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Should the U.S. Have Entered World War I?

[ 193 ] April 6, 2017 |


100 years ago today, the United States entered World War I. The historian Michael Kazin argues that this was a disaster. I don’t per se disagree, but I’m not really comfortable with the reasons.

How would the war have ended if America had not intervened? The carnage might have continued for another year or two until citizens in the warring nations, who were already protesting the endless sacrifices required, forced their leaders to reach a settlement. If the Allies, led by France and Britain, had not won a total victory, there would have been no punitive peace treaty like that completed at Versailles, no stab-in-the-back allegations by resentful Germans, and thus no rise, much less triumph, of Hitler and the Nazis. The next world war, with its 50 million deaths, would probably not have occurred.

The foes of militarism in the United States had tried to prevent such horrors. Since the war began, feminists and socialists had worked closely with progressive members of Congress from the agrarian South and the urban Midwest to keep America out. They mounted street demonstrations, attracted prominent leaders from the labor and suffrage movements, and ran antiwar candidates for local and federal office. They also gained the support of Henry Ford, who chartered a ship full of activists who crossed the Atlantic to plead with the heads of neutral nations to broker a peace settlement.

They may even have had a majority of Americans on their side. In the final weeks before Congress declared war, anti-militarists demanded a national referendum on the question, confident voters would recoil from fighting and paying the bills so that one group of European powers could vanquish another.

Once the United States did enter the fray, Wilson, with the aid of the courts, prosecuted opponents of the war who refused to fall in line. Under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, thousands were arrested for such “crimes” as giving speeches against the draft and calling the Army “a God damned legalized murder machine.”

The intervention led to big changes in America, as well as the world. It began the creation of a political order most citizens now take for granted, even as some protest against it: a state equipped to fight war after war abroad while keeping a close watch on allegedly subversive activities at home.

I certainly agree that the U.S. entering World War I led to a lot of disasters internally, including the crack down on political liberties and radicalism, as Kazin discusses, plus the rise of national prohibition, the closing of immigration in the years after the war, and the Red Scare. And I don’t really think the U.S. entering the war really accomplished much at all, except for killing a lot of Americans but probably also saving the lives of more Europeans. But on the international stage, I am less comfortable with this. First, we can’t know that the U.S. not entering the war would somehow have led to a more equitable peace agreement if the Allies had eventually won. While I suppose we can argue that World War II would not have happened precisely when and where it happened and that it’s really hard to imagine a situation more disastrous than that of Hitler, we also can’t know if it would have been that much better and if you believe, as I do, that individual events are not often all that determinative, probably something like a second world war probably would have happened at some point, with unknown consequences. Moreover, Kazin completely leaves out the Russian surrender after the revolution, which could have led to a German victory and a lot of bad consequences. And how many people might have died if there wasn’t a total victory? Would this have just been the latest of a series of seemingly endless wars?

In short, Kazin makes way too many assumptions about the impact of U.S. intervention on the international stage, even as I largely agree with him about domestic impacts.


Quadruple Distilled Cynicism

[ 61 ] April 6, 2017 |

You almost have to give McConnell credit for being arguably the single most cynical politician in American history. He makes Gingrich look like a piker. In recent decades, I suppose George Wallace and Richard Nixon are in the ballpark and of course in the long sweep of American history there are people like John C. Calhoun. But it’s pretty impressive.

Of course, it’s good that the filibuster is dead for the Supreme Court. This is good for Democrats in the long term and there was no political benefit to keep the powder dry.

Midterm Turnout

[ 188 ] April 5, 2017 |


The idea that Democrats are bad at midterm turnout doesn’t really hold water. What holds water is that the party in power is bad at midterm turnout. There is some effect of Democrats having slightly lower voting generally because of who Democrats are, but it’s overstated. Unfortunately, our short memories on political history vastly overstate recent elections, time and time again. So it’s not surprising that early special elections at the state level are showing vast increases in Democratic percentage of the vote, but it is encouraging nonetheless.

