Throughout the 1920s, however, the mills faced an intractable problem of overproduction, as the wartime boom for cotton goods ended, while foreign competition cut into their markets. Although manufacturers tried to reduce the oversupply by forming industry associations to regulate competition, their favored solution to the crisis was to squeeze more work out of their employees through what workers called the "stretch-out": speeding up production by increasing the number of looms assigned to each factory hand, limiting break times, paying workers by piece rates, and increasing the number of supervisors to keep workers from slowing down, talking or leaving work.
The stretch-out sparked hundreds of strikes throughout the Southeast: by one count, there were more than eighty strikes in South Carolina in 1929 alone. While most of them were short-lived, these strikes were almost all spontaneous walkouts, without any union – or other – leadership.
That year also saw the massive strikes that began in Gastonia, North Carolina, and Elizabethton, Tennessee, which were violently suppressed by local police and vigilantes. Here again, workers were often more impetuous than their unions: to take one striking example, the workers at the Loray Mill in Gastonia walked out despite the efforts of the communist-led National Textile Workers Union, founded during the Communist Party's short-lived attempt to create revolutionary unions, to hold them back.
In the meantime, the Great Depression made matters worse. The economic collapse drove a number of New England and Mid-Atlantic manufacturers into bankruptcy, while those employers who survived laid off workers and increased the amount and pace of work for their employees even further. Textile workers across the region, from worsted workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts and silk weavers in Paterson, New Jersey, to cotton millhands in Greenville, South Carolina, engaged in hundreds of isolated strikes, even though there were thousands of unemployed workers ready to take their places.
The NIRA rarely, if ever, lived up to its promises: employers usually dominated the panels that created these codes, which often offered far less than what workers and their unions demanded, and the NIRA and the codes themselves were toothless, since the Act did not provide any effective means to enforce the standards.
Even so, the promise of the right to join a union had an electrifying effect on textile workers: the United Textile Workers, which had no more than 15,000 members in February, 1933, grew to 250,000 members by June, 1934, of whom roughly half were cotton mill workers. Textile workers also put tremendous faith in the NIRA to bring an end to the stretch-out, or at least temper its worst features. As one union organizer said, textile workers in the South saw the NIRA as something that "God has sent to them."
The NIRA quickly promulgated a code for the cotton industry regulating workers' hours and establishing a minimum wage; it also established a committee to study the problem of workloads. In the meantime, however, the employers responded to the new minimum wages by increasing the pace of work. When the labor board set a forty-hour work week, mill owners required the same amount of work in those forty hours as they had in the previous fifty- to sixty-hour week.
By August 1934, workers had filed nearly 4,000 complaints to the labor board protesting "code chiseling" by their employers ; the board found in favor of only one worker. Union supporters often lost their jobs and found themselves blacklisted throughout the industry. Workers, both north and south, wrote thousands of letters to the White House, the Department of Labor, the NIRA and Eleanor Roosevelt asking for them to intervene.
In what proved to be a dry run of the larger strike to follow, cotton mill workers in South Carolina's Horse Creek Valley struck to force employers to live up to the code, only to face special deputies, highway patrolmen and a machine-gun unit of the National Guard sent to keep the mills open. When the NIRA's special board came to Horse Creek, it did not respond to the workers' complaints, but urged them to return to work. When they attempted to do so, the mill owners not only refused to allow the workers back, but evicted them from company housing. The NIRA took no action to stop the employers from violating the codes.
While the UTW called off its plans for a strike, local leaders thought differently. The UTW locals in the northern part of Alabama launched a strike that began on July 18 in Huntsville, then spread to Florence, Anniston, Gadsden, and Birmingham. While the strike was popular, it was also ineffective: many employers welcomed it as a means of cutting their expenses, since they had warehouses full of unsold goods.
The UTW called a special convention in New York City on Monday, August 13, 1934 to address the crisis. The UTW drew up a list of demands for the industry as a whole: a thirty hour week, minimum wages ranging from $13.00 to $30.00 a week, elimination of the stretch-out, union recognition, and reinstatement of workers fired for their union activities. The delegates, especially those from the southern states, voted overwhelmingly to strike the cotton mills on September 1, 1934 if these demands were not met. They planned to bring out the woolen, silk and rayon workers at a date to be set later.
Mill owners had seen the strike threat as more empty talk from the union. The White House took a largely "hands off" attitude, leaving it to the first National Labor Relations Board to set up a meeting of the parties. The employers refused to meet with the union.
It is not clear whether the UTW expected to have this much success so easily and so quickly in the South; it had only shallow roots and few regular organizers in that region. But Southern textile workers had a good deal of experience in confronting management, both by impromptu strikes and other means, and a deep well of bitterness against their employers.
