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The General Textile Strike of 1934: From Maine to Alabama

Author(s):Salmond, John A.
Reviewer(s):Daniel, Clete

Published by EH.NET (July 2003)

John A. Salmond, The General Textile Strike of 1934: From Maine to Alabama. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002. xii + 295 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8262-1395-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Clete Daniel, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University.

Given its size and scope — it involved perhaps 400,000 workers and idled mills along the entire length of the Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Alabama for the better part of three weeks — the general textile strike of 1934 should have been a more important episode in the history of depression-era labor struggles than it turned out to be. Though certainly much larger than the battles fought in the same year by Toledo auto workers, Minneapolis truckers and warehousemen, and San Francisco dockworkers, the “great” textile strike seems not to have exerted as important an influence on the subsequent evolution of industrial unionism as these otherwise less imposing challenges to employer hegemony.

The obvious explanation of the strike’s relative unimportance is that it failed while the others, either in whole or in part, succeeded. Yet in John Salmond’s very well-informed reconsideration of the 1934 textile strike, which he insists “has not received … the attention it deserves,” the explanation of its unhappy denouement is considerably more complicated than of a good fight that ended badly.

Providing that fuller explanation is a task that Salmond is particularly well-suited to undertake. He has written widely and very astutely on several notable aspects of class relations in the South. To cite just one example, his book on Lucy Randolph Mason’s career as John L. Lewis’s eyes and ears in the South during the late 1930s affords an idiosyncratic, but nevertheless singularly illuminating, commentary on industrial unionism’s largely unavailing efforts to gain a secure foothold in the region.

Although Salmond explains that his “main purpose … is to tell the strike story,” there is very little detail in this book that specialists are likely to find truly new or fresh. Yet if it fails to disclose factual information about the strike that most scholars don’t already know, the book commends itself to the attention of even the most knowledgeable historians on the basis of what Salmond says they ought to bear in mind if the conflict is to be properly understood.

For one thing, he contends, previous commentators have too often rendered the 1934 textile strike as “a southern rather than a national outbreak.” With perhaps a little too much certitude, Salmond insists that: “Almost everything written about the strike has been from the perspective of the South and its cotton mill people …” Still, if his characterization of earlier scholarship is not entirely persuasive, he is essentially correct in claiming that most of the books, documentaries and other accounts of the strike have tended to emphasize how it played out in the South at the expense of an equally diligent effort to make sense of it in the North. Even more central to Salmond’s argument, however, is his belief that the greatest disservice to real understanding results from the failure of prior analyses to appreciate that local and regional variations made the strike more a mosaic of distinctive confrontations than an overarching conflict viewed to equal advantage from every vantage point.

If he is merely repeating a truism in contending that all history, like all politics, is local, Salmond nevertheless performs a valuable service by reminding us that perspective does matter greatly when it comes to interpreting large, encompassing events like an industry-wide strike. The utility of this observation becomes abundantly evident as Salmond demonstrates, through a focus on regional variations, that the 1934 textile strike was not, in fact, one big strike that played out in the same ways across the geographical boundaries and product diversity of a notoriously incoherent industry, but instead a collection of strikes whose often different, and even contradictory, meanings are most accessible to understanding when scholars don’t let their desire to construct a symmetrical whole obscure the asymmetries that distinguish the parts.

Of course Salmond’s determination to interpret the 1934 textile strike as a collection of related but never identical episodes of labor conflict is hardly cost free. In making so much of differences he sometimes tends to make too little of commonalities. For example, in accounting for the bitter divisions that arose between southern mill hands during the course of the strike, he too readily assumes that those who refused to strike did so out of loyalty to their employers. And while it is undoubtedly true that the paternalism of some southern mill owners had fostered such strong feelings of loyalty among their workers that joining the insurgency was unthinkable, it was probably a well-conditioned fear of the terrible consequences that awaited those who contended unsuccessfully against the enormous power of the boss that, in the end, dissuaded most non-strikers in the South from letting their anger and discontent rule their behavior.

While this is not a study so exhaustive in its scope or compelling in its analysis that it makes other scholarship on the topic less worthy of consultation, Salmond has clearly achieved the ambition that serious scholars aspire to: he has written a book that merits inclusion on everyone’s list of essential reading on the 1934 general textile strike.

Clete Daniel is Professor of American Labor History in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. His books include, Culture of Misfortune: An Interpretive History of Textile Unionism in the United States (Cornell University Press, 2001). He is currently at work on a book-length biography of United Farm Workers founder and president Cesar Chavez.

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