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Presidents and Labor: FDR and the Textile Workers Strike of 1934

The textile industry in the United States was once concentrated on the Atlantic coast, mainly in New England as well as in New Jersey and Philadelphia. In the 1880s the industry began to spread into southern states and by 1933 Southern mills produced more than seventy percent of cotton and woolen textiles in the country. The mills in the south were more modern and the labor pool was deep with dispossessed farmers and laborers willing to work for much lower wages than their Northern counterparts. In the south the industry was strictly segregated and employed only from white workers. During the 1920s, overproduction in the mills became a problem, as the wartime boom for cotton goods ended, and foreign competition increased. Manufacturers tried to reduce the oversupply by employing fewer workers, but making them work harder. They increased the number of looms assigned to each factory worker, reduced break times, and paid workers by piece rates.

Management practices led to hundreds of strikes throughout the Southeast. There were over eighty strikes in South Carolina in 1929 alone. A number of these were violently suppressed by local police and hired security staff. The American Communist Party became involved and founded the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) to try to organize workers.

When the Great Depression hit, a number of New England and Mid-Atlantic textile manufacturers were forced into bankruptcy, increasing pressures on the amount and pace of work for those still working in the industry. Textile workers continued to engage in hundreds of isolated strikes, even though there were thousands of unemployed workers willing to take their places.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President, he pushed for the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and the textile workers felt as if some help was on the way. The NIRA, which Roosevelt signed in June 1933, called for cooperation among business, labor and government and established the National Recovery Administration (NRA). It was intended to create codes of conduct for particular industries that would reduce overproduction, raise wages, control hours of work, guarantee the rights of workers to form unions, and stimulate an economic recovery. But the NIRA did not live up to its promises. Employers controlled the panels that created these codes, and tailored them in their favor. The NIRA and the codes proved to be toothless, since the Act did not provide any effective means to enforce the standards.

The reorganized United Textile Workers (UTW) had about 15,000 members in February, 1933. That number grew to 250,000 members by June, 1934, of whom roughly half were cotton mill workers. Textile workers had faith that the NIRA would end the worst aspects of mill practices. The NIRA quickly wrote a code for the cotton industry regulating workers' hours and establishing a minimum wage. It also established a committee to study the problem of workloads. But this did not prevent employers from responding to the new minimum wage laws by increasing the pace of work. When the labor board set a forty-hour work week, mill owners required the same amount of work in those forty hours as they had in the previous fifty- to sixty-hour week.

By August 1934, workers had filed approximately 4,000 complaints to the labor board protesting alleging unfair labor practices by their employers. Only once did the board rule in favor of a worker. Union supporters often lost their jobs and were blacklisted within the industry. Workers desperately lobbied President Roosevelt, the Department of Labor, the NRA and even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt asking for them for help.

A strike of cotton mill workers in South Carolina's Horse Creek Valley was met with company violence. Special deputies, highway patrolmen and a machine-gun unit of the National Guard sent to keep the mills open. When the NIRA's special board came to Horse Creek, it supported the management position. It took no action when mill owners not only refused to allow the workers back to work, but evicted them from company housing.

Mill owners made the cotton mill employees' work longer hours, and the NIRA did nothing about it. So in May of 1934, the UTW threatened a national strike. In response, the NIRA board promised to give the UTW a seat on the board, balanced by the addition of another industry representative, and the UTW canceled the planned strike. This was not satisfactory to local leaders. UTW locals in the northern part of Alabama went on strike on July 18 in Huntsville. The strike spread to Florence, Anniston, Gadsden, and Birmingham. The strike had popular support, but it was ineffective because many employers saw it as a means of cutting their expenses, since they had warehouses full of unsold goods.

In Columbus, Georgia,the Georgia Webbing and Tape Company went on strike in July, 1934. On August 10, 1934 a striking worker named Reuben Sanders was killed in a scuffle between strikebreakers and strikers. His body was placed in state and viewed by 8,000 people at the Central Textile Hall in Columbus on Sunday, August 12. The UTW called a special convention in New York City on Monday, August 13, 1934 to address the crisis. The UTW drew up a list of demands for employers. These included a thirty-hour week, minimum wages ranging from $13.00 to $30.00 a week, elimination of the stretch-out, union recognition, and reinstatement of workers fired for their union activities. The delegates voted overwhelmingly to strike the cotton mills on September 1, 1934 if these demands were not met. They hoped for support from the woolen, silk and rayon workers later on.

