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.
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
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 enterprise.
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
|Subject(s):||Labor and Employment History|
|Geographic Area(s):||North America|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: Pre WWII|