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This Day in Labor History: April 1, 1951

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On April 1, 1951, members of the Textile Workers Union of America struck the Dan River Mills in Virginia, part of an attempt to organize the southern textile mills. This failed strike demonstrated the limited power of unions in the South and how northern leadership with little understanding of the region could undermine the limited gains in the region.

The United Textile Workers of America formed as an American Federation of Labor affiliate in 1901, but was a generally a small player in the textile organizing world in its early decades. In 1934, already struggling with capital mobility closing union factories and reopening them in the South, it called the epic strike that spread from Rhode Island to Georgia, but that was crushed with state violence and did not lead to any significant long-term organizing, even after unionization became easier the next year with the National Labor Relations Act. In 1937, the remnants of the UTW joined the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO created the Textile Workers Organizing Committee to organize the mills and merged it with the UTW to form the Textile Workers Union of America. After World War II, the CIO knew that its massive organizing successes in the North would be fleeting if it could not organize the South, where companies were already looking to move. This led to Operation Dixie, a massive effort to send organizers to the region. It largely failed, due in part to the intransigence of southern states and employers and due in part to the CIO downplaying its anti-racist politics that alienated black workers while not attracting the white workers who placed white supremacy over class solidarity.

Still, Operation Dixie did have some success in the tobacco and textile mills. One of those was at the Dan River Mills in Danville, Virginia. By 1930, Dan River was the largest textile firm in the South. The unions saw it as a key lynch pin to the southern organizing campaigns, in part because of its large size, up to 13,000 workers, and in part because of its geographical location near the North Carolina border and thus many other textile centers the CIO wanted to organize. In fact, the TWUA managed to organize Dan River during World War II, in 1942, making it a harbinger of what the CIO hoped to accomplish after the war. The company and union had a reasonable relationship all things considered and the union was a pretty powerful entity for the region. The Dan River corporate leaders believed it was in the vanguard of modern labor relations in working with the union. The TWUA got reasonable wage gains for the workers and even the southern press, notoriously hostile to unions, praised its work in Danville.

In 1951, the TWUA decided to test its strength. It wanted to continue to build on its wage gains in Danville while also expanding its reach across the region. The problem it faced is that the company refused to raise wages much beyond the region’s standards. It simply said it could not compete in this low-wage, low-capital industry if it had higher wages than others. TWUA noted that the wages Dan River paid were quite a bit lower than what workers in the declining New England mills made, but the company preferred to compare itself to the rest of the unorganized south. The union argued that Dan River was like U.S. Steel or General Motors, a trendsetter for the industry. But they were at an impasse and so the union walked off the job.

To be honest, the TWUA made a mistake here. The company genuinely did not want a strike and preferred to sign a contract with minimal gains, at least until the economic situation of the industry became more clear. Many of the leaders of the Dan River local did not think the strike was a good idea. But the New England locals were demanding action to make the industry standards even across region and there were power struggles in the union between the northern leadership and southern organizers. When the northern leadership came down to battle the company, it alienated the company, seemingly intentionally, with shouting, pounding on the table, and other tactics that did not work well in the South. The precarious position of the TWUA in this deeply anti-union area became even more tenuous. The local leaders were furious that a decade’s worth of work in the South was thrown out because of the internal politics of the union.

By March 1951, Dan River prepared for a strike. They arranged for buses to pick up scabs, piled up coal for fuel, and prepared nonproduction workers to move into production to keep the factories running. The moment the strike began on April 1, the company, now with no confidence in the union and feeling it would be better without one, moved aggressively on the unionbusting. The company raised wages for strikebreakers while also deploying modern media methods of turning local opinion in its favor. By April 18, a supervisor fired upon strikers, wounding two. Violence between strikers and scabs became commonplace. Women were the strongest supporters of the strike and often used strong verbal attacks on scabs to demonstrate this, openly challenging the patriarchal authority in the South, the mills, and their own households based on the belief that they were right in fighting for a better life for themselves.

But the truth was that the union didn’t have much of a shot. Probably a majority of the workers did stay out of the mills until the very end of the strike, but maybe 35% were scabbing pretty quickly. Finally, on May 6, the strike was called off. The TWUA did sign a new, not great, contract with Dan River, but it never again held real power in the factory, nor did it organize the rest of the South. A poorly designed strike led by people who don’t really understand the region in which they are fighting and who are more motivated by their own political infighting than designing a campaign to help workers can do as much damage as any unionbusting corporation. Dan River was wrong to not raise wages here, but the TWUA really blew it and never really would organize the South effectively.

I drew from Timothy Minchin, What Do We Need a Union For? The TWUA in the South, 1945-1955, for the material in this post.

This is the 350th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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