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Southern Textile Unions


The textile industry was, at one time, one of the largest industries in the south. Starting in the late 1800’s with small local looms, and spreading to become corporations who controlled the south and whose influence stretched internationally. One of the first textile industries came to Gaston County North Carolina, and its huge success led to the opening of mills across the Carolina’s and Virginia. As these industries grew they began to control more and more of its employees lives. These huge corporations were permitted to take advantage of individuals because of their inability to fight back. The employees of these mills lived in conditions resembling that of slaves before the civil war. They were worked grueling hours in inhospitable prisons called textile plants, yet were paid on average less than any other industrial worker in America. In the early twentieth century a sentiment of contempt began to grow between the laboring class and the all-powerful corporation. The masses began to push for union representation.


The importance of this industry is represented by the industries numbers. Textiles was the foundation of southern economy. In 1900 there were one hundred seventy-seven mills in North Carolina, but by the early nineteen twenties, that number had grown to over five hundred, with fifty in Gaston County alone. Textiles was a booming industry in the south. South Carolina employed only 2,053 people in the industry at the turn of the century, but by 1920 nearly 50,000 people worked in mills, one sixth of South Carolina’s population. Virginia’s textile industry grew just as quickly with the incorporation of the Riverside Cotton Mills which had only 2,240 spindles and a mere one hundred looms. By the turn of the century the mill expanded and operated 67,650 spindles and 200,000 looms. Growth seemed to continue almost exponentially until the depression set in in 1929.


It could easily be said that the depression was the cause of the ill will that the workers felt toward their employers. Although the mills seemed to be doing great, grossing sales in the billions of dollars, the working class in the mills were seeing very little of the industries success. Textile workers earned less than any other laborer, and in North Carolina average wages were the least. With the success as abundant as it was in the textile industry, it is no wonder that the laborers sought unionization since they were seeing so little of the profit at their end of the industry. In 1902 only one textile workers union had been created in Virginia was reported by the state Labor Commissioner. It had forty members, of whom none were employed (Smith 52). So, massive strikes were impossible to organize and because of this the workers had little leverage. There were still small local strikes that were mostly unsuccessful. One of which was reported in Mill on the Dan. When Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor visited Danville, Virginia where in response to their attempts to organize hoped to catalyze the endeavors. A single mill went on strike in a city that was supported by five others. The company did not compromise, and slowly the workers trickled back to their jobs. In 1929 the first notable strike broke out in Gaston County. This massive strike was preceded by a brief strike in nearby Mecklinburg County, and other smaller labor disputes in counties surrounding Gaston, but this strike, called the Loray Mill Strike, began the massive spread of unionization sentiment in the south. The year of 1929 marked the boom of the spread of unionization in the south, agitated by the success of the Loray Mill strike.
South Carolina’s, as well as Virginia’s industry executives were fearing the spread of this push for ionization would spread across North Carolina’s borders and into their states. Their fears were not unwarranted. The last major labor battle in textile south was in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina between pro-union laborers and the J. P. Stevens Company where workers joined the TWUA (Textile Workers Union of America) and soon merged with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union of America to form ACTWU (the Alma gated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of America) creating a union giant with over 400,000 members. Soon afterward nearly all of the south's textile corporations were unionized. From 1929 when the TWUA was first formed to 1976 when the ACWU and the TWUA merged, over 140,000 textile workers had joined the union. Why did the union gain support so rapidly? Their were several factors which led to the expedience of expansion.


First of all, leadership was a major issue in the growth of the union. “A new whisper rose in Gaston county and throughout the South, the voice of labor leadership asking concessions from the employees” (Cope and Wellman 163). Labor leadership had arose, but because of the terrible conditions workers had to endure it wasn’t very difficult for the leaders to carry the masses into the unavoidable labor battle. History has proven that any oppressed people can by persuaded to rise up with the aide of proficient leadership. Hitler’s rise to power is but one example among many. The civil rights movement is another headed by Martin Luther King Jr. and Booker T. Washington. The rise of the working class in Russia under the leadership of Lenin and Stalin is still another. The textile workers in the south are no exception. They were oppressed by the overpowering executive giants who controlled their lives. As the industry had grown, mill towns sprang up. These villages were built by the mills, and housed its laborers. At first these towns seemed to create a healthy symbiotic relationship between the employees and their employers, but these mill towns weren’t the free housing and free living utopia’s they were marketed as. These people of these towns began to resemble the plantation houses and surrounding slave houses during the period of slavery in American history. Much like the slaves the textile workers worked in trade for housing and food. The mills offered a paycheck, but they also offered a line of credit at a mill owned store which was then deducted from the individuals paycheck. Rent was also deducted. There were cases when workers came home with only a few cents left on their checks after deductions were made. This relationship does not seem beneficial to the worker, but it worked under the close bonds of local ownership. One small time mill owner, when strikes began to pop up, noted that, “Last winter, when the snow was on the ground and times were hard, we took care of our employees, and they appreciate it; they’re not going back on us at this time” (Cope and Wellman 164). However, as more and more mills became incorporated and workers lost touch with their employers, these serine conditions in the mill towns changed to conflict. One conversation in Rise Going to Rise is a testament to the new conditions.


