‘The South Afire! Battle For Union Rages on Two Fronts’ by Leonard Bright from Labor Age. Vol. 18 No. 5. May, 1929.
ALL eyes are turned southward the se days. Many people are discovering, much to their surprise, that the popular song which describes the South as a land of “milk and honey, sunny skies and brown-eyed beautiful girls” does not tell the entire story by any means. They are reading on the front pages of their newspapers about strikes, kidnappings, state militia and low wages. You can’t buy much milk and honey or, for that matter, ham and eggs, on $8, or even $12 a week, and after a day’s work from 6 in the morning until 6 in the evening there isn’t much time or inclination to admire sunny skies.
What is happening in the South? Simply this. Cotton mill and rayon workers have been working long hours for low wages, apparently satisfied. After all they had no standards of comparison at hand. This encouraged the employers to believe that these “cheap, docile Nordics” would not object to being stop-watched at their work so that they might be sped up a bit faster. To the question asked by one weaver of an efficiency expert, “What are you fellows trying to do,” came the typical answer, “It is none of your damn business.” But Mr. Expert learned that it was very much this weaver’s business, and that of other workers. They would stand for no further speeding up, and they struck.
Chambers of commerce in various southern cities had been advertising that their workers were of Anglo-Saxon stock, proof against “foreign” agitation. “Come and build your plants here,” they said to northern manufacturers. “You’ll have no labor troubles.” and now all these promises have gone up in smoke. Manufacturers are puzzled. They act as if they had been hexed. Of course, comes the too ready explanation — the “Communists.”
Into the breach rushes The Manufacturer’s Record, a weekly with a large circulation in the South, with this pompous demand: “The Americanism and Independence of Southern workers must be kept unsullied from alienism and the industrial bondage which communism and union labor agitators would impose.” From the point of view of this employer’s publication there is no difference between the United Textile Workers of America, bona fide A.F. of L. union and the Communist officered National Textile Workers’ Union. The U.T.W.’s organizing efforts are referred to as “but another scheme of radical labor leaders to keep in power and fatten on the miseries of others.”
The Record quotes with indignation from an article by A.J. Muste, “The Call of the South: Labor’s Next Task,” which appeared in the August, 1928, issue of Labor Age, as follows:
“Those who have been working the South recently all contend that the southern situation must be tackled soon, and on an adequate scale…The textile industry in that section, for example, is becoming ever larger and more powerful.
“It is, as yet, unorganized. It is, however, no longer the only industry in that section of the country. Coal, steel, furniture, public utilities, railroads, and other great industries are springing up. These industries are also, in the South at least, unorganized. If this situation continues much longer we shall have a non-union, trusitfied industrial South.
“If this enemy is not conquered and not under control while he is young and has not reached his full growth, it is useless to expect that anything can be done with him later…There must be a new attitude toward unionism, a new rebelliousness and courage developed in the southern working man as a whole.”
The reading of the entire article, the first in any publication directing attention to the need and opportunities for organization in the South, is a revelation, in the light of what has transpired since. Brother Muste appears to be endowed with extraordinary prophetic powers. Yet any keen observer of the southern situation with confidence in the basic manhood of the workers to revolt against oppressive conditions could have foretold that they would strike a blow for unionism at the right moment.
In the April issue we presented some of the details of the first Elizabethton strike, which resulted in temporary victory for the workers. Whether the American Glanzstoff Corporation and the American Bemberg Corporation made concessions in order to gain breathing space, or whether pressure was brought to bear upon them by other mills, we do not know, but three weeks after the settlement they discharged the workers’ grievance committee and ninety outstanding union men and women, and the strike was on again.
A strike of 5,000 workers is news, but it is not front page news except perhaps in the city involved. It took the dramatic kidnapping of Alfred Hoffman, young organizer for the American Federation of Full Fashioned Hosiery Workers and of Edward F. McGrady, representing President William Green of the A.F. of L., to put the whole southern textile story in the headlines.
The story of how Hoffman and McGrady were kidnapped at the point of a gun, taken to the state line and told never to return or be killed, has been described fully in the daily press, so that it is hardly necessary to go into details here, but they did return in defiance of the mob of business men responsible for this outrage. Thanks to these gentlemen the whole issue of the organization in the southern textile centers has been placed before the labor movement in such a manner that it must be faced in a vigorous and intelligent fashion.
Ever since the kidnapping episode Hoffman has been guarded day and night by lean faced, long limbed Tennessee mountaineers, who carry loaded rifles and shotguns. The boarding house to which Hoffman and McGrady were moved after the kidnapping is a young arsenal. Everybody in Elizabethton, it is said, can shoot straight and is quick on the trigger.
Tennessee is not the only state involved. Strikes prevail in North Carolina and South Carolina mills. The most spectacular is the one conducted by the National Textile Workers Union at Gastonia, N.C, where the Loray mills are situated. It was in that city on April 19 that a masked mob of about 100 men between the hours of 2 and 3 a. m. entered the head- quarters of the union, overpowered the 10 strikers who were guarding the hall and demolished the building with axes and sledge hammers.
Only a block away in the yard of the Loray mill were stationed three companies of state militia, but reporters are agreed that not a soldier appeared at the union hall until the building was in ruins.
On the other hand, the vandals fired three shots in the air, apparently as a signal that their work was complete. Soon several officers came running to the scene, firing shots into the air. They made no attempt to follow the mob, but instead they arrested the union men and carted them off to jail, where they still are at this writing, charged with having destroyed their own building.
