When I was a kid I was really confused about Labor Day. Why have a holiday where nobody goes to work and then call it “Labor” Day? It wasn’t until I learned about the Labor Movement that I began to see the connection.
In honor of Labor Day, today’s post is a greatly simplified history of the Labor Movement and how it influenced the textile industry, especially in the South. I’ll go ahead and state straight out that I was reared by a man who was a strong supporter of Labor, and that while I try to keep an open mind and realize there are always at least two sides to any story, I am strongly sympathetic to the cause of organized labor.
I hope all of you (in the US anyway) learned in school that after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793 the growth of cotton fairly exploded across the South. What might seem a bit odd today is that even though the cotton was grown in the South, it was shipped to textile factories in the North and in England where it was spun into thread which was woven into cloth. There were very few textile factories in the South until the 1880s.
There was a good geographical reason for there being few factories in the South. It had to do with power, or the lack of it. Until the steam engine came along, factories depended on water power, so factories had to be located along a stream or river where water was falling. In the South, there is a wide coastal plain where there are no water falls, but in the North the fall line is close to the coast, where most of the people were living. The fall line in the South was located far inland, away from the centers of population and the source of workers. It makes sense that the factories were located where there was a close supply of workers.
There were other factors, of course. The machinery was being manufactured in the North, and the industrial leaders were not eager to sell the machinery to a region that could use slave labor to compete with them.
After the end of the Civil War the development of the railroad and of the steam engine led to factories being built in the South. The war had greatly disrupted the infrastructure of the region, so this development was slow. But by the turn of the 20th century, there were textile factories being built all over the piedmont South. Many of the early textile companies were formed by local men, like Franklin Mebane, who started what became Fieldcrest, and James Cannon, the founder of Cannon Mills.
As time went on, many textile and sewing companies in the North decided to relocate to the South. A good example of this is the Beacon Blanket Company, which began its move south in 1923. The reason often given for the relocation was that they wanted the factories to be closer to the source of the raw material, cotton. And while this was true, there was also the fact that labor costs were cheaper in the South.
The long established textile mills in the North had begun to be regulated by the state governments. More and more there were laws that limited child labor, and that set limits on the work day of adult workers. In the South, which traditionally had few factories, these laws were slow in coming. This pushed the cost of labor in the South below what it was in the North.
The lack of manufacturing in the South meant that jobs were hard to come by and highly prized. When a factory was being built, the owners often build a surrounding town from scratch. This would include a church, a company store and low cost housing for the workers. Pretty soon the workers’ lives were firmly intertwined with that of the mill.
Add to this the fact there was a growing suspicion of labor unions in the South. In the 1920s there was a series of doomed attempts to unionize textile mills which led to the deaths of workers. The promises of the unions to support striking workers fell through, and the strikes were unsuccessful. It all left a bad taste in workers’ mouths. And it did not help that most of the union organizers were from outside the region. It was easy for the factory management to characterize them as outside agitators.
Throughout the mid 20th century, most Southern textile and sewing factories remained non-union. But big changes were occurring in the way the mills were being run. Many of the original founding families were selling the textile companies and ownership became absentee, with many of the owners living in other areas, leaving the day to day running of the mills to management teams.
Still, old loyalties to the company and the families that “took care of” the workers remained. I grew up in a paper mill town that had been established and owned by the same family for 60 years. When there was an attempt to unionize the factory, many workers refused to vote for the union out of a sense of loyalty to the Robertson family, even though they had sold the majority of the company to a New York firm. It was the same in many textile companies across the South.
But there was another concern, and that was of job security. Workers feared that voting for and joining a union would jeopardize their jobs. And this was a valid concern. In 1956, when the workers at the Deering Milliken plant in Darlington, SC voted to join the Textile Workers Union of America, the company promptly closed the factory, putting 500 people out of work. Even though the move was illegal, it took 24 years before the fired workers were compensated with back pay.
But there were successes. After years of having their products boycotted by union workers across the country, JP Stevens finally was unionized in the mid 1970s. In 1974 JP Stevens worker Crystal Lee Sutton was fired for her involvement with union organization, but as she was being escorted from the factory, she took action:
“I took a piece of cardboard and wrote the word UNION on it in big letters, got up on my work table, and slowly turned it around. The workers started cutting their machines off and giving me the victory sign. All of a sudden the plant was very quiet…”
If Sutton’s story sounds familiar it is because the film Norma Rae, starring Sally Field was a fictionalized version of the story. I’ll have more to say about the movie later this week.
I’d like to say that this story has a happy ending, but we all know what happened to the textile jobs across the South. As soon as people started making a living wage, the importation of cheaper foreign-made goods began the downfall of the Southern textile industry. Some companies, like Hanes, took a “if you can’t beat them, join them,” attitude and began producing elsewhere. Some companies, like Milliken, have survived by switching from home textiles to industrial textiles and chemicals. Others, like Cannon, simply went out of business.
There are of course those who blame the unions for the inability of American textile companies to compete in the global marketplace. If insisting that workers be paid a living wage, have safe working conditions and humane conditions and hours is what caused the American industry to fail, then I say sure, blame the union. Unfortunately, all that has really happened is the the poor conditions are still with us, but half a world away.