Executive


Author:
Florida
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Date Posted: April 10, 2003 7:44:08 EDT

James D. Finley, a textile executive who led the giant J. P. Stevens & Company for 14 years, steering it through some of the industry's most intense labor disputes, died on Saturday in Gulfstream, Fla. He was 86.

The cause was a heart attack, his wife, Nancy, said.

Mr. Finley was chairman of J. P. Stevens from 1965 to 1979, a time when the growth of imports presented a challenge to American clothing manufacturers. In the mid-1970's, Stevens was the nation's second-largest textile maker, with more than $1 billion in annual sales and 44,000 employees working in 85 plants. It made sheets, carpets and hosiery, among other things, and its products were sold under brand names like Fruit of the Loom.

Mr. Finley spent his career in New York, the site of Stevens's corporate headquarters, but grew up in the same part of the country as the clothing factories he later oversaw. His father was a farmer in Jackson, Ga.. and Mr. Finley set his high school's record for scoring the most points in a basketball game, a son, James D. Finley Jr., said.

After studying engineering at Georgia Tech, Mr. Finley worked briefly for Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Akron, Ohio, where he met his wife, and then entered the Army as a lieutenant. During World War II, he served under Robert T. Stevens, whose family still ran the textile business it had started in 1813.

"Mr. Stevens was his colonel in the Army and liked him and asked him to come work for him," Mrs. Finley said. Mr. Finley accepted the offer in 1945 and spent the rest of his career at J. P. Stevens, rising to become the first person outside the family to run the company.

Stevens became famous for its long battle with a predecessor of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. The union began trying to organize workers in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., in the early 1960's and eventually won an election there in 1974, which was depicted in the 1979 movie "Norma Rae."

But Stevens managers and the union could not agree on a contract, and the union, knowing that the company was big enough to move its operations, did not strike. Instead, labor leaders stressed what they said was the company's long record of intimidating workers and denying them the right to form a union. Stevens lost many cases before the National Labor Relations Board.

"As long as we've got J. P. Stevens, we'll never really succeed in organizing the South," James Sala, an A.F.L.-C.I.O. official, said at the time. "Not because of textiles, but because of the example it sets for this kind of resistance."

Mr. Finley and other executives responded that the unions had lost almost every election held at the company and called the votes a sign that workers did not want to be unionized. The union, Mr. Finley said, was "deliberately, ruthlessly and without mercy trying to destroy" Stevens.

As part of their effort to emphasize the company's record, union leaders in the late 70's called for a boycott of Stevens products and began attending the annual meetings of other companies on whose boards Mr. Finley sat. The criticism led to his resignation from the boards of Manufacturers Hanover and New York Life Insurance.

Mr. Finley stepped down as Stevens chief executive and chairman in 1979. He was succeeded by his longtime deputy, Whitney Stevens, a descendant of the founder.

The next year, the company and the union came to a collective-bargaining agreement covering 10 plants, but the deal did not stem a long-term decline in union membership across the country. The company no longer exists; many of its operations were bought by other companies.

In addition to his wife and his son James of Rumson, N.J., Mr. Finley is survived by two other sons, William G., of Charlotte, N.C., and Fred B., of Palm City, Fla.; as well as five grandchildren and one great-grandson.


James D. Finley in 1979

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