Jeremy Brecher's history of the largely unsuccessful nationwide strike of textile workers during the great depression, which the union nevertheless declared a victory.
The most extensive conflict of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) period during the Great Depression was the national textile strike of 1934. The Depression hit the textile industry long before the rest of society and by early 1929 the mill towns, especially in the South, were seething with discontent. The great grievance was the "stretch-out"; at one mill at Monroe, North Carolina, for example, spinners were required to work twelve rather than eight spindles, four doffers did the work of five, and crews of four carders were cut to three. The result, as Herbert J. Lahne wrote in The Cotton Mill Worker, was that, "a powder train of strikes flashed through an astonished South," many of them "without unionism at all and . . . under purely local leadership whose main concern was . . . the stretch-out."1 We have described above one such explosion at High Point, North Carolina.
With the coming of NRA, which promised the right of workers to form unions, textile workers flooded into the United Textile Workers union; its paper membership went from 27,500 in 1932 to 270,000 in 1934. The NRA Cotton Textile Industry Committee was headed by George Sloan, who happened to be the chief industry spokesman as well. The code set a minimum wage of twelve dollars per week in the South and thirteen dollars in the North. It utterly failed to prevent more stretch-out, or to stop employers from firing workers who joined the union.2 Further, in order to restrict over-production, the NRA ordered a cut-back to thirty hours a week per shift, cutting wages by twenty-five percent.
The U.T.W. threatened to strike the industry, but withdrew the threat in exchange for a seat on the Cotton Textile Industrial Relations Board and a government "study" of the industry.
Textile workers were furious at the union's backdown. For the Southern cotton mill workers, as Irving Bernstein put it, "NRA had become a gigantic fraud."3 In Alabama, forty of forty-two U.T. W. locals voted to strike, and 20,000 workers walked out on July 16th, 1934. The president of the U.T.W. advised workers in other states not to join the strike, adding to resentment at the cancellation of the previous strike; "He killed the other strike," a worker in Birmingham remarked, "we're not going to let him kill this one."4
The strike held solidly, revealing an unexpected commitment and solidarity, and a month later a U.T. W. national convention, with the militant Southern rank and file in control, voted without opposition for a general strike in the industry, and required the officers to call it within two weeks. The workers condemned NRA bitterly and were only kept from boycotting it by a special appeal from union officers and prominent outsiders.
The strike began in North Carolina on Labor Day, September 3rd, 1934, when 65,000 workers walked out. That day National Guardsmen were ordered to guard three mills in South Carolina where the strike was expected next day. The workers not only quit work, but immediately formed "flying squadrons," which moved through the area, closing non-striking mills. A reporter described a typical example:
Workers in the Shelby, N.C., mills, thoroughly organized, refused to permit the opening of their plants early today, formed a motorcade which swept into King's Mountain, a dozen miles away, and succeeded in closing eleven plants. They met with no resistance and persuaded 2,800 non-union workers to quit their posts.5
The strikers' tactics showed great creativity in other ways; for example, at Macon, Georgia (and later at various other points), a group of pickets, many of them women, sat down on a plant railroad track and prevented the movement of trains carrying finished goods. Before and at the start of the strike, mass demonstrations were held throughout the South, such as a meeting of 1,000 at Charlotte, North Carolina, and a parade of 5,000 in Gastonia, North Carolina, designed to show the workers' strength.
The strike spread rapidly throughout the eastern seaboard; newspaper surveys reported 200,000 out on September 4th and 325,000 out the next day.6 The flying squadrons were largely responsible for the spread:
Moving with the speed and force of a mechanized army, thousands of pickets in trucks and automobiles scurried about the countryside in the Carolinas, visiting mill towns and villages and compelling the closing of the plants. . . strikers in groups ranging from 200 to 1,000 assembled about mills and demanded that they be closed. . . .
The speed of the pickets in their motor cavalcades and their surprise descent on point after point makes it difficult to follow their movements and makes impossible any adequate preparation by mill owners or local authorities to meet them.7
What happened when the flying squadrons arrived depended on conditions of the moment, the mood of the crowd, the degree of resistance and similar factors. Sometimes they simply picketed peacefully, at others they battled guards, and at times they entered mills, unbelted machinery, broke threads, and fought non-strikers.
