By Chris Mahin
In a Northern state, the governor declared martial law after striking workers armed with rocks, flower pots, and broken headstones from a nearby cemetery battled troops armed with machine guns. In a Southern state, the governor declared martial law and then ordered the National Guard to arrest all picketers in the state, holding them in a former First World War prisoner of war camp for trial by a military tribunal.
September marks the anniversary of the Great Textile Strike of 1934, the largest work stoppage in the history of the USA at the time it took place. Although this nationwide walk-out was defeated, it ultimately helped pave the way for some of the most important laws enacted during US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s administration.
The textile strike of 1934 stretched from New England to the Southeast. It involved more than 400,000 workers. Whilst it included workers in the worsted mills of Massachusetts and the silk mills of the Mid-Atlantic region, the strike’s centre of gravity was located in the cotton mills of the Southeast.
The textile industry had started moving South in the 1880s. By 1933, Southern mills produced more than 70 per cent of the cotton and woollen textiles of the USA. These mills were more modern than those of the Northeast. The owners of these mills relied on the South’s large pool of dispossessed farmers willing to work for 40 per cent less than Northern workers.
The Great Strike of 1934 was the culmination of processes that had been at work for many years. The demand for cotton goods declined sharply after the First World War ended, leading to a crisis of overproduction. The owners attempted to resolve this crisis by squeezing as much work as they could out of each worker. This procedure was known as the ‘stretch-out system’. The ‘stretch-out’ involved speeding up production by increasing the number of looms assigned to each factory worker, limiting break times, paying workers by the piece and increasing the number of supervisors (who pushed the workers incessantly).
The ‘stretch-out’ system sparked hundreds of strikes throughout the Southeast. It led to more than 80 strikes in 1929 in South Carolina alone. Almost all of these strikes were spontaneous walk-outs, without any formal leadership. The year 1929 also saw the massive strikes that began in Gastonia, North Carolina and Elizabethton, Tennessee. Both were violently suppressed by local police officers and vigilantes.
The stock market crash of October 1929 ushered in the Great Depression. This had momentous consequences. The Depression bankrupted some manufacturers. Those who survived laid off many workers and increased the amount and pace of work for their remaining employees even further.
In response, textile workers all over the East Coast engaged in hundreds of isolated strikes, despite the fact that thousands of unemployed workers were willing – even eager – to take the strikers’ places.
The victory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1932 US presidential election seemed to present an opportunity for labour. In June 1933, a Roosevelt-supported measure, the National Industrial Recovery Act, was passed by the US Congress. This measure called for “co-operation” between business, labour and the government, and established “codes of conduct” for businesses. It created the National Recovery Administration (NRA).
Despite all the rhetoric surrounding its formation, the NRA soon proved itself to be toothless. The National Industrial Recovery Act did, however, contain a provision that seemed to legitimise unions. Even this ambiguous language – which only implied the possibility of a right to join a union – was inspiring to many desperate industrial workers. After the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, the main union representing textile workers – the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA) – dramatically increased its membership. The union had at most 15,000 members in February 1933; by June 1934, the UTWA contained 250,000 members, half of them cotton mill workers.
The National Recovery Administration issued a code for the cotton industry that regulated workers’ hours and established a minimum wage. It also set up a committee to study the problem of workloads. The employers responded to the new minimum wage by speeding up the work. When the labour board decreed a 40-hour work week, the mill owners simply changed the rules to require that the same amount of work be done in those 40 hours as had been done in the previous 50–60 hour week.
By August 1934, textile workers had filed 4,000 complaints to the labour board protesting “code chiselling” by their employers. The board found in favour of only one worker.
Tensions in the mills mounted, as union supporters lost their jobs and found themselves blacklisted. In May 1934, the mill owners reduced the cotton mill employees’ hours still further without raising their hourly rate. (This was done with the blessing of the NRA.)
The UTWA called a special convention in New York City on 13th August 1934 and drew up a list of demands for the industry as a whole. These included: a 30-hour week; minimum wages from $13 to $30 per week; elimination of the ‘stretch-out’; union recognition; and reinstatement of workers fired for union activities.
The delegates – especially those from the South – voted overwhelmingly to strike the cotton mills on 1st September 1934 if these demands were not met – and to bring out the woollen, silk and rayon workers at a date to be set later.
After the employers refused to even meet with the union, the strike swept through the Southern cotton mills. Within a week, more than 400,000 textile workers nationwide had left their jobs and the textile industry was shut down. Within days, governors from Maine to Georgia were calling out the National Guard.
The strikers displayed great determination. At the Victor Mill in Greer, South Carolina, the union staged a brief sit-down strike on the company’s railroad siding, preventing the mill from unloading coal at its own boilers. At one point in the 22-day conflict, about half of the textile workers in North and South Carolina and about three-quarters of those in Georgia were on strike.
Despite the bravery of the workers however, the strike’s weaknesses soon became apparent. The UTWA had only shallow roots in the South and just a few regular organisers there. In the South, local governments refused to provide any relief assistance to the strikers, and there were few sympathetic churches or other unions willing to help. Although the union had pledged before the walkout to feed the strikers, it was utterly incapable of keeping that promise.
Gradually, workers began to drift back to work. Struck plants began reopening, even if only with skeleton crews. Then, the mediation board that President Roosevelt had appointed in the first week of the strike issued its report. The report equivocated. It called for further study of the problems in the industry and suggested that the president create a new Textile Labor Relations Board. Roosevelt quickly announced his support for the report. He urged the workers to return to the mills and the manufacturers to accept the commission’s recommendations.
The UTWA responded by declaring that the strike had been won and by organising a number of parades to celebrate the end of the strike. Despite this bravado, the strike was a stunning defeat for the union, especially in the South. The union did not force the mill owners to recognise it. The UTWA did not obtain any of its economic demands. Employers in the South refused to reinstate strikers; thousands of workers never returned to work in the mills.
The bitter memory of blacklisting and defeat soured many Southern textile workers on unions for decades. It would take more than 40 years for unions to win major organising drives in the South.
Although the 1934 textile strike ended in defeat, that strike and a series of other strikes in 1934 by truckers, rubber workers and dock workers helped to pave the way for major changes in the way labour and the employers dealt with one another. A section of the capitalist class of the USA eventually realised that its interests would be better served if there was class peace rather than outright industrial warfare on the factory floors of the USA.
In 1935, the US Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This law made unions legal in the USA and created the modern grievance and arbitration procedure. The passage of the NLRA marked the beginning of a social contract, an unspoken agreement between labour and the employers of the USA. That agreement said that if workers worked hard and played by the rules, they could have an opportunity to obtain a good life – at least some workers in the largest and most important industries could.
That social contract prevailed for several decades but today it is being destroyed. The textile factories that began moving to the South in the 1880s have now largely left the USA entirely. De-industrialisation and the rise of electronics are creating a poverty greater than that which inspired the 1934 textile strike. In this environment, we need new tactics, a new spirit and new forms of organisation. Without romanticising what happened in the 1934 textile strike or covering up the mistakes made, we should learn from the fighting spirit of the Great Textile Strike of 1934. We need that spirit again as we face the challenges of today.