Collusion Between Worker and Power Structure.
Reviewed by Linda Kravitz
Vol. 12, No. 1, 1990, pp. 13-15
Habits of Industry: White Culture and the Transformation of the Carolina Piedmont. By Allen Tullos (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1989. 419 pp. $34.95; $12.95 paper.).
In the late 1920s, to attract manufacturers to the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, Duke Power Company advertised:
A population marked by racial purity and unusually high character…. Willing labor, unhampered by any artificial restrictions on outputs native born of old pioneer stock and not imbued by un-American ideas or ideals.
The message of many such ads quoted by Allen Tullos was that Piedmont workers were white and would work long hours for little pay, acquiesce in increasing productivity demands, and resist unionization. In this engaging and provocative book, Tullos explores the remarkable regional culture supporting these corporate “habits of Industry,”
which he sees as feeding upon the traditional “habits of industry” Piedmont people. He traces their painful “shift from farm to factory, the transition from folk to working class,” through his own encompassing analysis of the times and through the histories of individual families representing industry’s owners and industry’s workers.
The family histories, whether of the powerful or the poor, are imbued with values stemming from Scotch-Irish, English, or German ancestries, and Calvinist, Methodist, or Baptist upbringings.
Faith in authoritarian paternalism and the holiness of work shaped individual social growth; together they produced remarkable collusion among all economic classes in support of the power structure of the textile industry and its demands for productivity.
Acceleration of such demands did bring about labor unrest and strikes, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, but efforts at unionization were consistently crushed by factory owners, often with the cooperation of “the highest officials of state government and the state’s police power.” Says Tullos: “Farmers recently turned mill workers often saw the union as ‘foreign’ to their experience, as un-American and atheistic, and as a threat to customary work arrangements and familial as well as paternalistic ties of employment.”
The familial and paternalistic ties of employment could not have been more direct. At its most elementary, the family supplied workers. Its vital role in doing so did not escape the regional promoters, whose ads proclaimed: “The birth rate of the Carolinas is the highest in the United States. Already a second generation of textile workers has come along, and in many older textile centers a third generation has grown up.”
Secondly, as one interviewee noted, “A man will think a long time before he’ll speak out when he’s got nine little children about his knees.”
Third, and perhaps most essential to the character of Piedmont industry, entire families, including those of all ages and genders, worked for individual employers. As Tullos explains, until the 1930s, a “family wage” commonly meant that children and adults all had to tend the factory machinery to earn a livelihood. Mill bosses understood that much of the job of enforcing discipline and industry among the youngest workers would be managed by the fathers and mothers. “Besides [being] under the company’s jurisdiction,” said Grover Hardin, who entered the mills of Greenville, S.C., as a child, “you was under your parents.” Fathers ruled both roost and workplace. “To the child, religion, stoic discipline, fatherly authority, and the mill hierarchy seemed to be cut from the same cloth.”
Tullos alternates voices of the Piedmont industry’s captains, all white males, with those of its labor force, primarily white women. As he follows their family histories, the captains, including the tobacco mogul James Buchanan “Buck” Duke (founder of Duke Power Co. and Duke University), J. Spencer Love (founder of Burlington Mills), Daniel Augustus Tompkins (promoter of textile schools and child labor), and William Henry Belk (innovator in “single-pricing” and creator of Belk stores) are chiefly heard through their writings and speeches. They bear few surprises, little self-questioning or deviation from promotion of industry. Witness the refrain of John Belk, heir to the Belk fortune, who sums up his view on the habits of industry: “Man is a working animal.”
In this whole book, the only real exception to the untroubled tales of the upwardly mobile is the sad story of D.W. League, a weave-room overseer who in 1928 sacrificed his job at Poe Mill in a “stand of Christian conscience” against increased workloads for his weavers, lost another job in a refusal to work Sundays, took another requiring two shifts, and finally, exhausted, turned back to family farm life. Said his daughter, “He had just got so confused, till he wanted to get quiet. He worried himself to death.” Said another, “It bothered him a great deal, this change that had come about. People were not given the consideration that they had been before. You were pushed as a worker…More looms, more than you could run.”
