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Published by EH.NET (June 2002)

Clete Daniel, Culture of Misfortune: An Interpretive History of Textile

Unionism in the United States. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2001. x + 327 pp.

$39.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8014-3853-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lawrence Richards, University of Virginia.

The history of textile workers in the United States has been the subject of

innumerable books, articles, conference papers, and dissertations. From the

first stirrings of collective action among the female operatives at Lowell in

the 1830’s through the epic confrontations of 1929, 1934 and 1951, historians

have looked to the textile industry in order to explore a wide array questions.

The processes of modernization and industrialization; the ways in which gender,

race and ethnicity shaped workers’ lives and organizations; and case studies of

organized labor’s successes and failures have all been subjects of one study or

another. In view of this mountain of literature it is somewhat odd that there

has not been an institutional history of textile unionism available since the

1930’s. Clete Daniel has now filled in this gap in the historiography with his

beautifully written new book, Culture of Misfortune.

Although the subtitle seems to indicate that this will be a history of textile

unionism from its beginnings up to the present, it is essentially a chronicle

of the rise and fall of the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA). Chapter

one does provide an overview of textile worker organizations from the 1850’s

through 1933. But Daniel’s real story begins in chapter two with the passage of

the National Industrial Recovery Act and the great textile strike of 1934. This

chapter then provides the context for the creation of the Textile Workers

Organizing Committee (TWOC) in 1936, which became the TWUA in 1939. Similarly,

though the final chapter briefly sketches the outlines of the J. P. Stevens

campaign and the election victory at Cannon Mills in Kannapolis, NC in 1999,

the story basically ends with the merger of the TWUA with the Amalgamated

Clothing Workers in 1976.

Daniel’s foray into writing an institutional history of a labor union makes

this study stand out as unique. Since the eclipse of the Commons’ school of

labor historiography in the 1960’s, institutional histories of labor unions

have become relatively rare. Aside from biographies of individuals involved in

the labor movement, most of the recent historiography has concerned itself with

individual communities or companies. As Daniel’s study shows, however,

institutional histories of worker organizations can broaden our understanding

of the past and serve as a complement to, and, in some cases, a corrective for,

community-based studies.

This is especially evident in his treatment of the southern textile strike of

1951. According to Daniel, the motivating force behind this strike was the

internal power struggle between union president Emil Rieve and the executive

vice-president George Baldanzi. Prior to 1951 Baldanzi had been left pretty

much alone in his overall direction of the TWUA’s operations in the South. As

the feud between the two intensified, however, Rieve began seeking

opportunities to discredit Baldanzi. Such an opportunity presented itself when

Baldanzi negotiated a contract with the Dan River Mills in 1950 which did not

include a wage increase. Although this had been general union policy at the

time, in light of a recession in the textile business, Rieve seized on this

contract to show that Baldanzi was failing to advance the interest the

predominately northern-based union had in closing the wage differential between

North and South. Rieve then had his own people step in to set the union’s wage

policy in the South and take charge of negotiations. Baldanzi’s own camp was

forced to acquiesce to the hard-line stance taken by Rieve’s people lest they

appear insufficiently aggressive. In this contest of machismos, neither side

could, or would, admit to moderation and so a strike became inevitable. The

result, as many of the TWUA’s own officials in the south quietly predicted, was

disastrous. Not only was the strike lost, but the union’s precarious foothold

in the region was destroyed as one employer after the other was able to exploit

its aftermath to expel the union from their shops.

Daniel’s explanation of the reasons behind this strike is persuasive and goes

deeper into its causes than does Timothy Minchin, in his book What Do We

Need a Union For? Minchin, who based his account primarily on interviews

with southern textile workers and union officials, argues that the strike was

an attempt to raise the wages paid by unionized employers above those that

non-union employers would be willing to pay. Such a wage differential, if it

could be achieved, would considerably ease the union’s effort to organize the

majority of the South’s textile workers. While this explanation may be the one

that was used to justify the strike to lower-level union functionaries, it

overlooks the underlying political dynamic that was the source for determining

union strategy in the first place. In this respect, at least, an institutional

history provides a background which can round out an interpretation based

solely on local sources.

As with the Rieve-Baldanzi struggle, Daniel’s narrative is most detailed when

relating the sources and outcomes of various factional fights within the union.

