American Textile Strike of 1934

Review: Friedman on Irons

Janet Irons, Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. x + 262 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-252-02527-X; $16.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-252-06840-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst. April 2002.

If America is exceptional, the South is extraordinary. Unions and radical political movements have been weaker in the United States than in other advanced capitalist democracies for a century. But it is the South that has been the most conservative region in a conservative country, the region where unions have been the weakest. The South has been the home of American exceptionalism.

Like exceptionalism in general, Southern exceptionalism has been used as evidence that American workers are fundamentally conservative, opposed to collective action and to movements to restrict capitalism. But there has been another approach to studying the South. Instead of focusing on stable conservatism, some emphasize episodic radicalism and periods of dramatic upheaval. Rather than view southern workers as actively pro-capitalist, it sees them as defeated, passive because they have been forced to submit to capitalist rule. Their real nature has been revealed only on a few occasions when they rose up in failed rebellions. Perhaps the most spectacular of these rebellions came in September, 1934 when for three weeks nearly 200,000 southern textile workers, two-thirds of the total workforce, conducted the largest single strike in southern industrial history. Spreading their message with 'flying squadrons' of car-borne strikers, these textile workers showed none of the conservatism and docility associated with southern labor. They were the cutting edge of 1930s labor unrest that in Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and elsewhere in the North led to the establishment of strong labor unions and stable collective bargaining. But in Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas strike defeats led to the nearly complete eradication of independent unionism.

Janet Irons tells the story of this strike to make a larger point about southern exceptionalism. In her account, southern deunionization does not reflect the wishes of southern workers. Instead, it was created by relations of power favoring employers and conservative politicians. Given opportunities, southern workers rushed to join unions and to support working-class based movements for social change. During World War I, for example, southern workers formed unions under the protection of the War Labor Board. But, once the war ended, the withdrawal of government support allowed employers to crush these independent unions quickly. These struggles suggest to Irons "that workers would willingly join unions if afforded the opportunity." But, "in the absence of some countervailing power, such as that of the federal government ... state officials did not hesitate to use state militia to eliminate" unions. "If southern textile unions were to succeed," she concludes, "it would be necessary for the balance of power to shift. Textile workers needed allies, constituencies in the larger society who would be willing to weigh in against the power of the mill owners" (p. 22).

The union boom and the strike of 1934 are the core of Irons's study, the substance of her argument that conflict, power, and repression are the keys to understanding southern labor. Southern textile workers wanted collective representation, she argues, but southern textile unions grew after 1928 because there were new opportunities created. Facing declining real wages and increased workloads at the end of the 1920s, southern textile workers joined strikes and, again, looked to form independent unions. The support of northern unions after the election of Franklin Roosevelt and the enactment of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), gave them a fresh opportunity, which they seized to form unions. To increase their own economic and political influence, northern textile unionists (in the United Textile Workers) sent paid organizers into the South and provided advice, research, and encouragement for union organization. Labor's enhanced status in the Roosevelt administration encouraged workers to join unions. "It is impossible," Irons writes, "to overestimate the sense of hope mill workers felt because of the Code. It legitimized their sense of place in society. It also created an intense loyalty to the New Deal and to President and Mrs. Roosevelt" (p. 77).

Union membership jumped sharply with the enactment of the NIRA. Some mills achieving universal membership even while others remained completely nonunion. Again, Irons concludes that the difference reflected "the divided mindset among southern manufacturers about how to respond to Section 7(a) [of the NIRA] ..." Many mills "brazenly ignored 7(a), others did not attempt to interfere with union organizing; some even explicitly recognized their workers' unions" (p. 69). But workers quickly grew disenchanted with the NIRA when it failed to protect workers' right to organize or to provide higher wages or better working conditions. They concluded that either through delay or design, the NIRA bureaucracy was more responsive to employers than to workers. "Out of several hundred cases on the stretchout we have placed before the Board," UTW president Thomas McMahon complained, "we haven't received one adjustment" (p. 119). Desperate for protection from anti-union employers and to get help in improving conditions but convinced that management had no "notion of living up to Article 7a," UTW locals throughout the South moved to take direct action and to strike. The UTW voted nearly unanimously for a general strike in August 1934.

The UTW entered the strike with no money and minimal staff. Nonetheless, the strike attracted wide support throughout the South and was supported with a missionary spirit by workers who saw themselves as righteous agents of New Deal justice. "The first strike on record," Roy Lawrence, president of the North Carolina Federation of Labor, said, "was the strike in which Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt. They too struck against intolerable conditions" (p. 121). But despite widespread support and innovative tactics, employer resistance overwhelmed the strike. Irons describes the often brutal tactics of anti-union southern employers, the beatings and discriminatory firings, the evictions from company-owned towns, and the murders. State governors in North and South Carolina promptly deployed militia to drive away pickets and to help private mill guards; Georgia's governor waited till after the state's primary to declare martial law and arrest strike leaders throughout the state. At Duneen Mill in Greenville, South Carolina, for example, 425 national guardsmen were deployed to break up pickets. These guardsmen never acted on their instructions to 'shoot to kill,' but nearby, in Honea Mill, private mill guards killed seven strikers (p. 133).

Southern textile workers could not overcome such powerful repression on their own. Their only hope was to arouse enough northern support to force their employers to negotiate. But, as at the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, the North had little patience for southern strife. Rather than condemn the guards and their employers for the murders at Honea Mill, for example, Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins called the affair 'an unfortunate situation" (p. 149). Such words were hardly designed to galvanize public sympathy for the textile workers. Instead, news of the killings validated what many in Washington thought they knew: that the strike was a foolhardy enterprise.

Denied northern support, southern textile workers lost their strike and their union, a failure that unleashed a flood of recriminations and employer retaliation that would undermine any renewed organizing drive for decades. Southern exceptionalism was created in 1934 when national politicians and northern unions abandoned southern workers' attempt at win union status. Through the rest of the twentieth century, low southern wages and nonunion working conditions would undermine northern unions and liberal politics. Perhaps, Irons implies, rather than blaming some mythic southern exceptionalism, it was their own fault.

An important event in American labor history, the southern textile strike of 1934 was one of the turning points where southern history did not turn. Janet Irons has told an important story in a book that should be read by all interested in the development of modern American history and economics.

An economic historian at the University of Massachusetts, Gerald Friedman has written extensively on the development of the labor movements in the United States and Europe. He is the author of State-Making and Labor Movements: The United States and France, 1876-1914 (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1998) and "The Political Economy of Early Southern Unionism: Race, Politics, and Labor in the South, 1880-1953," Journal of Economic History (June 2000).

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