“We’ve been working all our lives in the cotton mill, and you [the speaker’s wife] can’t take no moe. I just wish they’d get somebody up in there that’s got enough sense to run the mill without trying to push the help to death…I’m gonna retire” (28).

The wife’s response to this statement was simply, “He says he’s gonna quit, but he ain’t. It’s his life” (28). The industry heads intended to keep these people in this slave like position. They paid them little so that they couldn’t save up money to leave and even used threats to deep workers in the mills. One worker said,
“It was a stinking job. I got paid minimum wage. Two dollars and something…My supervisor told me, ‘you’d better do a good job and you’d better not quit because you won’t get another job anywhere if you do.’”

She asked him why, and the only response he could think of was “Because we need a spinner” (Conway 92). One employee possible characterized the mill best when he called ti a “sweatshop, slave prison” (Hall 187)
The villiages were in as bad a shape as the the treatment of the workers. In Like a Family the author found a study of the cotton mill villiages conducted by the government. The report was not commendable.


“Piedmont farmers who moved to the mill village found much of what they had come for – regular pay, easier work, and familiar surroundings- yet at a cost they could not have foreseen. At first, it was heaven to them to work in the mills and draw a payday, however small. But drawing a payday did not always lead to a better life, partly because of the condition in the factory villages. The smaller villages and those in the country are often primitive in the extreme…Larger villages, particularly those located in urban areas and owned by sizable corporations, boasted of grated roads…But these communities were the exceptions not the rule…Villages are dirty and streets unkept, and the very sight of the village is a horror.”

Workers lived in these conditions and worked in prisons. They worked in factories that had no windows and were surrounded by barb-wire fences. The executives had been able to push the work day to an average of twelve hours, while the law prohibited an individual to work over ten. The executives found loopholes in the labor laws, and by doing so employed children, working them up to even fifteen hours a day. Knowing all this, the motivation of the workers is obvious: they wanted change, and a better life. This motivation was but one of the reasons the TWUA spread so quickly. However, motivation alone was not enough to create change. Without a union to back them, the workers could do little about this outright oppression. These horrible conditions were but one of the reasons that the spread of the TWUA was such a rapid growth. In conditions like this people are willing to do anything. They are much more motivated to create change and at every oppurtunity they took advantage of anything they could to benefit themselves and to decrease the powers of the textile giants who controlled their lives. All they actually needed was for the oppurtunities to present themselves.


The TWUA had much help, but until they found their leaders who organized the masses of willing people, their mere desires and hopes were useless. This leadership came in many forms and from many different people. Each single battle or strike seemed to have its own organizers. Without these organizers nothing would have happened. It seemed that the people were reluctant to join unions for fears of fulfilled threats. However, organizers persisted. For various reasons, from political asperations to simple human kindness, leaders steped up and exited workers into unionization. The executives at a Virginia mill noted that, “The union has held quite a number of meetings, to some extent coercive measures [have been] adopted, in order to get the operatives into the union” (Smith 51), and even President Fitzgerald himself noted that, “It is true that in many instances the nefarious influence of the prefessional agitator has found fertile soil in the American workman’s brain…” (Smith 264). These proffesional agitators as Fitzgerald caled them were the men who stepped up to protect the workers rights. However, Fitzgerald does seem to give these men a negative connotation but this was more than likely because of the fact that he was an executive at the Fitzgerald and Ray Co. (Smith 265). Robert Walsh was one of these “political agitators.” As a member of the National Workers Labor Board (NWLB), pushed the workers to “organize your unions, strong and liberal, fearless and far-seeking,” and to push “until there will remain not one wage earner in the country deprive of full voice in determining the cinditions of his job…” (Hall 186). Walsh could have possibly started single-handedly the influx of workers into unions. The event that marked the turning point of the battle betwwen the companies and the small unions began in columbus, Georgia. A mill in that area fired employees who recently joined a local branch of the TWUA, and as a result a strike incurred. Walsh prompted the NWLB to intervene on the workers behalf. The NWLB set up laws pertaining to that particular mill which forced the company to abolish contracts prohibiting its employees to join unions. Although these laws only pertained to that individual mill, the success achieved spread new hope in union throughout the south. After the WWI, when American men who had given up their jobvs to their wives during war time, came home expecting better conditions. Along with these expectations came a new mentality to fight for them. The TWUA which was founded in 1901 in the northern New England mills gained 70, 000 members in the years following the war (Hall 186). With the unions new found strength a seris of strikes traversed the south between 1919 and 1921, flowing like a wave and changing the face of employer-employee relatiuonships. The wave began on the outskirts of textile mill concentrations. In columbus, South Carolina the union striked in selected mills. They’re demands were recognition and a fourty-eight hour work week. The TWUA now centered on North Carolina. One hundred and fifty workers walked out after their weekly pay was cut in half when the war-time bonus was dropped. They called for union support and the next day the TWUA banner was behind them as Highlands #1 plant striked as well. Rather than negotiate the company closed both plants. The Governoer of North Carolina, Thomas bicket also played a part in the spread of unionization. Bicket outlawed discrimination in hiring on the bases of “organazation affiliation.” The Union also reached a compromise. The plants were reopened to a work week less five hours, yet an unchanged pay rate. This union success only instogated union growth even further. Within a few weeks these standards spread to mills in Belmont Concord and Connapolis (Hall 189). Southern textile workers had finally begun to see what the union represented and as laws were created to prohibite discrimination because of union affiliation, it was easier and less risky for employees to sign the union card. By the end of 1919 the TWUA had recognized 45,000 members in the Crolina’s alone (Hall 194-196).


