Unrest in the Southern textile mills

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Ella May Wiggins

The General Textile Strike of 1934 directed by the United Textile Workers of America was the largest strike in American history - nearly 500,000 workers walked off the job.

The strike began on Labor Day, 1934. Textile workers felt President Roosevelt and the law was on their side, but when the strike finally ended on September 22, the workers had been completely defeated.

Georgia was among the national leaders in the manufacturing of cotton textiles. It was the largest industry in the state, employing over 60,000 people, and Eugene Talmadge, Georgia's flamboyant governor, was to play a dramatic and pivotal role in the strike.

The primary election to determine if Talmadge would  win a second two-year term as governor fell on September 12, right in the middle of the General Strike.

Throughout the campaign, and especially during the time the strike was actually going on, Talmadge made an extremely emotional appeal to the state's cotton mill workers. In a well-publicized promise to the unions, he said, "I will never use the troops to break up a strike."

As soon as his re-election was assured, however, Talmadge committed an act of almost unbelievable treachery. 

On the very night of the primary election, responding to a bribe from the mill owners, the Governor broke his promise and called out Georgia's entire 4,000 man National Guard.

The troops were ordered to "arrest the picketers and get the mills back in operation." An incredible display of brutality followed as thousands of Georgia's already oppressed mill workers were beaten, bayoneted, and rounded up into detention camps where they were held without charge under military law.

With action that revealed careful planning, union strike leaders were arrested simultaneously all across the state and were not allowed to communicate with anyone.

Theodore Forbes, executive secretary of the Cotton Manufacturing Association of Georgia, commented, "Talmadge is the best Governor this state ever had; he broke the strike for us."

The strike had been an unmitigated disaster for Georgia's textile workers. Few strikers and no union men were rehired as called for in the agreement terminating the strike. Four men were dead and the state labor organization was in shambles.

The strike ended with militiamen brutally beating a fifth worker to death in front of his family when he moved too slowly when ordered from the Callaway Mill property. 

Early problems

Production in cotton mills soared during World War I due to the demand for military supplies, but once the war ended demand dropped sharply.

Competition from textile centers in other parts of the world cut into Southern manufacturers' share of international markets.

Even the 1920s fashions of shorter skirts made of less material reduced sales.

Owners cut costs by reducing wages, operating mills around the clock, and making their employees work harder for their pay. 

In the 1920s, mill owners also tried to increase efficiency by eliminating wasted time and resources from mill operations. They added faster equipment and fired some of their employees. They installed counting devices to keep track of employee production, and adopted the techniques of scientific management made famous by the time-and-motion studies of Frederick W. Taylor.

Manufacturers worked to find ways of getting more work from each employee. They also tied wages to rates of production that only the most skilled hands could match. Under this system, some employees could make a little extra, but most made less and worked harder to get it.

Millhands running multiple fast-moving machines found factory work increasingly strenuous. They called these attempts at increased efficiency the "stretch out" and became frustrated at the difficulties they faced in meeting their quotas.

By 1929, workers’ anger and dissatisfaction spilled into public unrest. The breakdown of a tacit
social contract that permitted workers a measure of dignity and autonomy in the village and on the shop floor was threatened, and a rising generation of southern millhands rediscovered and sharpened the weapons of collective resistance forged a decade before.

The wave of strikes began in Elizabethton, Tennessee on March 12, 1929. Millhands held out for three months, but ultimately came back to work after a settlement in which the company agreed not to discriminate against union workers, a promise that it did not keep.

Before the Elizabethton strike ended, however, thousands of millhands had walked out of factories in Marion and Gastonia, North Carolina and in other textile communities across the Piedmont.  In every case, the workers aimed their protests at what they called the "hard rules" of cotton mill labor, but the odds were stacked against the strikers.

Manufacturers had warehouses full of goods and could simply wait for hunger and debt to force their employees back to work. 

The legal system also favored employers by allowing for the use of private police and the state militia to intimidate protesters.

In Gastonia, Ella May Wiggins, the balladeer and heroine of the local strike, was ambushed and murdered on her way to a union rally. The Gastonia protest collapsed in the aftermath of her death.  There, as in other textile towns, the United Textile Workers union was too weak to challenge the economic and political power of the cotton manufacturers and to organize the labor force.   

The strikes of 1929 and 1930 were largely unsuccessful, but the seeds of resistance took hold. In Elizabethton, an autocratic manager was recalled, wages went up, and hours went down. In Marion and Gastonia, the workweek was shortened, and conditions in the Marion mill village improved. For some individuals, the strikes brought a strengthened sense of self, a belief that they had made history and that later generations would benefit from what they had done.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act into law.  Under the NIRA, a regulatory body known as the Cotton Textile Board was established to enforce a code of fair competition for the industry.  The code's purpose was to limit destructive price competition among manufacturers, prevent the over-production of textile goods, and guarantee millhands a minimum wage. 