Good Choices from Unions Past

[ 25 ] April 4, 2017 |


The Washington Post, October 24, 1980:

The executive board of the militant organization that represents the nation’s aerial traffic cops has endorsed Ronald Reagan for the presidency. Robert D. Poli, head of the 14,500-member Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, met with Reagan yesterday in Florida.

PATCO’s leaders charge that President Carter has mismanaged the federal civil service, and has ignored what the union says are serious safety problems that jeopardize the country’s air traffic control system.

PATCO is the exclusive bargaining agent for all 17,000 controllers. It is considered one of the most aggressive of all government unions. Federal Aviation Administration brass have charged that PATCO is preparing for a strike next year during the big Easter vacation travel period. FAA cited a 110-page memo — which it calls a “blueprint” on how to run a strike — that PATCO sent regional officials earlier this year. Details of the memo were outlined here Oct. 5. Strikes against the government are illegal. PATCO members in the past have been involved in work-to-rule actions and sick-outs that slowed air traffic.

The union says controllers are over-worked and underpaid, and that the administration has let safety equipment deteriorate to dangerous levels. Poli charged that Carter had “consistently denigrated federal employes” and supported plans to cut back on retirement benefits for U.S. workers. Reagan says he opposes the White House plan to eliminate one of the two cost-of-living raises that federal and military retirees get. Poli said PATCO’s nin-member board, which endorsed Reagan unanimously, has been assured that the California governor would provide the best leadership for federal workers, and improve the state of the air traffic control system.”

The best leadership. Good choice guys. Good choice.

“We’re here to help people, and if we’re not helping people, we should go the fuck home.”

[ 368 ] April 4, 2017 |

Kirsten Gillibrand is pretty clearly running for president in 2020 and I like just about everything about her, including the quote above. If Warren runs, she would have my vote in a heartbeat. But outside of that, I am more interested in Gillibrand than anyone else right now, including another run from Bernie. She has really good political instincts and is just a flat out great politician. Of course, going to the big stage is another huge test, but her chances seem good, she’s going to be a great counter to the inevitable Cuomo run, and she got why Trump needs to be opposed at all costs earlier than nearly everyone else.

Are Consumer Movements Inherently Neoliberal?

[ 45 ] April 4, 2017 |


I am currently reading Finis Dunaway’s excellent 2015 book Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images. Examining many of the most iconic environmental images of the last half-century, ranging from the Daisy ad and the Crying Indian to the development of the recycling logo and the nuclear plant cooling tower, he details how the emotionalism of these images have made the environmental movement whiter, more individualistic, and more consumerist. Concerning the Alar scare of the late 1980s, when Meryl Streep became the spokeswoman for the campaign to boycott the apple industry over the use of this chemical, he writes something that really got me thinking:

The Alar campaign also marked a pivotal moment in the history of green consumerism. Streep and the NRDC positioned consumers, especially the young, as the prime victims of pesticide exposure. The campaign sought to mobilize parental concern to demand that the US government protect its youngest citizens from the perils of Alar and other toxic agents in food. Alar’s demise, though, came not from government action but rather from the decision of its manufacturer–responding to public concerns and declining apple sales–to banish it from the US market. If American consumers were victims, they also seemed, in this case at least, to be neoliberal agents of change, using their purchasing decisions to alter corporate policy and create a healthier environment. This popular vision of environmentalism denied power relations an exaggerated the ability of individual economic actors to shape corporate priorities and patterns of resource use. Presenting the market as a realm of freedom where consumers could redirect production decisions by choosing to buy or not buy particular items, green consumerism seemingly became synonymous with political empowerment.

Does this mean that modern consumer movements are inherently neoliberal, focusing on individual solutions over collective action and empowered consumerism over collective solidarity? By this of course, I mean actual neoliberalism, not the 2016 definition used on the left meaning “anything a Democrat does I don’t like.” It’s a pretty compelling case actually. There are a lot of scholars who think about consumer movements in this way. Here’s an interesting academic article considering these issues from the perspective of environmental education. Many scholars have argued that neoliberalism is as much a political project as an economic goal. Yes, handing over Cochabamba’s water and shipping American jobs overseas while eviscerating the social safety net are neoliberal projects, but so is convincing people to think the government is the problem that can only be solved by corporate interventions or that when corporations are a problem, your individual consumer choices are the solution.