President Roosevelt decided on a "hands off" approach. The National Labor Relations Board tried to set up a meeting of the parties, but the employers refused to meet with the union.

The strike spread through Southern cotton mills and by September 4th (the day after Labor Day), union organizers estimated that 20,000 out of the 25,000 textile workers in the county were out on strike. Textile workers in the North also went out on strike in large numbers and within a week, almost 400,000 textile workers nationwide had left their jobs, shutting down the textile industry.

The mill owners surprised by the size of the strike. In response, they obtained the support of South Carolina Governor Ibra Charles Blackwood, who announced that he would deputize the state's "mayors, sheriffs, peace officers and every good citizen" to maintain order. He called out the National Guard and gave them orders to shoot to kill any picketers who tried to enter the mills. Governor John Ehringhaus of North Carolina gave similar instructions on September 5. Mill owners convinced authorities to swear in special deputies to control the strikers. These often included their own employees or local residents supportive of the mill owners. They also hired private guards to police the areas around the plant. Violence between guards and picketers broke out almost immediately.

As violence increased, a number of strikers and mill security personnel were killed. Governor Theodore Green of Rhode Island declared martial law on September 11, after picketers armed with rocks, flowerpots and broken headstones from a nearby cemetery battled troops armed with machine guns, in a 36-hour battle in Saylesville. A picketer was shot to death the following day in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, when guardsmen fired into the crowd attempting to storm the Woonsocket Rayon Plant. Governor Green then asked the federal government to send federal troops; the Roosevelt administration ignored the request. In Maine, that national guard was sent to Augusta and Lewiston to discourage employees from joining the strike. This only served to add to the number of strikers. Governor Wilbur L. Cross of Connecticut also mobilized the Guard, but did not declare martial law. He had the state labor commissioner meet with picketers during the second week of the strike and this reduced tensions.

In Georgia, Governor Eugene Talmadge declared martial law in the third week of the strike and directed the National Guard to arrest all picketers throughout the state. He ordered those arrested to be held in a former World War I prisoner of war camp for trial by a military tribunal. The state only interned a hundred or so picketers, but the action effectively ended picketing throughout the state.

In the South, local government refused to provide any relief assistance to strikers. Even churches and other unions would not come to the support of the strikers. The union had pledged, before the walkout started, to feed strikers, but it was unable to keep this promise. As the strike progressed, workers had started to drift back to work and many plants were reopening with skeleton crews.

The mediation board that President Roosevelt had appointed in the first week of the strike issued a report that was largely unhelpful. It called for further studies of the economic plight of the employers and employees and it urged the President to create a new Textile Labor Relations Board to hear workers' complaints and urged employers not to discriminate against strikers. Roosevelt announced his support for the report, and urged employees to return to work. The UTW declared victory and held a number of parades to celebrate the end of the strike, but most people understood that the strike was a total defeat for the union, especially in the South. The union had not forced the mill owners to recognize it, and it did not win any of its economic demands. The employers refused to rehire strikers throughout the South. Thousands of strikers never returned to work in the mills.

In March 1935, approximately 2,000 textile workers at Callaway Mills went on strike in LaGrange, Georgia, and martial law was declared. One striker was killed by National Guardsmen as the soldiers evicted families from mill-owned homes. President Roosevelt was a friend and frequent visitor of Cason Callaway, President of Callaway Mills at the time. This strike was quickly suppressed.

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The CIO formed the Textile Workers Organizing Committee three years later, and this committee focused its efforts on northern manufacturers outside the cotton industry. The committee was succeeded by the Textile Workers Union of America, and this union faced similar problems organizing in the South. Northern employers were not as ruthless in blacklisting workers and the TWOC made some headway in organizing these plants. But later, much of northern industry either went South or went bankrupt.
Tags: franklin delano roosevelt, labor

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