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This Day in Labor History: March 29, 1965

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On March 29, 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court rules for the defendant in the case of Textile Workers Union v. Darlington Manufacturing Company. In a 7-0 ruling the Court decided that a company could close a recently unionized factory, even if it was done to bust a union. An employer could not close part of plant; that would be an unfair labor practice.

Organizing southern textiles was always extremely difficult. Beginning as early as the 1890s, northern textile manufactures began moving to the South to escape unions. In 1894, one Massachusetts company told Alabama that if the state repealed their child labor law, they’d close a plant at home and move there. The state complied. By the 1920s, capital flight was in full effect, with the kind of politics that led to the Uprising of the 20,000 and the implementation of reform after the Triangle Fire unacceptable to textile capitalists. They chose small Piedmont towns with high white populations and a culture of deference to local elites based around evangelical Protestantism. This proved quite effective, but in response to terrible working conditions and endemic poverty, revolts in 1929 and 1934 shook the industry to the core. They were also met with murderous state violence. In the aftermath of the National Labor Relations Act and the New Deal state, such direct anti-union tactics were harder to pull off, but the textile industry was determined to stay union free.

Darlington Manufactring Company ran one textile plant in South Carolina. Most of its stock was owned by a company titled Deering Milliken & Co, which was a New York based firm that sold textile made by others. Roger Milliken was president of Darlington and he and his family owned most of the stock in Deering. The Milliken family in fact directly owned 17 different textile firms under different names, with 27 overall factories. Milliken was also the man who convinced Strom Thurmond to become a Republican, so this is a special guy here.

The Textile Workers Union was a small union, struggling with the transition of the industry to the South. But they continued to try and organize the mills. In 1956, they took on Darlington. Milliken was as opposed to unionization as always. He threatened to close the mill if it unionized. But a narrow majority of workers voted to join the TWU. In response, Milliken called Darlington stockholders together and they decided to close and liquidate the mill. They moved quickly. The vote was September 6, 1956. By November, the plant was closed and all the machinery was sold at auction in December. This kind of salting the earth level unionbusting was a death knell to unions if the company could get away with it. So the TWU sued.

The TWU filed charges saying that the company had violated the National Labor Relations Act by closing the mill as retaliation and for not engaging in good faith bargaining. The main question here was how to determine what was an unfair labor practice and what was not. Was Darlington the real owner here or was it Deering Milliken? The National Labor Relations Board was divided. But it ruled that Darlington had violated the NLRA by closing the plant and that the plant was not a single-owned operation but that Deering Milliken was the true owner.

The Supreme Court completely rejected this logic when it finally decided the case in 1965. John Marshall Harlan (grandson of the more famous jurist by that name) wrote for the majority in the 7-0 decision, with Arthur Goldberg and Potter Stewart not participating. I assume that Goldberg sat this out because he had been Secretary of Labor; not sure about Stewart. They reversed the NLRB. They agreed that it would be a violation of the law if Darlington had closed one factory to bust the union. But if it wanted to shutter its entire operations, it could do so. Thus, Deering Milliken could do whatever it wanted to factories in order to bust unions so long as each factory was technically a different company.

This was a pretty devastating decision. The modern world of capitalism is one where owners have discovered all sorts of ways to limit their liability through outsourcing, subcontracting, franchising, financial tricks, shell companies, and many other methods. All of this serves to centralize power and money in just a few people and force every gain made by the working class to be a gigantic struggle. Even when a victory is achieved, the companies have many cards to play. Darlington was a moment when maybe the horrors of modern capitalism could have been nipped in the bud, where the government would hold corporations accountable for their actions and give workers a fair shake.

Alas, that is not what happened. In the aftermath, unions continued to fight to organize the southern mills and eventually even succeeded in some cases, such as the strike that led to the film Norma Rae. But by the 1980s, most of these companies decided that labor was even cheaper in Mexico, then in China, then in Bangladesh. Now we have a global race to the bottom where companies are under basically no constraints for their behavior. The Darlington case is one moment that helped create this terrible system undermining labor conditions in the United States and for the global poor exploited by this system.

This is the 305th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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