If you think of neoliberalism as an insult instead of a mode of being in the 21st century, you are probably already insulted. But even if you don’t this this way, you might say it doesn’t matter. Pressuring companies to get rid of toxic chemicals is a good thing. I don’t disagree. But this is a much larger issue than Alar. As I have discussed many times in these parts, the extreme consumerism of today’s politics, especially on the left, is highly toxic and leads to the worthless vanity third party purity campaigns of Jill Stein, for instance. I have long used the metaphor of people wearing their politics like their new tattoo, showing it off for everyone to see and rejecting candidates who do not conform to their specific issues, with little to no sense of solidarity with others. I have also compared this form of politics to consumer movements around workplace safety conditions, specifically around the worthlessness of boycotting brands that use sweatshops unless workers call for it as a solidarity action or, even worse, deciding you will shop at thrift stores so that you are not personally responsible for sweatshops. This all accomplishes precisely nothing except allowing you to tell your friends how righteous and pure you are.

But I had never thought of all of this as explicitly neoliberal before this moment. And of course it a form of neoliberalism and that explains why I recoil from all of these sorts of things. When consumer movements stop caring about pesticide exposure once new chemicals are created that don’t persist on the vegetables but hit hard and fast and thus poison farmworkers, which was one of the stories I discussed in Out of Sight, that’s a neoliberal aim. When parents move to the suburbs or put their kids in private school to save their children instead of fighting for better public schools where they live, that’s also a neoliberal aim. All of these things–including the Alar campaign, third party campaigns, pointless boycotts to make yourself feel righteous and good, claiming you are the problem because you take long showers even though 90% of water use is from industry and agriculture–prioritize the individual as hyper consumer with the power to change the world through consumption instead of doing the hard work of organizing for change. At best, these campaigns have the power to make small changes if enough of them care, but none of this actually challenges the power structures of oppression. And thus they all reinforce the power of capitalism to set the agenda in our society, more so ever day as the state is seen as a negative and business glorified.

Why Can’t Conservative Men Get Laid?

[ 183 ] April 4, 2017 |


Above: The Only Approved Federalist Relationship Between Men and Women

Spoiler: It’s the evil women.

There’s Only One Thing You Can Give His Man Friends Can’t

If, then, the average male coworker, male neighbor, or male Nepalese yak herder is better at producing masculine companionship, why is an average man giving his business to you? It’s not because he wants your friendship. It’s because he wants to convince you to open up the supply chain of a romantic relationship to him, and he foolishly believes he can do so by being a loyal friendship customer. “Pay my dues in the Friend Zone,” he thinks, “and one day she’ll promote me to boyfriend.”

Just because men don’t want to be your friend, however, doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy your company. They most certainly do. They love discovering how you see the world, what you think about life, the universe, and everything. They love your kindness, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, support, and your nurturing heart. They love being in your presence when you display the wonders of the feminine virtues.

But because God designed these virtues to entice men into marriage, the average man will never be content to receive those gifts in a form of companionship that doesn’t lead to marriage. Quite simply, men can’t be at peace being just friends. And there’s nothing you can do to change that. Platonic chilling won’t stop your inner (and outer) beauty from pulling a man towards romantic love. Telling him he’s like a brother to you won’t stop his brain from shouting “Marry that woman and impregnate her now” when he encounters your femininity.

Evidently, this person is also a Lutheran pastor. Missouri Synod, no doubt.