One chapter is devoted the disaffection of Francis Gorman, former president of

the United Textile Workers (UTW), from the TWOC and his re-founding of the UTW

in 1938. (The UTW had formed the core of the TWOC, much as the Amalgamated Iron

and Tin Workers had formed the basis for the Steel Workers Organizing

Committee.) Another chapter details the struggle to dethrone William Pollock —

Emil Rieve’s hand-picked successor — in the early 1960’s. The Rieve-Baldanzi

fight itself is the subject of two chapters.

All of these factional — indeed, fratricidal — struggles are the source for

Daniel’s title, Culture of Misfortune. As he argues, the union’s failure

to achieve a secure position in the industry, due to its inability to penetrate

the South, led to one fight for control after the other, with each contender

for power (or in the case of Rieve, for undisputed mastery) claiming that their

opponent(s) was the source of the union’s troubles. These schisms in turn

further hobbled the union in its attempts to grow; defeat in one realm bred

defeat in another in a vicious cycle.

Daniel does not confine this analysis to the institutional level, however. He

carries this theme of “defeat breeds defeat” down to the level of the workers

to explain why the TWUA was not more successful. He does acknowledge such

factors as the role of the economy — in particular, the Roosevelt recession of

1938; the structure of the textile industry — with its highly competitive,

decentralized nature; and the basic flaws in the Wagner Act, which allowed

recalcitrant employers to avoid collective bargaining; as being important. But

he finds the prior history of textile unionism, and workers’ memory of that

history, to be the key to understanding the TWUA’s failure to penetrate the

South. In particular, the defeats workers suffered following the strikes of

1929 and 1934 bred a great deal of skepticism about whether the TWUA, or any

union, could possibly overcome employer resistance. This skepticism was further

reinforced by such examples Roger Miliken’s decision in 1956 to shut down a

mill just five weeks after employees there voted to be represented by the TWUA.

According to Daniel, southern workers were not especially hostile to unionism.

Rather, they had made a realistic assessment of the union’s chances for success

and chose not to expose themselves to their employer’s retaliation based on

this assessment.

If the South was exceptional, it was not in worker resistance to organized

labor, but employer resistance. Elsewhere in the nation, Daniel points out,

once employees had voted to be represented by a union, their employers, if only

grudgingly, sat down to bargain with them. Not so in the South. Even where the

union won elections, it was almost powerless to secure a contract. While this

has become a common story throughout the U.S. since the 1970’s, it was the

South that led the way in demonstrating that the Wagner Act’s provision for

“good-faith bargaining” did not require employers to concede anything to a

union should they have the misfortune of being organized.

It is here that an institutional history shows its drawbacks. While Daniel’s

analysis of southern workers and employers is persuasive, he provides little

evidence to support these conclusions. His sections on various factional fights

are heavily footnoted. But his conclusions about southern workers’ psychology

are bare of any supporting quotes or documents. This is especially bothersome

when it comes to his thesis about the role of memory in dissuading southern

workers from joining unions. In this case, at least, a history of memory would

shed more light on the subject than would be possible in an institutional

history. This is not to fault Daniel either for making these conclusions or for

doing so without supporting evidence. Rather, these examples are meant to

highlight a few of the strengths and weaknesses inherent in an institutional

history.

There is, however, one topic that I wish Daniel had covered in somewhat more

detail. While he goes on for great length about the re-founding of the UTW, he

provides almost no information about that organization after 1938. After George

Baldanzi was purged from the TWUA in 1952, he took a number of locals with him

into the UTW. After a short while, however, many of these local returned to the

TWUA’s fold “when the UTW’s true nature was revealed” (p. 226). Because Daniel

has not provided even the briefest outline of the UTW’s history since 1938, the

reader is left scratching his head wondering what this “true nature” entailed.

Daniel’s book is both a pleasure to read and fills in an important gap in the

historiography of textile workers. It provides the first comprehensive history

of the TWUA. While not a substitute for community studies, anyone undertaking a

study of textile workers in the future will need to refer to this volume in

order to gain an appreciation of how the union’s internal politics effected its

external relations.

Lawrence Richards is completing a dissertation in the history department at

the University of Virginia titled Union Free and Proud: Worker Opposition to

Unions, 1940-2000.