On October 22, 1945, workers in the Charleston, South Carolina tobacco factories walked off the job. This largely Black but in fact multiracial strike was a critical point in the immediate postwar period and the victory that resulted served as a lesson in what unions could do if they can break down some of the racial animus held by many members of the working classes.
American Tobacco Company had spread through the South in the early twentieth century and opened factories in many places. In Charleston, it opened a factory in 1903. This was primarily Black labor, though by no means all. That doesn’t mean it was really an integrated workforce. The job classifications were by race, but the factory was not specifically segregated. That wasn’t uncommon in the early twentieth century South. In fact, one of the ironies of the New Deal is that the Roosevelt administration was so concerned to not offend white southerners that it just segregated everything and that actually spread more segregation through construction work that did not exist before. Anyway, women made up 60 percent of the work force and races were kept apart by the floor, even if they often did the same job.
Conditions in the factories were as bad as in any workplace in America. Some of the skilled white male workers had aligned with trade unions but given that most unions did not accept either women or people of color in the 1930s, most had no choice but to live with the world they faced. That changed some with the development of the CIO after 1935. It hadn’t made much progress in the South as of 1945. But CIO leaders recognized that too much work could just move to the South if it did not unionize southern workplaces too.
This became Operation Dixie. But where it had made some limited progress was in these tobacco factories. In 1944, the United Cannery, Agricultural, and Packing House Workers of America (UCAPAWA) came into the plants. UCAPAWA was one of the most aggressive of the leftist unions of the period. It was communist led and openly organized across racial lines, which even many CIO unions weren’t real comfortable with. They won their first contract that year. After the war, UCAPAWA became known as the less unwieldy Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers of America (FTA). Well, at least the acronym was less unwieldy. FTA Local 15 represented the tobacco workers. Workers were interested in striking, but as a communist-led union, no one was less interested in doing anything to stop the war effort than the FTA so they held that in check. They also agreed to delay wage gains until after the war. Black workers would get a raise from 25 cents to 40 cents an hour and white workers would go up to 65 cents an hour. Even an anti-racist union like FTA could not get over the hump of white supremacy here, not if it wanted to attract white workers as well.
So the war ended and…the ATC told the FTA to take a hike. It just reneged on the agreement. At this point in time, the workplace was mostly women because of men going off to war. And these women were infuriated. The National War Labor Relations Board ordered American Tobacco to pay the wages. But ATC still refused, hoping that all the war time restrictions on union busting would disappear. When a Black male worker was fired by a white supervisor on October 1 for being too “familiar” with the female workers, the Black workers were even more angry since this is the kind of thing that threatened their entire ability to work in a racist society. Workers conducted a sit-down strike on October 3 to get the guy his job back. After some vague promises from ATC, the strike ended on October 5, but then nothing happened once again.
This was not the only ATC factory that was angry. On October 15, the Philadelphia factory decided to strike. The Charleston factory followed on the 22nd. Then the Trenton factory joined them on October 25. When the Charleston workers struck, they demanded a 25 cent an hour raise, non-discrimination clauses in hiring and firing, medical benefits, and the closed shop. Black women made up most of the 1,000 workers on the strike, but some whites and some Black men joined them. This became a very rare moment in the American South where there was more than a whiff of a cross-racial strike. The non-discrimination clauses were the most important thing for the Black women, as they faced the dual oppression of race and gender at the very time soldiers coming back from the war were throwing women off the job.
But let’s not romanticize this too much. The machinists, all white men, outright opposed all of this. But the National Labor Relations Board came down to investigate and the ATC had some thugs beat the hell out of the guy, including cutting his face with a knife. That’s how the American Tobacco Company thought about New Deal labor law. This was stupid on many levels. First, the thugs just did this in front of a bunch of people. Second, the NLRB official was not cowered. He was furious. He still had the power over the ATC and after the cops refused to charge the guys, he ordered the ATC to pay $120,000 to the workers. The ATC caved after repeated demonstrations showed it had lost the battle, if not the ultimate war for control over the workplace. The workers won that round.
But the strike did not end. Yes, workers won back pay. But they had not won union recognition or any of their other demands. The strike would continue all the way until March 1946. By that time, the CIO had issued a full boycott of all American Tobacco Company products. That meant that not only was this strike a national issue now, but it really bit at the company’s profits given the strength of union members at that time. With the NLRB putting ever greater pressure on ATC to deal, including the threat of federal intervention, the company finally caved. It didn’t give much–workers received an 8 cent raise is all, but some of the racial discrimination on the factory floor disappeared. Most importantly, the wall of hate from ATC had been cracked. Workers had stuck together and they had won.
The CIO’s Operation Dixie campaign following this hoped to build on it, but it faded in the face of racism of white workers, and poor strategic choices on how to deal with that, plus the full-throttled war against it by southern politicians and employers. Then it kicked the FTA out of the federation for being communist-led after the Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947. But the workers did remain unionized, in the Distributive, Processing, Office Workers of America, another CIO union. ATC tried to get the conservative local of the Tobacco Workers International Union, which was what its white male machinists were, to take on Local 15 and defeat it entirely, but the workers held strong and overwhelmingly chose to remain where they were rather than tie themselves to a union that would do nothing for them.
I got some of the information for this post from the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, which is a really cool site that you all should check out for all sorts of neat stuff.
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