The Cotton Textile Board was controlled, however, by  mill owners, and in practice, manufacturers often turned the code of fair competition to their own advantage.  By "stretching out the stretch-out," they effectively turned the minimum wage into the maximum that most workers could earn and laid off thousands of additional hands. 

Older millhands without pension plans were fired when they could not keep up with production, and the stretch-out hit spinners, most of them women and among the lowest paid workers in the industry, with particular force. Under such circumstances, workers found it increasingly difficult to feed their families.

After repeated refusals by the Cotton Textile Board to act on their complaints, millhands took matters into their own hands.

Beginning on July 14, 1934 in the northern Alabama community of Guntersville, wildcat strikes rolled across the state, pulling 20,000 workers out of the mills. Strikers demanded a twelve-dollar minimum wage for a thirty-hour week, abolition of the stretch-out, reinstatement of workers fired for union activity and union recognition.

When millhands in North Carolina threatened to do the same, the United Textile Workers union called a convention at which delegates presented resolutions calling for a general strike.


Child Labor in the Cotton Mills of Georgia

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Perhaps no discussion of this subject would throw more light upon it than the arguments made before the legislature of the state in November 1902 when the child-labor bill was under discussion. This bill provides an age limit of 12 years, except in the case of children working for the support of disabled parents when the age limit of 10 is valid.

There has been a steady growth of public sentiment in favor of such protective legislation; that it is not yet strong enough to have resulted in the passage of the bill is clue to the fact that the expansion of the cotton-mill industry has been so rapid that the majority of the people in the state are as yet unacquainted with its evil effects upon the hundreds of children drawn in the last decade into mill life. Further, there are undeniably good results from the steady employment of a large body of our population at fair wages who hitherto had been barely self-supporting, if that; and this immediate good has blinded the eyes of even sincere people to the ultimate injury to the child and to the state from existing conditions.

These and other conclusions are evident in the following extracts from addresses made by several mill owners and from arguments brought forward by members of the state legislature:

"Child labor is rendered necessary by poverty through inheritance or misfortune, a cause which cannot be eradicated by law. The mills of Georgia are dependent for their labor upon poor white people who were, as a rule, tenants on farms. Children are brought to the mills by their parents because the work is lighter, the pay is better, and they have better opportunities for improvement and enjoyment than on the farms. I appeal to the legislature and to the state in behalf of these people not to interfere with their privilege to work when and where they will. Georgia is suffering more from idleness than she is from ignorance. Instead of requiring that anyone who wants to work should bring a certificate that he had been to school, I would rather see a law requiring that any one who wished to be educated at public expense should bring a certificate showing that he had been at work."

"In all this discussion there has not been any petition from the laborers themselves asking that these laws be passed, and it is safe to assert that a vote by the mill operatives would overwhelmingly defeat the measure. The agitation for such laws always comes from representatives of labor unions, and the people of Georgia do not know what dangerous elements they are dealing with when they give any kind of support to these agitators.... Their efforts lead inevitably to paternalism and socialism.

By Mary Applewhite Bacon  in Charities 11 (July 18, 1903)

The March for the Mill Children 

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Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (1836-1930) was a union organizer best known for her work with coal miners' unions.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a nationally known labor organizer, called Jones "the greatest woman agitator of our times." She was denounced in the U.S. Senate as the grandmother of all agitators. Mother Jones was proud of that title and said she hoped to live to be the great grandmother of agitators.

When she rose to national prominence in the early 1900s, she was in her 60s, had gray hair, and became a grandmother figure to the unionists. In 1903, she organized a march of striking children from the textile mills of Kensington, Pennsylvania, to Oyster Bay to petition President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt refused to see them, but the march helped to raise national awareness of the plight of child workers.

"In the spring of 1903 I went to Kensington, Pennsylvania, where seventy-five thousand textile workers were on strike. Of this number at least ten thousand were little children. The workers were striking for more pay and shorter hours. Every day little children came into Union Headquarters, some with their hands off, some with the thumb missing, some with their fingers off at the knuckle. They were stooped things, round shouldered and skinny. Many of them were not over ten years of age, the state law prohibited their working before they were twelve years of age.

The law was poorly enforced and the mothers of these children often swore falsely as to their children's age. In a single block in Kensington, fourteen women, mothers of twenty-two children all under twelve, explained it was a question of starvation or perjury. That the fathers had been killed or maimed at the mines.

