On December 5, 1894, Alabama repealed its child labor law in order to convince the officials of the Dwight Manufacturing Company, a textile corporation, to move its mill operations from Chicopee, Massachusetts to its state. Dwight did this, settling in Gadsden. This incident is both an early incident in the history of capital mobility, a phenomenon that plagues workers today, and also shines a light into how the apparel industry was a pioneer in breaking labor resistance through simply closing up and moving operations to a non-union state.
Child labor had long plagued the United States. Of course, children worked in various ways on farms on in the cities but the Industrial Revolution made that work all the harder and more dangerous, with factory owners using children’s small size to hire them in the most dangerous jobs, often around moving and deadly machinery. At the same time, in New England, increasingly restive workers protested against the poor wages and bad working conditions of the textile industry. Moreover, northern states had started passing legislation mandating wages and hours, especially for the female and child workers the textile industry loved exploiting. By the 1903, Chicopee had about 2000 union members in the textile industry and a growing set of state labor laws these unions successfully fought for that today we would see as basic protections for workers.
Stepping into this labor unrest were the southern states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama, who began to see attracting northern investment in textile mills as part of the solution to its persistent white poverty and an economic move befitting a New South image they pushed. The first cotton mill opened in Alabama in 1832 but the industry remained small, despite that state’s centrality in American cotton production. By the mid-1880s, Alabama legislators decided to encourage northern capital investment, offering tax exemptions and cheap labor to textile corporations.
But in 1887, Alabama also became the first southern state to enact regulations on hours and child labor. This created an 8-hour day for most women in factories, an 8-hour day for children under 14 in most work and banned work for those under 15 in the coal or iron mines. This was supported by the Knights of Labor, which was briefly prominent in Alabama, as it was in much of the nation. But with the Knights’ decline in the aftermath of Haymarket, the political will to keep these laws in place quickly waned.
In 1894, the Dwight Manufacturing Company announced it was going to build a southern factory to get away from its restive workers and “oppressive laws” guaranteeing them some rights, as their executives called them. It put itself up to the highest bidder. Dwight didn’t like that it couldn’t employ children. Alabama repealing their child labor law thus made it the winner of Dwight’s race to the bottom. The original law simply excepted Etowah County, where the factory was to go, but 12 days later, Governor William Oates signed another bill repealing it for the whole state. The company refused to transfer workers to Chicopee in order to keep the union traditions away from its new home. About this repeal, Samuel Gompers wrote, “I was horrified by this outrageous piece of legislation…this crime that had been committed by that legislature in sacrificing young and innocent children to the greed and rapacity of the profit mongers.” By May 1897, 17 of the 162 employees in the Dwight spinning department were 10 years of age or younger.
Northern unions did not take this lying down. The National Union of Textile Workers began trying to organize the southern mill workers, fighting for northern standards in order to undermine the threat of capital mobility. Factories such as Dwight used the standard anti-union procedures–firing unionized workers, kicking them out of company towns, threatening to replace them with black labor, the blacklist. The NUTW and other unions struggled mightily to organize the mills, which were largely seen as public benefactors by many white Alabamans. The labor movement outside the textile industry in the state did however start fighting immediately for new labor legislation. After several failed attempts, a 1903 compromise bill banned child labor under the age of 12 except for some exemptions such as orphans and children of widowed mothers who could be employed at the age of 10. The textile companies, including Dwight, fought against this, but it did pass.
However, it lacked any meaningful enforcement mechanism. With the rising Progressive Era, even in Alabama the continued use of child labor sparked increased concern, and a somewhat better law passed in 1907. The Dwight Mill received a significant amount of negative publicity throughout this fight, including from the Massachusetts State Federation of Labor who had it in mind when it blamed the lack of labor law in the South on “attorneys of Northern capitalists who have large investments in the Southern mills.” Despite this new law, in 1910, Alabama mills still employed 2903 children between the ages of 10 and 13.
By 1927, Dwight had closed its Massachusetts operations and had moved to Alabama full time. While the southern textile operations slowly killed the industry in the northeast, it was not immune from the same problems. In 1934, textile workers around the nation, including in the South, struck over low wages and bad conditions and after World War II, the apparel industry began experimenting with moving their operations overseas. For the Dwight Company, their workers had organized even before 1934 and continued fighting for unionism through the 30s, despite continued firing and blacklisting from the company. Dwight openly defied the National Labor Relations Board and challenged the constitutionality of the Wagner Act, even after the Supreme Court found for its constitutionality in 1937. Because of Dwight, The Nation‘s Maxwell Stewart called Gadsden, “the toughest [antiunion] city in the United States,” although there was plenty of competition for that honor. Finally, when their Alabama workers struck in 1959, the company shut the mill down and threw 2100 people out of work.
By the 1980s, companies like Dwight were leaving the United States entirely because of too many labor laws like the Wagner Act, what with its minimum wages and guaranteeing of collective bargaining rights. The southern mill towns suffered the same fate as did New England. As does any place today that tries to give workers right or pass legislation protecting labor or the environment. Apparel manufacturers pioneered capital mobility and continue to aggressively search for the cheapest and most exploitative labor today, even if over 1100 workers die in a single factory collapse in the process.
This post is based on Beth English, A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry, a book I found very useful in conceptualizing Out of Sight.
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