Horrible Workplace Deaths of the Past

[ 36 ] April 3, 2017 |


Just here to remind you that everything has pretty much always been terrible:

In 1814, a company in Schweinfurt, Germany, called the Wilhelm Dye and White Lead Company developed a new green dye. It was brighter than most traditional green dyes. It was bolder. The shade was so jewel-like that it quickly began being called “emerald green.” And women loved it. Largely because it was during this time that gas lighting, rather than candlelight, was being introduced. When women went out to parties at night, the rooms were considerably brighter than they had been only a few decades before. These party-goers wanted to make sure they were wearing gowns that stood out boldly — gowns in a shade like emerald green. People also began using it for wallpaper and carpeting. Victorian Britain was said to be “bathed in… green.”

Unfortunately, the reason that dye was so striking is that it was made with arsenic.

The effects of arsenic exposure are horrific. In addition to being deadly, it produces ulcers all over the skin. Those who come in close contact with it might develop scabs and sores wherever it touched. It can also make your hair fall out, and can cause people to vomit blood before shutting down their livers and kidneys.

And if you think the effects were terrifying for the people who merely brushed against these fabrics, wait until you hear what happened to the women who manufactured them, working with the dye every day. Matilda Scheurer, a 19-year-old woman who applied the arsenic green dye to fake flowers, died in a way that horrified the populace in 1861. She threw up green vomit, the whites of her eyes turned green, and when she died, she claimed that “everything she looked at was green.” When people began investigating such workshops, they found other women in similar distress, like one “who had been kept on [working with] green… till her face was one mass of sores.”

And doctors knew this was happening. They began talking about the “great deal of slow poisoning going on in Great Britain” as early as 1857. Before long, illustrations were being run in newspapers depicting skeletons dancing in green dresses. The Times pondered, following a case where arsenic poisoning was spread through socks, “What manufactured article in these days of high-pressure civilization can possibly be trusted if socks may be dangerous?” I mean, to be honest, the ones that were not green. Those were the ones that could be trusted.

The Victorian slang for an attractive person — “killing” — even took on new meaning, with the British Medical Journal remarking: “Well may the fascinating wearer of it be called a killing creature. She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.”

You would think that these stories would have caused people to immediately stop wearing the color, but, of course, they didn’t. Consumers throughout history have engaged in all manner of wildly unhealthy behaviors for the sake of fashion. And production of the color was a huge industry! So for years, some people were willing to put up with these grotesque deaths if the alternative was muted shades, or, as one proponent of green dye described them, “abominable grays, hideous browns, and dreadful yellows.”

Some people tried to tell themselves that they’d be safe provided they did not lick the fabric or wallpaper, which was, unfortunately, not true. Others claimed that the doctors were simply lying, because some people will always believe that science is just not real. All this in spite of the fact that every Victorian household probably had a jar of arsenic to poison rats, so they knew it was poisonous.

Of course this sort of thing was happening to American workers all the time. Bringing this back would truly MAGA!


[ 107 ] April 2, 2017 |

Hey, it’s baseball season! Last season, the Cubs winning the World Series was an omen for the election of Trump. Let’s hope this year returns the world to normal. As for the Mariners, I’ll believe any success when I see it. At least the Yankees have started off with a stinker.

Open thread on the return of baseball.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 77

[ 25 ] April 2, 2017 |

This is the snow-covered grave of Bernard Baruch.


Born to a Jewish family in Camden, South Carolina in 1870, Baruch’s parents moved to New York City in 1881, where he became educated and went into business. He started as a broker for H.H. Houseman & Company and then rose to partner. He bought himself a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and became rich before he turned 30 using that seat to speculate on the sugar market. He started his own brokerage firm in 1903. Despite being Jewish, he was very much a man of the southern Democratic Party. His mother was an early supporter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and he was very interested in the study and support of romanticizing treason in defense of slavery, endowing the Mrs. Simon Baruch University Award for scholars working on how awesome the Confederate traitors were.

