Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

FW: REVIEW: Friedman on Irons, _Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South_

Expand Messages
  • A.J. Wright
    fyi...some material related to Alabama here...aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: Thomas Thurston [mailto:tt544@columbia.edu] Sent: Tuesday, April 30, 2002
    Message 1 of 1 , May 6, 2002
    • 0 Attachment
      fyi...some material related to Alabama here...aj wright // ajwright@...

      -----Original Message-----
      From: Thomas Thurston [mailto:tt544@...]
      Sent: Tuesday, April 30, 2002 8:46 AM
      To: H-US1918-45@...
      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"
      (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" (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

      Copyright (c) 2002 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be
      copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to
      the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the
      EH.Net Administrator (administrator@...; Telephone: 513-529-2850;
      Fax: 513-529-3308). Published by EH.Net (April 2002). All EH.Net
      reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.