On September 5, 1934, the governor of North Carolina called out the National Guard to aid mill owners in the textile strike overtaking their state and the east coast. This strike, not only mobilizing the remnant apparel workers of the northeast, but the traditionally anti-union workers of the South, was a shock to the system of the New Deal state, helping it realize the level of worker dissatisfaction and the need for meaningful union legislation.
When the New Deal began, the Roosevelt administration pushed for the National Industrial Recovery Act. The NIRA was intended to eliminate the cutthroat competition that destroyed profits in many industries of this time, including textiles. Many large manufacturers supported it, hoping it would drive out low-end competition and consolidate industries. But the NIRA also included a half-thought out provision called Section 7(a) that granted workers the right to form a union free from employer interference. Although Roosevelt and his advisors didn’t really see this as an invitation for workers to organize, workers themselves saw it that way. And in 1934, they acted on it. The textile strike was the 4th major worker rebellion of this arguably most radical year of American labor history, along with the Teamsters in Minneapolis, the Auto-Lite workers in Toledo, and the longshoremen in San Francisco. The NIRA helped spawn this by establishing minimum wages, including in textiles, but not really giving workers any way to enforce this or any of their rights. The textile industry accepted the minimum wages, but sped up work to make up for their lost profits, angering workers.
The textile strike was organized by the United Textile Workers in a rapidly changing world for the apparel industry. The socialism of the Jewish apparel workers in New York and the willingness of other immigrant workers to join radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World in places like Lawrence and Paterson convinced textile factory operators to start moving production to the South. They chose that area because white workers there already operated in a paternalistic relationship with local elites, because there was no tradition of socialism and a strong suspicion of outsiders, and because evangelical religion would reinforce pro-employer messages. As early as 1894, New England textile companies were convincing southern states like Alabama to repeal their child labor laws with promises they would move their operations south. By the early 1930s, 70 percent of American apparel production was located in southern factories.
By the late 1920s, as the nation’s economy contracted, the textile companies decided to make up for lost profits by stretching workers’ ability to the breaking point. They sped up production on the lines. The “stretch-out,” as it was called,” infuriated workers. Strikes, albeit mostly unorganized, sparked across the South. Larger strikes in Gastonia, North Carolina and Elizabethton, Tennessee in 1929 were repressed by the police. The factory owners, the police, and politicians were determined to keep their towns union-free. As still happens today in southern organizing campaigns, unions are demonized as something northern and something foreign.
So the UTW, which had organized some plants in the northern states, was desperate for victories in the South. Like the CIO a dozen years later, it knew it could not survive or thrive if it did not organize the South because capital mobility would destroy the union. The impetus for the strike was not only years of the stretch-out but also the NRA deciding to grant southern textile owners wishes to increase worker hours without increasing wages earlier that year. So it sought to make a big statement in the southern factories that would determine the fate of the strike. At first, the UTW was hesitant to go ahead with the strike as the NRA responded to the outrage by agreeing to give it a voice. But continued anger in the Southern mills forced the leadership to reevaluate their decision. The UTW developed a list of demands that included the raising of the minimum wage from $13 to $30 a week, the end of the stretch-out, union recognition, and the rehiring of fired unionists.
The workers in North Carolina were the most important because of the size of the workforce there. The strike exploded there on Labor Day, September 3, when 65,000 workers walked off the job. The UTW was well aware how hard it would be to organize these southern factories and so they employed innovative tactics to convince the workers to come out, using their smaller numbers of committed activists to create flying squadrons that went factory to factory convincing workers to walk off the job.
The strike spread quickly. 200,000 workers from Rhode Island to Georgia were on strike by September 4. 325,000 were out by September 5. Politicians and factory owners soon cracked down. On September 5, North Carolina governor John Ehringhaus called out the National Guard. That started the crackdown. Rhode Island governor T.F. Green did the same. By September 9, South Carolina had instituted a partial state of martial law. Georgia did the same under the leadership of the reprehensible governor Eugene Talmadge. Workers were ready to fight back. They armed themselves and continued striking. But the UTW had its work cut out for it in the South. The overwhelming pressure against the union began to undermine its support in the South, which simply lacked any sympathetic institutions that would bolster tired and hungry strikers. The UTW had promised to feed strikers, but did not have the resources to follow through. At its peak, about 1/2 of workers in North Carolina and South Carolina and 3/4 in Georgia, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island were on strike. But they began drifting back.
The Roosevelt administration responded quickly to the strike, held a quick investigation and issued a report. It had very moderate recommendations, such as more studies on the stretch-out and urging employers not to discriminate against strikers on the job. When the report was issued, Roosevelt urged the strikers to return to work. The UTW, seeing the strike begin to collapse, declared victory and ended it. But the UTW was finished. The southern plants would go decades before serious unionization campaigns reappeared. The employers completely ignored the report and refused to hire thousands of strikers. The UTW simply did not have the resources to build on the strike, or in any case, they did not really try. They did not see this as the beginning of a longer-term organizing campaign and seek to send more organizers to the South. The ability of the textile companies to successfully blacklist thousands of workers without union challenge was the best argument they had against future unions. It worked for a very long time.
If the textile strike did little for the involved workers, it did very much add to the pressure the federal government felt to build on Section 7(a) and pass real pro-union legislation. When the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional in 1935, the Roosevelt administration responded with the National Labor Relations Act, which went very far to provide what many American workers demanded.
This is the 190th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
Also, Happy Labor Day!