But he also became a leading advisor to Democratic presidents, starting with Woodrow Wilson. In 1918, he became the chair of the War Industries Board, the early attempt for national economic planning that would prove a good trial run for the New Deal and World War II. He was also on Wilson staff at the Paris Peace Conference, where he opposed the reparations placed on Germany. He remained an internationalist in the 1920 and 1930s, running counter to the isolationism so prominent at that time. He believed another major war was likely and wanted to coordinate relationships between business and government. He became a close advisor to FDR in 1933, helping to form the National Recovery Administration. He became especially important during World War II, helping to create the various plans to coordinate the war. In 1946, Truman named him the U.S. representative to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, where he proposed international control of atomic energy, a plan Stalin rejected because the U.S. wouldn’t give up its nuclear weapons. He remained a major figure, even as he fell out of favor with Truman after 1947, often speaking publicly about politics up to the point of his death in 1965.

No one has ever played Baruch in the movies, but he did appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957.

Bernard Baruch is buried in Flushing Cemetery, Queens, New York

This Day in Labor History: April 2, 1937

[ 13 ] April 2, 2017 |


On April 2, 1937, workers at the Hershey Chocolate Corporation in Hershey, Pennsylvania sat down on the job. Following the lead of the General Motors workers in Flint, Michigan a few months earlier, these workers demanded the company live up to the contract it had recently signed. Unlike that previous struggle however, Hershey would respond with violence, demonstrating the limitations of the tactic.

Milton Hershey founded his chocolate company in 1894. He, like many capitalists of the era, decided to construct a company town, of course named after himself. This he did in southeastern Pennsylvania. A bit like Henry Ford, he was worried about the terrible conditions of the cities and so wanted a nice-looking town for his employees. He even built an amusement park in 1907 for them. He was an early adopter of the welfare capitalism that would come to prominence in American industry during the 1920s. But while this was all better than living under the smokestacks in a steel mill, the point of a company town is to control workers and that was certainly the case for Hershey as well, just as it was for his contemporary George Pullman. Personal relationships meant everything when it came to hiring and firing, causing great resentment among workers. And Hershey worked them hard, up to 60 hours a week as late as the 1920s. When the Great Depression began, he reduced them to 40 hours and of course reduced their pay as well, although he tried to avoid layoffs. During the early 1930s, he spent up to $10 million building nice buildings in his company town while his workers faced dire poverty.

Near the end of 1936, workers began to organize. They created a newspaper called “The Chocolate Bar-B” that expressed their discontent and spread it around the factory. It was produced by workers at the factory who had converted to the communist cause and wanted workers to unionize over issues of long hours, low wages, and terrible workplace conditions, especially noise and heat in the factory. By January 1937, with the industrial organizing of the newly formed CIO coming more into the open, CIO organizers met secretly with Hershey workers. They immediately formed the United Chocolate Workers and soon had hundreds of members, with about 80% of the workforce joining. At first it looked like Hershey would cave. When they came to him, he immediately said he would raise wages to 60 cents an hour for men and 45 cents an hour for women and they came to initial agreement in March. But as part of that agreement, union organizers were not supposed to be fired.

Hershey had second thoughts about that. Claiming declining business required layoffs, he fired the organizers, which violated the seniority agreement in the new contract. On April 2, union president Red “Bull” Behman waved a red handkerchief to start the strike. The workers inside copied the tactics now becoming common in CIO organizing campaigns: they sat down on the job. About 1200 workers were involved. They did not want this to be a radical action that would destroy property. They set up cameras to make sure that no property was damaged and they banned smoking in the factory to be sure nothing burned. But there were problems from the beginning. The strike was not competently run and the strikers had to sit-down in shifts of 400, meaning the factory actually stayed open. The strikers were also indifferent to the 240,000 quarters that would spoil, creating immediate divisions between the strikers and the local farmers supplying that milk, a rare localism in supply chains, even at this time.

By this point, Hershey himself was in semi-retirement and company president William Murrie was more of a hard-liner. He rallied the local farmers who were losing money by not selling their milk to Hershey, their only market. He started holding rallies in nearby towns to build opposition to the union. They created a mob to attack the factory and physically remove the strikers. Along with some workers loyal to the company, on April 8, they attacked the sit-down strikers. This may have happened semi-spontaneously at it seems that Behman and Murrie had already agreed to end the occupation. In any case, outnumbering the strikers inside about 4:1, they grabbed bats and bricks and started beating the strike leaders. By the end of the day, about 1000 workers had signed an anti-union loyalty pledge, some because of fear but some because they were genuinely disgusted by the CIO tactics.

