1934: Strike wave in the South

August 22, 2012

Russell Pryor examines the obstacles faced by Southern workers during the General Textile Strike of 1934.

"IT WAS on Labor Day in 1934 that I witnessed the closest thing that this country has had to a revolution," Atlanta labor lawyer Joe Jacobs recalled. "The General Textile Strike was one of the largest strikes in American history; it was the culmination of homegrown organizing and protest. For many Southern workers, it was the first time they had raised their voices as citizens to challenge the control of mill owner."

Despite its problems--a misplaced faith in the saving grace of the Democratic Party and pervasive racism in the South--Southern mill workers' participation in the 1934 general strike represented a high water mark for class struggle south of the Mason-Dixon Line in the tumultuous 1930s.

Some 170,000 Southern textile workers joined 130,000 fellow workers in Northern mills in one of the largest national strikes in American history. And they did so, in large part, on their own. With only lukewarm support from their union, the United Textile Workers (UTW), Southern workers were largely self-organized.

Textile workers on strike parade through Gastonia, N.C.
Textile workers on strike parade through Gastonia, N.C.

Indeed, workers in the South had organized themselves at such a pace in the months leading up to the strike that the weak national leadership was ill-equipped (and unwilling) to coordinate a national struggle. Workers forced UTW leaders to follow the rank-and-file and commit to their struggle.

For three weeks, Southern workers held fast against the organized power of their bosses and elites in state and local governments. Massive repression on the part of pliant state governments throughout the region, a disinterested Roosevelt administration, and the bosses' crude reliance on a "divide-and-rule" strategy that exploited racial divisions within the strikers' ranks all combined to break the strike.

Southern workers' fight failed in 1934 and, in many ways, the American working class is still bearing the cost.

IN 1934, Southern workers' newspapers were brimming with news of general strikes in Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis. The message that labor was stirring and that it was possible to win was not lost on them.

Moreover, President Franklin Roosevelt's vague endorsement of collective bargaining encouraged many workers to view their struggle as one sanctioned by the federal government. The national context is important for understanding the strike's timing, but textile workers' experiences on the job and in their communities is key to making sense of their tenacity.

Industrialization, particularly in textiles, was an important response on the part of Southern elites to the economic chaos that followed the Civil War and Reconstruction. Keeping with definitions of "progress" at the time, the Southern bosses boasted that industry would revitalize a region mired in social, cultural and economic backwardness.

Such "progress," they contended, was wholly compatible with Southern apartheid. African Americans were barred from employment in textiles--"progress," as with much else in the turn-of-the-century South, was "whites only."

The hundreds of thousands of rural whites that entered (and left) Southern textile mills at the turn of the century saw "dark satanic mills" rather than the "progress" elites promised.

Rhetoric about modernization notwithstanding, textile capitalists' drew on traditional rural culture in their search for profits. Mirroring work on the farm, factory owners often employed entire families--women, children and all--to run their looms.

Workers earned paltry wages for long hours, lived in dilapidated housing with poor sanitation, and were forced to spend much of their income at company stores. Diseases and industrial "accidents" were common. Poverty and indebtedness were endemic. Such was the "progress" Southern capitalists made.

The riches came rolling in for Southern capitalists. Though Southern mills were less productive in comparison with their competitors in New England, poorly paid nonunion workers drove down the cost of production to such an extent that the differential mattered little.

Mirroring a process that took shape on a global scale at the end of the 20th century, capital flight was among the primary responses to Southern competition. Either the physical relocation of factories to points south or simply the threat to do so provided northern capitalists with a ready weapon with which to beat recalcitrant workers into submission.

The labor movement was ill-equipped to deal with the problem. UTW leaders focused their energies on ending North-South wage differentials, but expressed little interest in organizing Southern workers. In 1898, American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers, responded to capital flight by condemning Southern workers as inherently inferior and arguing that they were "chinesing [sic] our people, our institutions, and our civilization."

SOUTHERN WORKERS were far from docile. As early as the 1880s, the Knights of Labor made serious strides into Southern textiles. A series of ill-fated strikes and the collapse of the national union, however, undermined their efforts. The industry remained largely unorganized by the early 20th century.

A lack of unions didn't prevent Southern workers from engaging in wildcat strikes or simply "voting with their feet" and leaving the industry altogether. In doing so, they extracted major concessions from their employers throughout the region.

Between 1900 and 1920, the creation of an elaborate system of welfare capitalism in mills throughout the South was the most important of these concessions. Decent wages, schools, life insurance and adequate housing were key components of this new system.