Although the flying squadrons created a sensation throughout the country, they were a natural form of action in isolated mill towns. They were at first tolerated and perhaps encouraged by union officials, but as the squadrons led to confrontations, union officials tried to bring them to a halt. Francis Gorman, chairman of the U.T.W. strike committee, repudiated their use and denied that they were ever sanctioned by the national leadership.8
Practically from the beginning of the strike, confrontations and small-scale violence developed in numerous places. In Fall River a crowd of 10,000 imprisoned 300 strikebreakers in a mill, and in North Carolina pickets stormed a mill in which strikebreakers were working. The flying squadrons and other mass actions developed a momentum of their own, and as early as September 5th the New York Times warned on page one that "The grave danger of the situation is that it will get completely out of the hands of the leaders. Indications of that were in evidence today." Women were reported "taking an increasingly active part in the picketing, egging on the men," with "the pickets apparently prepared to stop at nothing to obtain their objectives."9 The Times added ominously,
The growing mass character of the picketing operations is rapidly assuming the appearance of military efficiency and precision and is something entirely new in the history of American labor struggles.
Observers . . . declared that if the mass drive continued to gain momentum at the speed at which it was moving today it will be well nigh impossible to stop it without a similarly organized opposition with all the implications such an attempt would entail.10
The opposition was not long in starting. On September 5th, the Governor of North Carolina called out the National Guard to aid local authorities, declaring, "The power of the State has been definitely challenged," and "local authorities have proven unequal to the test." More Guardsmen were ordered out in South Carolina, and on September 9th partial martial law was established in that state.11 The Governor declared that a "state of insurrection" existed.12 Mills in the Carolinas were reported "feverishly preparing to resist. . . by mobilizing special guards equipped with shotguns and teargas bombs and by arming workers who remained at the looms."13 But as a reporter wrote from the storm-center in North Carolina, "Despite efforts of strike leaders to prevail upon the strike pickets 'to put on the brakes,' . . . picketing activity showed no abatement. . . "14
More than fifty strike squadrons were in action in the Carolinas, in detachments of 200 to 650. They moved south on a 110-mile front between Gastonia, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina, garrisoning the towns along the line of battle to ensure that the mills would stay closed. As they approached Greenville they were met by National Guardsmen who informed them they had orders to "shoot to kill," but "the strikers, apparently undeterred by the presence of the troops, were determined to capture Greenville . . . "15 where the strike had not yet spread. The conflict naturally became more violent, for "the situation was rapidly assuming the character of industrial civil war. . . "16
On September 5th, a striker and a special deputy were killed in a two-hour battle at a mill in Trion, Georgia (pop. 2,000); a policeman shot three pickets, one fatally, in Augusta; 2,500 textile workers rioted in Lowell, Massachusetts; at Danielson, Connecticut, Macon, Georgia, and other points, mill officials' cars were attacked.17 On September 6th at Honea Path, South Carolina, sheriffs deputies and armed strikebreakers fired on pickets:
Without warning came the first shots, followed by many others, and for a few minutes there was bedlam. Striker after striker fell to the ground, with the cries of wounded men sounding over the field and men and women running shrieking from the scene.18
Seven pickets were killed and a score wounded in the attack. The killings were seen as marking "the beginning of the second bloody phase of the strike," as "one town after another reported completion of preparations to resist the flying squads and the picketing activity of the strikers."19
Commissaries were set up in various textile centers, and hundreds of strikers canvassed for contributions of food and money. At Hazleton, Pennsylvania, 25,000 workers shut down the town in a one-day general strike on September 11th in support of the textile workers. George Googe, chief A.F.L. representative in the South, urged other workers to give support "without joining the strike," emphasizing that his appeal was not to be interpreted as "a move toward extending the strike to other industries. . . "20 Workers from other industries joined in many of the confrontations that occurred at mills throughout the country, turning them into community struggles.
Meanwhile, violent conflict spread through New England. The first strike shooting there occurred in Saylesville, Rhode Island, on September 10th. A crowd of 600 pickets attempting to close a mill (particularly hated for having broken previous strikes) was driven back by state troopers with machine guns (pictured, below). A smaller group of pickets then tried to outflank the troopers and attack the rear of the plant; deputy sheriffs opened fire on them with buckshot. Next afternoon a much larger crowd, estimated at 3,000 to 4,000, imprisoned strikebreaking employees in the mill. As the shift was due to end, the crowd surged forward, captured the mill gate, ripped up a fire hydrant, overturned a gate house, and appeared about to take possession of the plant. In reply, deputy sheriffs began firing buckshot with automatic weapons into the crowd, hitting five. Some 280 National Guardsmen then rode into the scene on caissons. They were pelted with paving stones torn up by the pickets as they clubbed their way to the mill. The crowd tried unsuccessfully to capture the pumping station and set fire to the mill.
