BOOKS: What’s A Union For?: New Perspectives on Textile Unionism in the Post-World War II South

What’s A Union For?: New Perspectives on Textile Unionism in the Post-World War II South
By Mary Frederickson

Vol. 19, No. 3-4, 1997 pp. 36-39

Daniel J. Clark, Like Night and Day: Unionization in a Southern Mill Town, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Timothy J. Minchin, What Do We Need a Union For?: The TWUA in the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

On August 13, 1997, workers in Kannapolis, Concord, and Salisbury, North Carolina plants owned by Fieldcrest Cannon, Inc., voted by a narrow margin (2,194 for and 2,563 against) to decline representation by UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. The past breathes heavily down the backs of those who live and work in southern textile communities and North Carolina textile workers know well that they have inherited a particularly burdensome history.

That history is the subject of two books published just a few months before the Fieldcrest Cannon campaign. Daniel J. Clark’s Like Night and Day cogently analyzes the successful unionization of the textile mills in Henderson, North Carolina in the years between 1943 and 1958. Clark offers a detailed explication of the ways in which the union transformed the worklives of Henderson employees, and then provides a graphic narrative of the deconstruction of the union and the ways in which the very fabric of work and community was torn apart by an intransigent management determined, for reasons that had little to do with economic pragmatism, to regain the power they had wielded in the days before unionization. Timothy J. Minchin’s What Do We Need a Union For? views the Southern textile industry through a lens with a wider angle. Minchin has written a fine history of the TWUA (Textile Workers Union of America) in the South in the decade immediately following World War II. He argues. that the decline in union membership between 1945. 1955, resulted not from the overt hostility of Southern mill workers to unions but from a combination of factors, including strategies used by non-union companies to match union wages and the pragmatic decision reached by many workers to eschew union membership in a decade of relative economic prosperity marked by rapid increases in pay and a parallel escalation of consumer debt. Minchin takes a close look at the TWUA period in the South and analyzes these years as an aberration, a decade out of sync in a history marked by low pay and continuous exploitation. The TWUA’s travail in the years following World War II has relevance beyond the South, Minchin contends, for the waning influence of this union foreshadowed the decline of the American labor movement as a whole in the years after 1970. Both Clark and Minchin pay close attention to the ways in which issues of gender and race have shaped the history of Southern textiles; neither author, however, places these variables at the center of his analysis.

The history of the Southern textile industry is complicated, richly nuanced, perturbing, and ever ripe for revision. Historians who venture into the field, and the numbers are many, are rewarded for their perseverance; they also risk participating in an exercise that resembles a bunch of blindfolded men and women describing the

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specific part of the elephant which they happen to reach out and touch. The works produced by Clark and Minchin reflect both aspects of the fate that awaits scholars of Southern labor history and the history of Southern textiles in particular.

Daniel Clark’s work on Henderson relies heavily on oral evidence collected from workers employed by the Harriet and Henderson mills in this small North Carolina town in the 1940’s and 1950’s. In addition, he interviewed management officials who in a gracious gesture, so unlike their actions when they provoked the 1958 strike, allowed Clark to “burrow in the dank, steamy basement of one of their mills” (p. 2) . There Clark found the equivalent of an historian’s goldmine: old boxes containing the records from “the union years.” Transcripts of union-management meetings, grievance testimony, and arbitration hearings provide the solid underpinings of Clark’s interpretation of the unionization and deunionization of Henderson. Clark presents a strong argument that contrary to conventional wisdom about “business unionism” in the post-war years, the grievance procedure put in place after the signing of contracts in 1943, “empowered mill workers, who were able for the first time to assert themselves without fear of arbitrary retribution” (p. 203). The implications of this empowerment were extraordinary, so extraordinary that in the end management could not continue to grant workers the right to have a voice, no matter how much it would cost them to restore the pre-union status quo.

As Clark tells us, the clearest conflicts between management and workers developed, as one might predict, around issues of workload: “Union members pitted their subjective evidence, based on job experiences, against management’s claims, based on scientific time studies, that workloads could be measured objectively.” It was “aching joints versus slide-rule calculations” (p. 105). At stake were contrasting views of what work should be. Henderson workers sought to balance work with the rest of their lives, from caring for their children, to food preparation to hunting, fishing, and gardening, and all the rest that goes into shaping a life. They did this by working as much as they needed to but not more. They wanted, among other things, “the right to earn LESS money by taking a day or two off each week” (p. 205). One result of this stance was that absenteeism was high, often averaging 25-30 percent (p. 66). Over several decades, particularly in the high-profit years of the 1940’s, management had accomodated this informal system by hiring extra workers, called “utility help,” or more traditionally, spare hands. Unionization had institutionalized what was actually a longstanding practice by Southern industrial workers. Shop stewards dutifully settled hundreds of disputes over workload with an eye toward protecting workers’ health and endurance. Plant supervisors also faithfully negotiated workload challenges, resolving most before formal grievances were written. Company modernization plans were routinely foiled by workload complaints and by union members’ determination to have some control over the work lives. The strike in 1958 brought this central conflict to the fore and to a terribly bitter and painful conclusion.

What is so interesting about Clark’s analysis is the contemporary relevance of the Henderson workers’ case. They were openly grappling with, and often successfully re-solving, the thorny issues of balancing the demands of work and the call of home. This issue was by no means laid to rest in 1958, although management’s destructive victory certainly marked the direction in which American industry was headed on the question of workload and compensatory time issues. As Juliet B. Schor’s The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1991) so skillfully documents, U.S. workers have rarely been given the choice of not working, even when they were willing to reduce their take-home pay. Current battles over flextime and family leave policies only reinforce this argument. Henderson workers lost their union and their jobs in the 1958 strike. They also lost the right to control their worklives and the struggle for what, as Clark articulated, “They perceived to be a more humane existence” (D. 205).