This led to an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board, which forced Hershey to hold a union election. The creation of the NLRB cannot be overstated in its importance. In the past, Hershey would have simply fired all the organizers at this point and used violence to ensure their factory stayed union-free. Now, the government made sure an election would be held while taking no position on the sit-down strike, a tactic the Roosevelt administration was distinctly uncomfortable with. Intimidating the workers after the violence, the company ensure that a quasi-company union would win, a tactic used by a lot of employers in 1937 until the National Labor Relations Act was declared constitutional, which had banned company unions. The NLRB threw this election out and ordered a new one held. In 1939, that election happened and the workers chose the AFL-affiliated Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union. The company union was dead in the town but so was the CIO, and this was not by intimidation but rather by the poorly planned sit-down strike and failed organizing efforts after the strike ended. The CIO had misjudged the sit-down strikes’ popularity and the moderate tone taken by Pennsylvania governor George Earle’s to it led to the destruction of his political career and his resounding defeat in a Senate run in 1938. The new governor, the Republican Arthur James, immediately signed a law banning sit-down strikes when he took office in 1939. Finally, Hershey came to an agreement with the BCW, making it one of the first candy companies to be unionized. Old Milton Hershey himself was devastated, seeing his industrial utopia destroyed by strife he hoped to avoid through never allowing workers a voice on the job.

The sit-down strike declined precipitously after the Hershey failure. Even by the end of 1937, it was rarely used. These proved not only tremendously difficult to pull off, but also deeply alienating to the general public in this conservative nation. Workers themselves were rarely united around the issue and the early victories at Flint and other factories could not be replicated elsewhere.

I borrowed from Robert Weir, “Dark Chocolate: Lessons from the 1937 Hershey Sit-Down Strike,” published in Labor History’s January 2015 issue in the writing of this post.

This is the 216th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: April 1, 1929

[ 12 ] April 1, 2017 |

Actual photo from the 1929 Loray Mill Strike.

On April 1, 1929, textile workers at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina went on strike. This strike was brutally suppressed by the mill owners who had moved production to the South precisely to avoid unionism and because they felt they could count on loyal politicians and law enforcement if workers did strike. The workers themselves did not win the strike, but this was a critical moment in the rise of textile worker unionism that would help define labor history in the 1930s.

As early as the 1890s, apparel factories began moving to the South to escape unions. This increased dramatically after the Uprising of the 20,000, the Triangle Fire, the Lawrence strike, the Paterson strike, and other many other periods of workplace organizing, forcing them to change their methods in New York and New England. They found compliant workers in the hills of Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. They wanted a workforce that lacked immigrants or a history of socialism. They found a region that was riven by racial tension, deeply under the influence of fundamentalist evangelicalism (and the anti-Semitism that went with it that would help with resistance to Jewish organizers coming South), a history of paternalism, and poverty. Southern Appalachia was perfect. By the 1910s, there were tens of thousands of southern Appalachians laboring in newly opened textile mills.

Mills opened up in large numbers during World War I, but in the postwar economic slump hurt workers bad. Like farmers producing food, they were promised continued prosperity and spent accordingly, in this case buying consumer items that were hardly luxurious by New York standards, but which required credit lines for these poor workers. Then the hard times came and the workers found themselves tumbling back into poverty. Wages were reduced and work became harder to find. Moreover, the mill owners decided to maximize the production of each worker. They did so through what is called the stretch-out. This was an attempt to make up for lost profits by forcing workers to work up to twice at hard. One worker recalled working 48 looms before the stretch-out and 90 after it was implemented. To make this happen, workers lost their breaks, owners shifted to paying workers at piece rate instead of wages, and they also increasing the number of supervisors to work the employees like slaves. Moreover, all of this was for no additional money. The individual noted above who now worked 90 looms complained that he made $19 a week in 1926 and $17.70 in 1929, despite the huge increase in his production.

