fyi...some material related to Alabama here...aj wright // ajwright@...
From: Thomas Thurston [mailto:tt544@...
Sent: Tuesday, April 30, 2002 8:46 AM
Subject: REVIEW: Friedman on Irons, _Testing the New Deal: The General
Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South_
Subject: Friedman on Irons, _Testing the New Deal: The General Textile
Strike of 1934 in the American South_
Date: Tue, 30 Apr 2002 09:06:49 -0400
From: EH.Net Review <ehreview@...
Published by EH.NET (April 2002)
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. <gfriedma@...
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"
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" (page 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
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
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