Timothy Minchin’s history of the TWUA’s initiatives in the South parallel’s Daniel Clark’s work in the mining of rich new sources. Minchin used documents held in private hands in Danville, Virginia, combed the voluminous and now fully catalogued records of Operation Dixie, and tapped the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) records on the Tarboro, North Carolina strike in 1949, as well as conducting extensive oral histories with over

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sixty textile workers and union officials. Minchin offers a different perspective on the TWUA in the South, arguing that the rapid rise in industrial wages between 1941 and 1951 had an especially dramatic impact on textile communities, changing living standards and making it extremely difficult for the union to “sell its message in the South” (p. 2). As a strategy designed to prevent unionization, companies gave union pay and benefits to all workers, union and non-union alike. Consequently, workers did not have to take the considerable risk involved in joining a union in order to reap the material rewards that came with union membership. In contrast to what many historians of pre-World War II Southern textile history have argued, Minchin contends that “the failure of the TWUA during the 1940s and 1950s had less to do with worker culture and employer hostility than with economic and social changes set in motion by World War II” (p. 2). Those changes included workers using newly acquired disposable income to purchase consumer goods on time. Minchin sees workers in the 1940s and 1950s as having “more to lose” than their predecessors in earlier decades, a situation that made them less willing to strike or even to risk supporting a union (p.3). He also sees the TWUA as a seriously factionalized northern-based union that viewed Southern textile workers as undesirable step-children and consequently designed union strategies and tactics that were primarily tailored to protect northern wage levels.

Minchin’s work is particularly valuable because as he analyzes the TWUA across the Southern region after its formation in 1939, he also closely examines how the political, social, and economic systems of the South operated in local textile communities. He provides nuanced case studies of three communities that have not been studied in much depth before now: workers’ struggles in Danville, Tarboro, and Rockingham in the 1940’s and early 1950’s are added to the familiar triptych of Elizabethton, Marion, and Gastonia in 1929. Minchin also provides a useful examination of the rarely mentioned General Strike of 1951, seeing it as a turning point for the TWUA in the South, the juncture at which the union lost its power to set Southern wage patterns. After 1951, wages in the South were established not by unionized workers, especially those in the mills at Danville, as before, but “by nonunion chains such as Burlington, Cannon, Springs, and J.P. Stevens.” As Munchin tells us “This pattern was maintained in ensuing decades (p. 156). Significantly, What Do We Need a Union For? argues that the failure of the 1951 strike destroyed “the ability of many Southern locals to endure another strike” (p. 166). Without being able to threaten a strike, the union was, Minchin argues, “gravely weakened,”for the strike had been the most effective tool Southern textile workers could wield against corporate resistance. With the power of the strike diminished throughout the South, by increasingly sophisticated company tactics and by the growing unwillingness of workers to risk their own relatively fragile financial well being, the TWUA fell prey to internal splits and feuds. The effects of interunion rivalry are demonstrated vividly in Minchin’s examination of the Aleo union plant in Rockingham, North Carolina. It was at Aleo that Minchin found workers who had lost their union after a short strike in 1955, but who were still ardent unionists in 1994, stressing to Minchin that unionism was “in the heart” and claiming that “once workers crossed the line” and experienced freedom, they “rarely went back” (p. 194) . Even, one might add, after the union was eliminated.

Now, as we consider these well-written studies, it is important to ask whether or not these two historians are describing the same animal. Has Clark grabbed the elephant’s tail, and Minchin the trunk? Each describes a set of discreet realities circumscribed by time and place. But Minchin is arguing that the TWUA could not win strikes in the years between 1945 and 1955 because workers had benefitted from union-set higher wages and consequently stood to lose more if they went on strike. And Clark is arguing that Henderson workers put every-

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thing on the line in their strike in 1958, and that “if solidarity could have produced a union victory, these locals would have survived” (p. 200). The Henderson strike was finally lost not because the workers gave up, or because of TWUA failures, but because of management intransigence and willingness to lose significant amounts of money. Minchin is arguing that Southern textile workers spent their available disposable income, buying cars and other consumer goods on the installment plan. But Henderson workers in the same period, Clark contends, were trying to retain the right to not work as many hours a week as management demanded, harking back to a spare hand system used since at least the late nineteenth century. Were textile workers becoming more like other American industrial worekrs, or even like other Southern workers in steel, rubber, and automobilies, in these post-war years? That is not clear. Based on the Henderson case, Southern textile workers were not buying into the American dream as fully as Minchin argues they were. So there are questions that remain unanswered. And both of these studies, like all good books, raise a host of new, significant, and perplexing issues that need further examination. Clearly though, Clark and Minchin have both made major contributions to the field.

Finally, there is a crucial way in which these two books do fit together: when the workers whose stories Timothy J. Minchin has so carefully documented asked “What do we need a union for?” It is important to recognize that one answer to this question rests in Daniel J. Clark’s text: The difference that a union can make is “like night and day.” Clark and Minchin would no doubt agree that unions reinforce in tangible ways worker dignity and respect, and yes, experience has shown that unions bring better wages and working conditions for those in both union and non-union jobs. “Like night and day”–those North Carolina workers who in August voted for (and against) union representation, and all of us who work, need to acknowledge and remember that distinction, both in the past and also in the present.

Mary Frederickson teaches history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In August 1997, she participated in the Southern School for Union Women in Birmingham, Alabama.