This infuriated workers. These were not people inclined to unionization, but as their rights and their lives were crushed, they began to change their minds. This also got the attention of unions based in the north. The National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) was a communist-led union that saw potential for organizing the South. Seeing the rapid exploitation and anger of the workers, it decided to focus on the Carolina mills. It sent an organizer named Fred Beal to Gastonia and he walked into a powder keg. On March 30, 1929, the NWTU held its first public meeting in Gastonia. Attending it was Ellen Dawson, NWTU vice-president, Scottish immigrant, and a long-time communist organizer who had been involved in several major textile strikes in the 1920s in northern cities such as New Bedford and Passaic and who would evidently die from the damage to her lungs from working in the textile mills. Dawson gave an inspirational speech that motivated the workers to strike, which they officially announced that day.

The next day, 1800 workers walked off the job at the Loray Mill. They wanted a 40-hour week, $20 a week as a minimum wage, union recognition, and, most important, the abolition of the stretch out. The mill owners were absolutely incensed that their workers would form a union. The first step they took was throwing them all out of its company housing, a common tactic in small mill towns and mining villages that kept employer control over workers tight. The town’s mayor immediately asked for National Guard intervention, which the government was happy to provide. The strike continued but the anti-strike forces became more violent. On April 18, 100 masked men destroyed NTWU headquarters.

Scabs began to enter the mill and the strike seemed lost. They continued to hold on. But on June 7, as 150 strikers went to the mill to try and get the night shift to walk off the job, the police decided to bust the strike once and for all. They were attacked by the police, who then went to the strikers’ camp and demanded that the camp guards hand over their weapons. A fight began and the police chief was killed.

71 strikers were arrested in the aftermath of the violence. Eight strikers and Beal were indicted for the murder of the police chief. During the trial, with the strike continuing, a juror went insane and the judge had to declare a mistrial. This set the forces of order off in a violent spasm to crush this workers’ movement. A vigilante movement called the Committee of One Hundred roamed the countryside, seeking out strikers. By early September, mobs were rounding up strikers and kicking them out of the county. On September 14, a mob opened fire on a truck full of strikers. A pregnant woman named Ella Mae Wiggins was murdered. She was a strike leader and songwriter whose songs became rallying cries for the union. Woody Guthrie later called Wiggins “the pioneer of the protest ballad.” This murder effectively ended the strike, as the workers could go no farther.

In the retrial for the killing of the police chief, the judge found seven men guilty of second-degree murder, six strikers and Fred Beal, who received a sentence of 17-20 years in prison. Beal then fled to the Soviet Union, but hating life there and horrified by the lack of freedom Soviet workers had, returned to the U.S. He surrendered to North Carolina authorities in 1938, where he was later pardoned in 1942. He died in 1954, spending his later years working as an anti-communist unionist.

But while Gastonia was incredibly violent, other textile workers in the South managed to win some strikes in 1929. These strikes were strictly about ending the stretch-out. Workers in South Carolina organized while also avoiding unions, appealing to local people as insiders, to win these gains. The owners tried to argue that the stretch-out was “progress,” but the workers won. Alabama, which had the strongest labor movement in the South, saw its unions become strong enough that politicians actively sought their endorsement. United Textile Workers, a union that would come out of this and other strikes along the east coast, had locals in Georgia and Alabama grow quickly after 1929. The Depression would deeply challenge any gains the workers had won in the stretch-out and made their living incredibly precarious, but despite the continued and very real southern white workers’ antipathy for and fear of unions, the UTW would form in the aftermath and would continue to have a presence up to the point of the famed 1934 textile strike.

To say the least, the brutality of the apparel industry has not diminished to the present. It has simply moved out of the United States. The workers of Bangladesh labor under a system not too different from that of a century ago in the United States, still producing your clothing under disastrously exploitative conditions.

I borrowed from Janet Irons, Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South, to write this post.

This is the 215th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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