Some workers converted their experience into a nearly messianic belief in the power of unionism to take them out of bondage. One labor official made the connection in Biblical terms: "The first strike on record was the strike in which Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt. They too struck against intolerable conditions".
Textile workers in the North went out on strike in great numbers as well, although they were spread more evenly across different industries and had more diverse grievances than the Southern cotton mill workers. Within a week, almost 400,000 textile workers nationwide had left their jobs and the textile industry was shut down.
Governor Blackwood of South Carolina took up this theme, announcing that he would deputize the state's "mayors, sheriffs, peace officers and every good citizen" to maintain order, then called out the National Guard with orders to shoot to kill any picketers who tried to enter the mills. Governor Ehringhaus of North Carolina followed suit on September 5th.
Millowners persuaded local authorities throughout the Piedmont to augment their forces by swearing in special deputies, often their own employees or local residents opposed to the strike; in other cases they simply hired private guards to police the areas around the plant. Violence between guards and picketers broke out almost immediately: in Trion, Georgia, a picketer and mill guard died in a shootout and guards killed two picketers in Augusta, Georgia on September 2. Six picketers were shot to death and more than twenty other picketers wounded, most shot in the back as they were fleeing the picketline, in Honea Path, South Carolina on September 6.
Authorities ordered out the National Guard elsewhere in the second week of the strike: Governor Green sent the Guard to Saylesville, Rhode Island after several thousand strikers and sympathizers trapped several hundred strikebreakers in a factory; he subsequently declared martial law in the area on September 11, after picketers armed with rocks, flowerpots and broken headstones from a nearby cemetery battled troops armed with machine guns. A picketer was shot to death the following day in Woonsocket, Rhode Island when guardsmen fired into the crowd attempting to storm the Woonsocket Rayon Plant. Governor Green then asked the federal government to send federal troops; the Roosevelt administration ignored the request.
Maine deployed the Guard in a more tactical manner, sending them to Augusta and Lewiston to discourage wavering employees from joining the strike. That tactic did not work, however, everywhere: workers at Pepperell Mills' plant in Biddeford and York Manufacturing's plant in Saco went out even though the guard was sent to prevent the arrival of flying squadrons rumored to be coming from New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Governor Wilbur Cross of Connecticut also mobilized the Guard, but did not declare martial law. Instead the state labor commissioner met with picketers during the second week of the strike and brought about a reduction in tensions by urging strikers to respect the law and not hurl epithets at strikebreakers.
Things were different in Georgia, where Governor Eugene Talmadge declared martial law in the third week of the strike and directed the National Guard to arrest all picketers throughout the state, holding them in a former World War I prisoner of war camp for trial by a military tribunal. While the state only interned a hundred or so picketers, the show of force effectively ended picketing throughout most of the state.
At that point the mediation board that Roosevelt had appointed in the first week of the strike issued its report. As was typical of federal commissions of this era, the board temporized, urging further studies of the economic plight of the employers and the effects of the stretch-out on their employees. It urged the President to create a new Textile Labor Relations Board to hear workers' complaints and urged employers not to discriminate against strikers.
President Roosevelt announced his support for the report, then urged employees to return to work and the manufacturers to accept the commission's recommendations. The UTW took the opportunity to declare victory and held a number of parades to celebrate the end of the strike.
In fact, the strike was a total defeat for the union, particularly in the South. The union had not forced the mill owners to recognize it or obtained any of its economic demands. The employers refused, moreover, to reinstate strikers throughout the South, while the Cotton Textile National Industrial Relations Board never ceded any authority to any other board. Thousands of strikers never returned to work in the mills.
The union might have escaped this disaster if it had characterized the strike as a first step, rather than attempting to pass it off as a victory. That, however, would have required that the union also devote the resources necessary to follow up with renewed, systematic organizing efforts in the immediate aftermath of the strike, instead of concerning itself with the futile effort to win reinstatement for discharged strikers through the Textile Labor Board. The memory of blacklisting and defeat soured many Southern textile workers on unions for decades.
The 1934 defeat was less cataclysmic in the North, in that the strike was in fact, a number of separate events, commencing at different times in separate industries and in furtherance of local goals. Northern employers were not as ruthless in blacklisting workers and the TWOC made some headway in organizing these plants in the years that followed. Those victories were impermanent, however, as much of northern industry either went South or went bankrupt in the years that followed.
Anti-union sentiment in the South kept wages low for decades, but also acted as a catalyst for development later when industries moved there from the North and Midwest because of lower costs. Employers resisted integrating textile mills; when they were forced to do so by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, researchers found that African Americans were accepted overall by other employees, although they continued to face discrimination in job training and advancement. By the time this occurred, many jobs in the textile industry were already moving overseas, a trend that accelerated in the 1980s.
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