I asked the newspaper men why they didn't publish the facts about child labor in Pennsylvania. They said they couldn't because the mill owners had stock in the papers. "Well, I've got stock in these little children," said I, "and I'll arrange a little publicity."

We assembled a number of boys and girls one morning in Independence Park and from there we arranged to parade with banners to the court house where we would hold a meeting. A great crowd gathered in the public square in front of the city hall. I put the little boys with their fingers off and hands crushed and maimed on a platform. I held up their mutilated hands and showed them to the crowd and made the statement that Philadelphia's mansions were built on the broken bones, the quivering hearts and drooping heads of these children. That their little lives went out to make wealth for others. That neither state or city officials paid any attention to these wrongs. That they did not care that these children were to be the future citizens of the nation.

The officials of the city hall were standing the open windows. I held the little ones of the mills high up above the heads of the crowd and pointed to their puny arms and legs and hollow chests. They were light to lift.

I called upon the millionaire manufactures to cease their moral murders, and I cried to the officials in the open windows opposite, "Some day the workers will take possession of your city hall, and when we do, no child will be sacrificed on the altar of profit."

The officials quickly closed the windows, as they had closed their eyes and hearts."

By Mother Jones in The Autobiography of Mother Jones (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1925).

Death of Ella May Wiggins

Ella May Wiggins

In her short twenty-nine-year life, Ella May Wiggins became a symbol of hope, activism, and the labor cause. She grew up in a poor family. Her mother died when she was eighteen; her father, the following year.

She married John Wiggins soon after and had a baby within a year. Her husband suggested they move to a town with a textile mill so that they would have a regular income. The Wiggins family moved to a mill town, where Ella May Wiggins had seven more children, four of whom died in early childhood. During pregnancies, she continued to work in a textile mill, often on twelve-hour shifts.

Around 1926 the family moved to Gaston County, North Carolina, when John Wiggins abandoned them. She rented a shack in an area known as Stumptown, where her neighbors looked after her children as she worked as a spinner at American Mill No. 2.

She worked twelve-hour days, six days a week, earning about nine dollars a week. It was during this time that Southern textile mill wages and working conditions were declining and worker dissatisfaction was increasing. In an effort to increase profits, mill managements throughout the region began increasing worker hours without raising wages, a practice known as a “stretch-out.”

In April 1929 the Loray workers began a strike, prompting workers at five other nearby mills to walk off their jobs. Soon there were about a thousand striking workers. Violence began between the strikers and city police and the police chief was killed on June 7. Sixteen unionists were charged with the killing; six were later found guilty on conspiracy to murder.

Ella May Wiggins was an ardent unionist who had a reputation for not backing down from a fight. She learned organizational and strike tactics, became a union bookkeeper, and traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify about labor practices in the South. Her own story made her most powerful testimony: “I’m the mother of nine. Four died with the whooping cough, all at once. I was working nights, I asked the super to put me on days, so’s I could tend ‘em when they had their bad spells. But he wouldn’t. I don’t know why.…So I had to quit

Wiggins also tackled a task that fellow unionists had shunned: organizing African American workers. Racism was rampant in Gastonia, as elsewhere in the state and the South, in the late 1920s, but Wiggins didn’t believe in segregation and knew it was important for all mill workers to unite for their cause. In one instance, Wiggins stepped over a rope separating African American and white workers at a union meeting and sat with the African Americans. In a close vote, her local NTWU branch voted to admit African Americans to the union.

Wiggins was in danger from those against her causes. Receiving threats and having the water in her spring poisoned, however, did not stop Wiggins’s activism. On September 14, 1929, she and other union members drove in a truck to Gastonia for a union meeting. As they arrived in town, an armed mob made them turn back. They had driven about five miles toward home when a car blocked their passage. Armed men jumped out and began shooting.

Wiggins was shot in the chest and killed.

Wiggins’s words about her strong convictions, “They’ll have to kill me to make me give up the union,” proved prophetic. Five men were indicted for Wiggins’s murder but were acquitted after less than thirty minutes of deliberation in a trial in Charlotte in March 1930. 

Mill Mother's Lament

We leave our home in the morning
We kiss our children goodbye
While we slave for the bosses
Our children scream and cry.

And when we draw our money
Our grocer's bills to pay
Not a cent to keep for clothing
Not a cent to lay away.

And on that very evening
Our little ones will say
I need some shoes, dear mother
And so does sister May.

Now it grieves the heart of a mother
You everyone must know
But we cannot buy for our children
Our wages are too low.

Now listen to the workers
Both women and you men
Let's win for them the victory
I'm sure twill be no sin.

- Ella May Wiggins  (1900 - 1929)

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