That night the pickets deployed themselves behind the tombstones of a nearby cemetery, and shouting "Let's get the militia!" 2,000 of them broke through police lines and battled the troops.21
By the next afternoon, the crowd had grown to 5,000. Hurling pieces of gravestones from the cemetery, they charged the troops and drove them back behind the barbed wire enclosure surrounding the plant. The Guardsmen fired into the crowd, critically wounding three. That night another crowd stoned the Guard, which again fired on them. In the face of such serious disorder, the Sayles plant finally decided to shut down, giving the signal for many other plants in the area to do the same.
By September 12th, National Guardsmen were on duty in every New England state except Vermont and New Hampshire. At Danielson, Connecticut, 1,500 pickets battled state troopers. A flying squadron of 200 from Fall River, Massachusetts, was turned back from a factory in Dighton, Massachusetts, when they found every approach barricaded with sandbags manned by police and seventy-five special deputies armed with shotguns. Other confrontations occurred at Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts, and Lewiston, Maine, but the New England violence reached its peak at Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
The mill which was the original scene of rioting there had been organized six months before, whereupon the union members were fired, leaving much bitterness behind. The evening of September 12th, Governor Green of Rhode Island read a proclamation over the radio urging rioters to return to their homes. Instead, ever-increasing masses began to pour down on the Woonsocket Rayon Plant in a "sullen and rebellious mood." At midnight a crowd of about 500 let fly a barrage of bricks at the police guards at the plant, then attacked. The police replied with tear gas grenades, many of which were caught and thrown back "with telling effect" by the crowd. Word of the conflict spread, and the crowd grew quickly to 2,000. At this point, National Guardsmen took a hand, firing 30 shots into the front ranks of the crowd, hitting four, one fatally. At the shooting, a correspondent reported, "The crowd went completely wild with rage."
News of the shooting, carried back into the heart of the city, brought recruits to the strikers' forces. . . . Men and women and boys too, pounded up and down the business district, and where they ran the crash of broken plate glass and tearing splintering wood was heard.22
The crowd grew to 8,000 and was only quelled by the arrival of two more companies of National Guardsmen, who put the city under military rule. The Woonsocket Rayon Mill, source of the conflict, was closed.
Declaring that "there is a Communist uprising and not a textile strike in Rhode Island," Democratic Governor Green called the legislature into special session to declare a state of insurrection and request Federal troops. Acting under secret orders from Washington, detachments of regular Army troops began mobilizing at strategic points, prepared to leave for Rhode Island "at a moment's notice."23 The union leadership agreed with the Governor's assessment of the riots:
. . . Communists. . . were solely responsible for the serious uprisings that took place in both Saylesville and Woonsocket.
. . . the [Rhode Island] strike committee has instructed each union to place trustworthy men and women of their unions at strategic points in strike areas for the sole purpose of cooperating with police and all other law enforcement agencies in driving Communists not only from strike areas but from the state."24
The strike - like the industry - was centered in New England and the South, but it spread through the rest of the eastern seaboard as well. In Pennsylvania, for example, 47,000 struck, eleven cars filled with special guards were attacked and some of them overturned, and in Lancaster, police charged that women strikers were using "old-fashioned hat pins" to attack non-strikers.
Meanwhile, the struggle in the South reflected "a grim determination on both sides to hold on at any cost."25 A road approaching the Cherryville mill in Gaston County, North Carolina, was dynamited September 10th, as was a mill generator at Fayetteville, North Carolina, a few days later. Five pickets in a crowd of 400 wearing "peaceful picket" badges were bayoneted by soldiers as they yelled "scab" at strikebreakers entering a mill at Burlington, North Carolina. Non-striking workers in Aragon, Georgia, armed by their employer and led by a deputy sheriff, dispersed a flying squadron by threat of force.
By September 17th, the Southern employers were ready for their big counter-offensive. They met in advance in Greenville, North Carolina, and planned "a gigantic effort. . . to break through the strike lines and start the movement back to the mills."26 An army of 10,000 National Guardsmen was mobilized in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, supplemented by 15,000 armed deputies. Numerous Southern mills tried to reopen under heavy armed guard. The New York Times described as typical the response of 1,000 pickets at the Hatch Hosiery Company in North Carolina:
Refusing to budge even when a wedge of troops with bayonets tried to cross the road to break their lines, the pickets shouted "Boy Scouts!" and "Tin Soldiers!" . . . A committee of four pickets was assured that the mill would not resume operations during the day and the picket line dispersed until tomorrow.27
Such confrontations continued all week throughout the South. The employers' effort to stampede the strikers back to work failed overwhelmingly: on September 18th, the AP reported 421,000 on strike, 20,000 more than the week before.
