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Thread: The Textile Strike of 1934

  1. #1

    The Textile Strike of 1934

    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.


    When the millowners reduced cotton mill employees' hours still further – with the blessing of the NRA – without raising their hourly wage rates in May, 1934, the UTW threatened a national strike. This talk was largely bluster; the union had made no preparations for a strike that size. When the NRA promised to give the UTW a seat on the board, balanced by the addition of another industry representative, the UTW canceled the planned strike.

    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.

    The strike swept through Southern cotton mills, outpacing the union organizers and employing "flying squadrons" which traveled by truck and on foot from mill to mill, calling the workers out. In Gastonia, where authorities had violently suppressed a strike led by the National Textile Workers Union in 1929, an estimated 5,000 people marched in the September 3rd Labor Day parade. The next day union organizers estimated that 20,000 out of the 25,000 textile workers in the county were out on strike.

    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.


    The mill owners were initially taken by surprise by the scope of the strike. They immediately took the position that these flying squadrons were, in fact, coercing their employees to go out on strike.

    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.

    The strike was, in fact, already falling apart, particularly in the South, where local government refused to provide any relief assistance to strikers and there were few sympathetic churches or unions to provide support. Although the union had pledged before the walkout began to feed strikers, it was wholly unable to fulfill this promise. While roughly half of the textile workers in North and South Carolina and roughly three fourths in Georgia were on strike at this point, with similar figures in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, workers had started to drift back to work and struck plants were reopening, if with only skeleton crews.

    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. ... rike_(1934)
    I think about this from time to time, mostly because of the terrible aftermath, the effective elimination of unionism and progressive politics(well, such as they might be) in the South. On the face of it the strike failed for lack of organization. Other than that, might there any other lessons?

    Of course, the mills are about history now. It's interesting that the practice of 'stretch out' was still practiced in the late 80's. Desperate for work, I worked for a few weeks in a knitting mill on 2nd shift. Don't know how those people did it, I couldn't hang. Circular knitting machines are beasts, 50 to more than a hundred spools running threads to the knitter by way of complicated guides. If one breaks the machine stops and there's always at least one breaking. You are paid minimum plus piece work. I couldn't keep 4 going but experienced hands could run 12. I'll work like a mule but that stuff.....

    On edit: I did a bit of digging but didn't see much in the way of socialist analysis of this event. Little help?
    "We say to the workers: 'You will have to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and international wars, not only in order to change existing conditions, but also in order to change yourselves and fit yourselves for the exercise of political power."'

    MARX (On the Communist Trial at Cologne, 1851).

  2. #2

    Smarmy contemporary elite opinion

    "We say to the workers: 'You will have to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and international wars, not only in order to change existing conditions, but also in order to change yourselves and fit yourselves for the exercise of political power."'

    MARX (On the Communist Trial at Cologne, 1851).

  3. #3

    A homeboy speaks

    Racism is endemic to SC and only a progressive or revolutionary politics can attack it. I don’t think you’ll find those words in another sentence written this year. The politics here are thoroughly un-progressive and casually reactionary. South Carolina is down on the organization of working people: the Governor, the Judicary, the Legislature and the Powers that Be are all for big business.

    This was a slave state, where a minority owned a majority of the population, where every dastardly, criminal and immoral act that could be committed was countenanced to deny freed slaves and their descendants the right to vote, and where the only attempts at union organization have been starved out, most notably the 1935 General Textile Strike. During the strike, the United Textile Workers Union of America organized “coloured” locals in the South. This kind of limited joint organization between the races (segregation within a single union) is the only mass example of such shared action in the post-Reconstruction history of the South. It probably only existed because the enormous scale of the strike provided some cover: political (there was a revolutionary spirit in the air) and criminal (the Law could intimidate but not arrest all the strikers). So the social shame was lessened, and poor people established relationships that would be impossible before or after.

    Neither the Governor nor the Legislature, nor the Presidential candidates are addressing economic security of ordinary people and the reason is systemic. Economic security has been eroded in SC since the textile industry tanked after the Guaranteed Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade liberalized textile imports. (Around here, most people will tell you that NAFTA killed the textile industry. NAFTA was part of the same process of trade liberalization, but is technically distinct from NAFTA as an agreement, I think.) This had been dreaded for years, but employers approach to problem was profoundly incoherent. Textile magnates donated cash to conservative anti-union, anti-tax, anti-affirmative action politicians and think tanks on one hand, then pumped up the region with boosterism like Roger Milliken’s “Power of Pride” campaign, which countered Reagan’s laizze fair economics with the power of positive thinking in the textile industry. It must have occured to SC’s local plutocrats that the trend of anti-union, anti-tax, anti-affirmative action politics would also were also free-trade in everything including textiles. They knew they were caught in a bind and correspondingly cut back on upgrades and improvements beginning in the 80’s (Except for Milliken, who had the cash to spare for research). So the mill owners accepted the inevitable deluge. Some owners sold out, some closed up but even the worst situated mill executive must have been better off than the mill workers, who had no unions, no cross-racial organizations, and were discouraged from collective political initiative on the job and off. This side of South Carolina wasn’t explored in the U.S. media. NPR twinned a report on the good times in Greenville with a human interest story of a Laurens County man living without income and caring for his Alzheimer’s afflicted mother, but it is not archived on their web site. CNN appears to have done no stories even mentioning the subject of poverty in SC. Greg Palast did post to the Monthly Review’s blog detailing the state’s anti-union recent history. ... -carolina/
    "We say to the workers: 'You will have to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and international wars, not only in order to change existing conditions, but also in order to change yourselves and fit yourselves for the exercise of political power."'

    MARX (On the Communist Trial at Cologne, 1851).

  4. #4
    Weird isn't BP? Stuff like this happened everywhere in this country and there's nary a mention or, worse, any recollection of it. And its not just the US, same thing happened in Canada. And they're more "Whitey" than we'll ever be..
    "What our fish really cost us now is not the positive labour-pain expressed by the number 10 — for this we should have undergone at any rate — but the negative loss of an enjoyment which we might have had, indicated by the number 12."
    Abstinence makes the hare grow fonder

    "Bern" it down Prop it up

    No Child Left Behind Alive; (White) Race To The Top

    H for America: The White Devil you know is better than the White Devil you don't.

  5. #5

    Divide and conquer, redbaiting

    President Green's first stop was at Charlotte, N. C., focus of textile conflict (TIME, Aug. 12 et seq.). There he presided over the Southern Industrial conference of the A. F. of L., planned the unionization of 95 trades in eleven southern states. He warned mill operators that unless they accepted the A. F. of L. unions, they would be left to fight the spread of Communist unions singlehanded.

    Greenunciations: "We are endeavoring to supplement the work of the churches. . . . They [Communist unionizers] are fanning the flames of passion and hate . . . substituting imported philosophy from Russia for the teachings of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. . . ."

    Conciliatory President Thomas F. McMahon of United Textile Workers, A. F. of L. affiliate, explained his organizers did not intend to call strikes in Southern mills, were opposed to forceful tactics, but were ready and willing, if necessary, to "fight for their right to organize." The radical National Textile Workers Union jeered this conservative proposal, charged the A. F. of L. with selling out strikes, called its whole Southern program a sham. ... 41,00.html
    "We say to the workers: 'You will have to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and international wars, not only in order to change existing conditions, but also in order to change yourselves and fit yourselves for the exercise of political power."'

    MARX (On the Communist Trial at Cologne, 1851).

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