The soldiers have left, and their place has been taken by deputies— plug uglies of the same type as the notorious coal and iron police of Pennsylvania. They go about armed with club, revolver and a bayoneted rifle. They have already put in some deadly work, pickets have been beaten up and wagon loads of union men have been hauled off to jail. They have clubbed and bayoneted a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, which is an influential newspaper in North Carolina. This is likely to bring favorable publicity to the strikers and help to expose the brutality of the mill owners.
Josephus Daniels’ News and Observer of Raleigh, N.C, has editorially denounced the masked mob which destroyed the National Textile Workers union headquarters. It has also reprinted from the Monroe Journal of North Carolina the following statement:
”Unionism will eventually come and so long as mill owners refuse to let it come peaceably and reasonably they may not be surprised if it comes violently and unreasonably.”
The big fact is that public sentiment in the South on the whole question of unionism seems to have changed. A few months ago no such editorial as that reprinted here would have appeared in a southern newspaper.
U.T.W. Swings Into Action
The U.T.W. has used good judgment in declining to enter the field in Gastonia where the National Textile Workers Union is handling the situation. The suggestions made that if the union were A.F. of L. the employers would recognize it are not sincere. Furthermore, the workers have shown that they are interested in higher wages, shorter hours and the abolition of speed-up — they do not care about communist philosophy.
The United Textile Workers have opened permanent southern organization headquarters in Charlotte, N.C, and have appointed the first members of what is to be a small corps of organizers to push forward with a steady campaign in the South. Their efforts will be watched with deep interest and sympathy by everyone interested in the organizing of the South.
One of the most vivid descriptions of the Elizabethton strike situation has been written by Chester M. Wright, editor of the International Labor News Service, of which Matthew Woll is president. While the official service did not apparently see the Southern revolt coming on the horizon, it is good to find that Wright strikes such a militant note in the following graphic and thrilling picture of the spirit of southern workers, native born Americans, who know how to fight:
“There is something doing in the South — such a something as has never before been doing. But in this city be- tween ranges of mountains that breathe poetry and soft voices, there is the backbone of the battle forces of progress. Here the men are still entrenched on the land. ‘What the hell do we care for their jobs they say. ‘We can go back to our land.’ It breeds an independence. The workers have not been cut off from their base as they have been in other sections. They dare to do. And they have been doing.
“Incidents of the kidnapping of Edward F. McGrady and Alfred Hoffman give some point to it all. Twenty men guard these two day and night. They have rifles and pistols. They want no more lawlessness. They have a conception of rights and fairness that is unencumbered by the involvements of law. Their role is rigid. They are clannish, but they are emphatically not feudists. In Stony Creek, home of most of this body guard, the murder rate is perhaps the lowest in the United States.
“Incidents of the strike illustrate still more. They (the pickets) kept rigidly to the letter of the injunctions issued against them. But they started their picket lines where the injunction stopped and not a man passed those lines. When they said nobody was to go to work they meant it. Militancy? Chicago doesn’t know its meaning. These pickets, not at all to their discredit because it was all as they believed right, stood picket duty as guardsmen on post. They had their rifles with them. They even lay in a trench. But when any person not a probable strikebreaker came along every rifle disappeared down a trouser leg. They are unbeatable. They are resourceful. Listen to this amazing thing: For two days an airplane zoomed hour after hour over the Glantzstoff plant, coming within twenty feet of its roof Nobody has yet learned where that airplane came from, who flew it, or whence it went. Nobody doubts that it was procured by strikers or friends. Leaders from the outside can’t find out where it came from. These people tell you what you know and you never learn anything else from them.
“Ten cases of dynamite disappeared from plant property the first day of the strike. Nobody knows where it went. But there is a suspicion that it was taken away by workmen and put where nobody could use it in such a way as to blame its use on strikers. A train load of strike breakers was stopped. About this there is little to be learned. The act was against orders from strike headquarters. Nobody knows yet who did it. But the strike breakers didn’t get into the plant and the engineer of the train, so it is said, vowed, when he learned the facts, that he would not run his train into the mill yards even if he had a clear right of way. There is a solidarity here that is astound, refreshing and inspiring.”
That the revolt in the South should come at this time when in certain official circles the feeling has prevailed that much money has been spent to organize the textile industry in the South without results gives further encouragement to Progressives whose first slogan is “Organize, organize, organize!”
It would be tragic indeed if the labor movement failed to measure up to the opportunity. To organize 300,000 workers is no easy job. In fact, it cannot be done without the spirit of whole hearted cooperation from the entire movement. As Louis Budenz suggests editorially in this issue, a large organization fund must be raised and a willingness to do the job must be evident if the workers in the textile and other basic industries are to be rescued from the bondage of open shoppery. The South with its low wage labor stands as a threat to other parts of the country unless it is organized. Recent events there show that the workers are ready for action; they wait proper leadership and financial assistance. Will Labor respond to the challenge of the South?
Labor Age was a left-labor monthly magazine with origins in Socialist Review, journal of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Published by the Labor Publication Society from 1921-1933 aligned with the League for Industrial Democracy of left-wing trade unionists across industries. During 1929-33 the magazine was affiliated with the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) led by A. J. Muste. James Maurer, Harry W. Laidler, and Louis Budenz were also writers. The orientation of the magazine was industrial unionism, planning, nationalization, and was illustrated with photos and cartoons. With its stress on worker education, social unionism and rank and file activism, it is one of the essential journals of the radical US labor socialist movement of its time.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/laborage/v28n05-May-1929-Labor%20Age.pdf