Welfare capitalism, however, proved to be a double-edged sword. The quality of life for Southern workers doubtlessly improved, but the textile capitalists whose wealth was based on racism and their ruthless exploitation of white Southern families didn't suddenly develop a conscience.

Welfare capitalism was premised on dependency and designed to encourage complacency. The employer was the benefactor. Workers, so the thinking went, would be grateful. And grateful workers do not strike or form unions.

Under pressure from the post-First World War recession, Southern textile workers pushed back. Along with their fellow workers in other industries, they fought pitched battles against their bosses. The 1920s were not, however, a good decade to be a textile worker.

Northern textile capital continued its southern trek and workers' organizations--North and South--were roundly beaten in 1919. And all of this was made that much worse by a general crisis in the industry.

The bosses used the crisis to drive down wages, beat back unions and, over the course of the decade, to begin the slow process of dismantling the institutions of social welfare capitalism. Without their bosses' "good will" to rely on, workers increasingly relied on each other.

By the time the Great Depression struck in 1929, many Southern textile workers had been ground down by the iron heel of capital for nearly a decade. In addition to union busting, layoffs and wage cuts, textile capitalists responded to the crisis in the 1920s with the "stretch out."

Simply put, mill owners forced the remaining workers to run more machines for less pay. If workers couldn't keep up, employers could tap into a vast pool of the unemployed who could--or who would at least try until they too were burned out.

Southern workers had never been passive. And they did not deal with the bosses' offensive and the stretch out lying down. Workers fought back. Even when they failed (and they often did), they learned. They assessed their losses, regrouped and fought again. Moreover, the viciousness with which the textile bosses dealt with workers helped turn the tide of public opinion, especially in the urban South, toward the side of the workers and their unions.

Regionally focused on defending their gains in New England, though, the labor movement remained largely aloof from Southern workers' struggles. With the exception of dedicated union activists working in and around the Communist Party and its National Textile Workers' Union in the late 1920s, Southern workers' struggle were largely self-organized and directed by the workers themselves rather than distant national union leaders.

THE DEPRESSION came on the heels of nearly a decade of economic crisis in the industry and an uptick in class struggle. When Roosevelt launched the National Industrial Recovery Administration (NIRA) in 1933, Southern workers and their bosses were eager for the federal government to step in.

Under the NIRA, the administration established an "industry code" designed to regulate competition, wages and the "stretch out." The code also included vague wording in Section 7(a) that many workers and their allies interpreted as a federal endorsement of collective bargaining rights.

On both counts, though, the industry had a different idea. Wiley Southern capitalists understood the industry code to be a federal cover for their attacks on workers. And they viewed Section 7(a) as little more than an endorsement of company unions.

Rather than tamp down on workers' activism, the industry code appeared to encourage it. In 7(a), they saw a right to unionize--and unionize they did. From a virtually nonexistent force in at the beginning of 1933, union density approached one-third to half of the Southern textile industry by the end of the year. Workers organized themselves, and they went on the offensive.

Though many Southern workers understood that their local and state politicians did the bidding of business over anything else, the newly organized textile workers appeared to put much faith in the potential of the incoming Democratic president Roosevelt and his New Deal.

Southern workers wrote thousands of letters to the new administration demanding assistance. They combined their letter writing with organizing and often wrote collective letters addressing workplace grievances. Moreover, in the veritable police state that was the Jim Crow South in the 1930s, letter writing itself was potentially a dangerous act.

"If you investigate this [set of complaints]," one Southern worker wrote, "please don't use my name as we are afraid of losing our jobs. All the people here is [sic] afraid to speak up for themselves, afraid of losin' [sic] their jobs." Another group of workers from Columbus, Georgia signed their protest letter: "A Committee of Half-Starved Human Beings Looking to You for Help."

The Roosevelt administration was far from a reliable defender of Southern workers. Despite the popular image of Roosevelt as a crusader for labor rights, his administration was content to leave Southern workers to the wolves.

The Democratic Party he led was the same one that governed the South. And he enjoyed a special relationship with Southern elites. Some he counted among his friends. Roosevelt spent a great deal of the 1920s in Georgia and had been repeatedly asked to run for governor. In a fight between Southern bosses and "their" workers, then, Roosevelt could be counted on to side with capital.

The industry code functioned exactly the way the bosses hoped it would. With promises of arbitration, it proved effective in ending strikes and demobilizing workers. The fact that "arbitrators" nearly always sided with the bosses was, on the other hand, hardly sustainable.