It is the tales of the workers which are the life of the book. Typically, their families were sharecroppers or yeomanry displaced by the agricultural collapse of the late nineteenth century. Tullos gives their present-day accounts in their own words, which are never sugarcoated, and often spirited and humorous. They are frequently fascinating simply because of their implied acquiescence in end expressed gratitude for the “habits of Industry” which, having allowed them to make a meager living, also brought them much suffering. They impress us with the vulnerability of people with desperately immediate needs to jobs whose benefits are so low as to guarantee that those needs are perpetuated.
Upon the retirement of Icy Norman, for forty-seven years a yarn winder for Burlington Mills, company officials lauded and publicized her as its “oldest hand.” She was royally taken to dinner by “big shots” from the New York office, who told her that “if you ever come to New York…you will have a welcome mat.” She recalled that “I really enjoyed it” and later “Every time I go back up there [to the factory] I feel like I’m going back home.”
But in the same interview, she also related how she was forced to retire before she could benefit from a new profit-sharing plan. “I said, ‘Just let me work one more year. . .Then I could have my debts paid off.’ The man says, ‘I wish we could.’ That kind of hurt me…I could really have used that money [$12,500]. I felt like if anybody was entitled to it, I was, because I put my whole life there. My young life, and I growed up there. I feel like I was part in the making of Burlington Industries, because I come there
and stayed with them. I went with them through thick and thin.”
Ethel Hilliard, another long-time employee of Burlington, related how the mill hired two of her children before they were sixteen [the legal age] because “they knowed we needed work.” Her son “oiled that machinery and climbed over them looms. I thought about that a lot of times. I don’t reckon they really wanted to work a child like that, but they just done it to help out, I reckon. I know it was dangerous for him to be up there.”
Ultimately, Ethel Hilliard felt, “They was good to me at the Burlington Mill.” Mother of ten children, with an unemployed husband, she was most grateful that “They’d always take me back. I’d stop when a baby was going to be born, and then when they got old enough, I’d go back. Usually I’d stay out a couple of months.”
These workers were naturally wary of unions. Wariness approached fear in Bessie Buchanan, who in the early 1940s had witnessed a strike at Durham’s Erwin Mill. She believed she had barely escaped the union due to “a vision that the Lord gave me.” She had a dream about Nazis, who also resembled Old Testament persecutors, who tried to force her to join the union. In her dream, her faith as she walked a gauntlet convinced the unionizers to free her.
The workers’ stories are not all dreary. Ethel Hilliard’s irrepressible account of her childhood, her mother’s healing talent and herbal remedies, and her marriage is alone worth the purchase of this book. Ethel also enjoyed her work, “scalloping bedspreads,” which she felt was her “talent.”
These stories tell us that in the Piedmont any challenge to the workplace would have been a challenge to an entire culture. The Piedmont’s “habits of Industry” were reinforced by family, church, and workplace and, as Tullos documents, by the education system, from the early textile schools to Duke University and the University of North Carolina. They were benignly interpreted by the Institute for Research in Social Science, established by Howard Odum (SRC’s first president) as a laboratory for regional sociological investigation. “With a bit of hammering out by Odum, the habits of Industry appeared as inevitable, manifest, progressive.”
Finally, “In time, Industry’s assurance of having its way and of having it publicly confirmed became one of the Piedmont’s, and the South’s most secure habits.”
Habits of Industry would be an excellent text for students of labor history. It is challenging reading for any who wonder how it came about that in this country so many people would work so hard, over so many generations, so profitably for others, and for wages so low that their incomes would never rise above the poverty line. And it is graceful, enjoyable reading for those who may simply be intrigued by the rich, albeit perverse, culture of the Carolina Piedmont.
Linda Kravitz has recently resigned as research director of the Housing Assistance Council. She is immediate past chair of the National Council of Agricultural Life and Labor. In her undergraduate days she worked a summer at the Council. She is co-author of the Other Housing Crisis, published by HAC and the Center on Policy and Policy Priorities, 1989.