In Georgia, Governor Talmadge declared martial law. National Guardsmen started mass arrests of flying squadrons and incarcerated them without charges in what was described as a concentration camp near the spot where Germans had been interned during World War 1. Thirty-four key strike leaders in whose names strike funds were held were arrested and held incommunicado, thus crippling the strike relief system in the state. Organizers were beaten and arrested throughout the South. By September 19th, the death toll in the South reached thirteen. Union officials stated September 20th that "force and hunger" were sending strikers back to the mills, but only 20,000 of 170,000 on strike in the South had returned to work in the previous six days, many of them to mills still too understaffed to operate, and they were offset by many thousands of additional workers who had joined the strike.28
On September 20th, the Board of Inquiry for the Cotton Textile Industry, which President Roosevelt had appointed toward the start of the strike, issued its report. A new Textile Labor Relations Board of "neutral" members should be established; it would set up a subcommittee to "study" workloads; the Federal Trade Commission should study the capacity of the industry to raise hours and employment; the Department of Labor should survey wages to see whether differentials had been maintained. As Irving Bernstein noted, "There was little of tangible benefit to either the textile workers or U.T.W. . . . In fact, the only recommendation that was immediate and tangible in effect was imposed on the union: to terminate the strike."29 Nonetheless, the U.T.W. strike committee hailed the Board's recommendation as "an overwhelming victory" and on September 22nd ordered the strikers back to work.30 Thus ended what Robert R.R. Brooks described as "unquestionably the greatest single industrial conflict in the history of American organized labor."31
President Roosevelt urged textile firms to rehire strikers without discrimination, but by October 23rd, the U.T. W. reported, 339 mills had refused to do so, leaving thousands of workers unemployed. Martha Gellhorn wrote from North Carolina that textile workers "live in terror of being penalized for joining unions; and the employers live in a state of mingled rage and fear. . . "32
The textile workers felt an extreme disillusionment with both the government and the union. As Robert R.R. Brooks concluded,
The thousands of militiamen, sheriffs, and armed strikebreakers which were thrown into strike territories and the numerous deaths at the hands of drunken deputies and nervous guardsmen linked the forces of law and order so clearly with the interests of the textile employers that northern newspaper reporters repeatedly referred to the situation as "the employers' offensive." The significance of this was not lost upon the strikers. In the space of a few weeks thousands of workers received a practical education in the philosophy of class relations which was clearly reflected in conversation, tactics, and general attitude.33
Mill workers were likewise extremely bitter at the union and its officials for claiming a victory, calling off the strike, and putting their faith in government boards, when the employers had conceded nothing. Herbert Lahne reported he found that "in many interviews . . . with Southern cotton mill workers in 1938 this resentment was clearly expressed."34 Excepted and very slightly edited to make sense as a stand-alone article from Strike! - Jeremy Brecher.
- 1 Herbert J. Lahne, The Collon Mill Worker (N.Y.: Farrar & Rinehart, 1944), p.216.
- 2 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, pp. 302-4.
- 3 Ibid., p. 306.
- 4 Alexander Kendrick, "Alabama Goes on Strike," in The Nation, Aug. 29, 1934, p. 233.
- 5 New York Times, Sept. 4, 1934.
- 6 New York Times, Sept. 5 & 6, 1934.
- 7 New York Times, Sept. 5, 1934.
- 8 New York Times, Sept. 16, 1934.
- 9 New York Times, Sept. 5, 1934.
- 10 Ibid.
- 11 Robert R.R. Brooks, "The United Textile Workers of America" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1935), p. 376.
- 12 New York Times, Sept. 10, 1934.
- 13 New York Times, Sept. 6, 1934.
- 14 Ibid.
- 15 Ibid.
- 16 Ibid.
- 17 Ibid.
- 18 New York Times, Sept. 7, 1934.
- 19 Ibid.
- 20 New York Times, Sept. 10, 1934.
- 21 New York Times, Sept. 12, 1934.
- 22 New York Times, Sept. 13, 1934.
- 23 New York Times, Sept. 14, 1934.
- 24 Ibid.
- 25 New York Times, Sept. 12, 1934.
- 26 New York Times, Sept. 16, 1934.
- 27New York Times, Sept. 18, 1934.
- 28Brooks, p. 378; New York Times, Sept. 19, 1934.
- 29Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 314.
- 31Brooks, p. 379.
- 32Cited in Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 315.
- 33Brooks, pp. 384-5.
- 34Lahne, p. 231.