SOUTHERN TEXTILE workers fought back. And, in the process, forced their leaders to follow. During the spring and summer of 1934, the region was engulfed in an unprecedented strike wave. By the time of the UTW national convention in August 1934, much of its 130,000 members in the South were already on strike. If it wanted to save face, the union had to come to terms with reality and endorse the action. That it did.

Under pressure from rank-and-file workers--North and South--the union announced that unless the administration and the industry code leadership acceded to the workers' demands, it would call a general strike on September 3--Labor Day.

When Labor Day came, most Southern textile workers were already out on strike. In cities like Columbus, Ga., where union power was solid, employers gave workers a holiday to attend a massive Labor Day parade. For most workers in the city, a holiday from the bosses was not necessary. A majority of Columbus workers had been on strike since mid-August.

On the second day of the official general strike, though, the struggle spread. Nearly 95 percent of the city's 12,000 workers stayed out. Local officials responded by deputizing a number of unemployed workers. Mass pickets that included their friends, family and neighbors jeered at the young men and urged them to resign and join the strike. To great cheers, they did just that.

By September 6, a local newspaper reported, "A Sunday-like appearance prevailed at the cotton mills." All was not quiet, however. Organized in "flying pickets," workers armed with picket signs (and often guitars as well) moved from town to town calling on their fellow workers to join them. The strike continued to spread.

In Columbus, the strike turned into a standoff. Then, on September 18, Georgia's Democratic Gov. Eugene Talmadge called in the National Guard. Columbus and other centers of strike activity were soon under occupation. Dubbed "Georgia's Hitler" by liberals, Talmadge was a vile racist (even by Southern standards) and a champion of reaction.

A substantial bribe from the state's textile bosses notwithstanding, Talmadge's decision to call out the National Guard had become the norm throughout the region. In the face of a massive workers' rebellion, state governments and textile capitalists needed military force to put them down.

Strike leaders in Columbus were summarily kidnapped and held incommunicado for upward of six weeks. Leading activists from all over the state were "arrested" and held in an open-air prison camp just south of Atlanta.

ONE FUNCTION of the military occupation in cities like Columbus was to facilitate strikebreakers' entry into the mills. Though the picture was different in each locality, mill owners in Columbus moved railroad cars full of African American workers into the mills and used the National Guard for protection.

Employing the tactic of divide and conquer, the bosses used white workers' racism against Blacks to divert attention from the real enemy--the bosses who refused to negotiate in good faith with workers.

The fact that Black workers had been systematically excluded from the industry and a union meant that they had little sympathy for the strikers. For them, it was an opportunity to get a job, albeit temporarily, at a time when jobs were few and far in between. According to reports, the National Guard stepped in to prevent at least one lynching of a Black worker by whites in Columbus--among groups of workers who should have been allies not enemies.

At the national level, the union called off the strike after just 10 days on September 13. Local activists had organized and lead the strike themselves and many paid little attention to union leaders when it didn't suit them. Still, the union's decision had lasting repercussions for Southern workers.

In what historian Janet Irons calls one of the struggle's "chief ironies," union leaders called the strike because workers found federal arbitration to be a farce and ended it based on promises from the federal government to arbitrate in good faith.

Such spineless leadership left Southern workers in a lurch. The most militant workers, indeed the leaders of the 1934 strike, were simply not rehired and were blacklisted. The union was unable to anything but watch. Arbitration proved, once again, to be a farce.

The strikes' lessons weren't entirely lost on union leaders. UTW Vice President Francis Gorman, who refused to sanction flying pickets during the strike, later reflected, "Many of us did not understand what we do now: that the government protects the strong, not the weak, and that it operates under pressure and yields to that group which is strong enough to assert itself over the other."

The union's faith in state power was, he concluded, "naïve." Rank-and-file workers, he argued, "must be made to feel that they are the controlling factor in this union. They must be encouraged to take the initiative in making the policies of the organization." Gorman spent the next several years after the strike's defeat organizing for a political break with the Democrats and for the formation of a national Labor Party.

Gorman's vision of rank-and-file union democracy and his view of state power came too late. In the Jim Crow South, actively opposing racism in all its forms needed to be central to any successful fight capable of addressing the interests of the working class in the South. Moreover, the labor movement's reliance on the Democrats was, as radical historian Mike Davis later put it, likely to produce a "barren marriage" in the decades to come.

The strike failed, and its failure was a dark cloud over the Southern labor movement for the rest of the century. At the risk of sounding cliché, though, dark clouds often have silver linings. With all the struggle's problems, for a brief moment, Southern textile workers stood tall, defied their bosses and defied the state.

Seventy-eight years have passed since Southern textile workers made their stand. Socialists today can learn from their mistakes and draw courage from their struggle.

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