The union fight fell off during the depression as mill owners simply could not afford to meet strikers demands, and when strikes did occur plants simply shut down and owners were happy not to have to run all winter long at a loss. However, by 1927 the union flame reignited. In henderson, North Carolina a walkout began the resurgence of the TWUA. Although the strike failed with threats of evictions, it did gain the TWUA eight hundered members.


The hardest of the unions battles were yet to be fought. In 1929 violent strikes broke out. Unsatisfied employees were fighting against the “strech-out” policy of the mills. This policy layed off individuals and forced larger work loads on the remaining workers. First, Elizabethton, Tenesse walked out. After the Sherriff, J. M. Moreland, a major unionest backer was forced out of office and a local businessman who supported the TWUA was forced into submission by “tricky lawmakers,” the strike was ended with none of the original resolutions met (Hall 214). Soon afterward, another violent strike broke out in Gaston County North Carolina. “Gaston County epitomized the phenomenal wartime growth of the southern textile industry, as well as its postwar instability” (Hall 214). This was probably the most violent strike in the history of the textile workers battle. The strike ended with the plice chief dead, a leading unionist shot in the back, looting of union buildings conducted be police organization, and the State militia intervening on behalf of the mill. The strike feel with their leader’s death, the aquital of her killers, and a conviction of seven union members for the killing of the police chief. Another such battle in Marion, North Carolina stopped before it started. The company expected the strike and when the picketers arrived, the sheriff and his deputies were waiting. The thrrew tear gas at them and when they turned to run they were shot in the back. It was later found out that the shooters had a list of men to kill and aimed specificly at them, the strike leaders (Hall 217). This wave of strikes was largly unsuccesful, but because of the extreme measures used to break the strikes it was obvious that they were effective and supported. With the noteriety theat came with these extreme cases the role of the TWUA and the voice of unionism spread. In 1930, the Dan River Mills (Dan River, North Carolina), the largest textile company in the south began its struggles. The vice-president of the TWUA went to the city, and hoping for support fromt eh AFL poured all of the unions recources into the workers. However, as the AFL did not provide support the strike withered away. In 1932 hoseriy workers in High Point, North Carolina walked out. They demanded and end to wage cuts and a few days later 15,000 other textile workers striked beside them (Hall 218). The union was steadily spreading, but it had not wet reached its peak yet.


Betwwen the years of 1933 and 1934, the federal government finally stepped in on the workers’ side. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s new deal laws were extablished to protect the workers rights. A minimum wage was established and child labor was outlawed. However, in actuality, this had little effect on the lives of the workers. The little money that the workers made by the national minimum wage increase was taken back by the mills by raising the price of rent, workers were still evicted for joining unions (only excuses were used instead of reasons). However, dispite all of this the union had its largest growth ever: from 40,000 members in September 1933 to 270,000 members in August of 1934 (Hall 304). With the ineffectiveness of the NIRA, the workers were outraged. The President of one local branch of the union asked for federal help before, as he wrote it, “WE HAVE TO CALL OUR UNION MEMBERS TO ARMS AGAINST THIS FORDED TAIL EVAIL” (Hall 307). The enraged unioneasts striked across the region again in 1933, much like those on 1929.


Along with the NIRA the New Deal releif programs for the unemloyed also helped the stikers. Strikers were garunteed releif when they went on strike. Also, other New Deal programs were created. Discrimination because of union affiliation was prohibited. However, workers were still evictd for joining unions. (Hall 300-301). A native of the Graniteville Mill in South carolina said that “she had never joined a union, for reasons that to her seemed the essence of common sence” (Hall 306).
“’There was no union whatever in Graniteville S.C. before the National Industrial Recovery act was make law as the Employers would not allow ti… they would discharge anyone who joined a Union, but after the Law was passed and put in effect, we thought that we would be protected by the Federal Government [and] that no Employer could discharge any worker becau7se they joined a Union of their own choosing.’ On June 19, 1933, just three days after roosevelt signed the NIRA, she paid her dues and became a full member of the TWUA… On August 8 the second hand got orders to fire her on the grounds that she couln’t keep up her work. If her work had not been satifactory, she concluded, they would have fired her long before. They ‘discharged me for joining the Union.’” (Hall 306-307)