Work and Protest
"At that point, southern workers took matters into their own hands."
Production in cotton mills soared during World War I to accommodate the demand for military supplies. At the end of the war, however, demand dropped precipitously. The emergence of other textile centers throughout the world cut into Southern manufacturers' hold on international markets, and 1920s fashions that emphasized shorter skirts made of less material reduced sales even further. In response to these problems, owners tried to cut costs by reducing wages, running their mills around the clock, and making their employees work harder for their pay. Under such circumstances, labor unrest quickened.
In the 1920s, mill owners also tried to tighten expenses by eliminating wasted time and resources from mill
operations. They added faster, more efficient equipment, which allowed
them to fire some of their employees; they installed
counting devices to keep track of employee production;
and they adopted the techniques of scientific management made famous by Frederick W. Taylor.
Manufacturers hired industrial efficiency consultants to find ways of getting more work from each employee.
They also tied wages to rates of production that only the most skilled hands could
match. Under this system, some employees could make a little
extra, but most made less and worked harder to get it.
Millhands running multiple, fast-moving machines found factory work increasingly strenuous.
They called these attempts at increased efficiency the "stretch out" and became frustrated at the difficulties they faced in meeting their quotas.
The wave of strikes began in Elizabethton, Tennessee on March 12, 1929.
Millhands held out for three months, but ultimately came back to work after a settlement in which the company
agreed not to discriminate against union workers, a promise
that it did not keep. Before the Elizabethton strike ended,
however, thousands of millhands had walked out of factories in
Marion and Gastonia, North Carolina and in other textile
communities across the Piedmont. In every case,
the workers aimed their protests at what they called the
"hard rules" of cotton mill labor. The odds,
though, were stacked against the strikers. Manufacturers
had warehouses full of goods and could simply wait for
hunger and debt to force their employees back to
work. The legal system also favored employers by
allowing for the use of private police and the state militia to
intimidate protesters. In Gastonia, Ella May Wiggins,
the balladeer and heroine of the local strike, was
ambushed and murdered on her way to a union rally.
The Gastonia protest collapsed in the aftermath of her
death. There, as in other textile towns, the
United Textile Workers union (UTW) was too weak to
challenge the economic and political power of the cotton
manufacturers and to organize the labor
When the stock market crashed in 1929, it brought a new
wave of layoffs in the Southern textile industry, "further wage cuts, and efforts to recoup profits by stretch[ing] out the stretch-out."
(p. 236) The stage was set for some of the most dramatic
labor conflicts in all of American
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act into law. Under the NIRA, a regulatory body known as the Cotton Textile Board was established to enforce a code of fair competition for the industry. The code's purpose was to limit destructive price competition among manufacturers, prevent the over-production of textile goods, and guarantee millhands a minimum wage. The Cotton Textile Board was controlled, however, by mill owners, and in practice, manufacturers often turned the code of fair competition to their own advantage. By "stretching out the stretch-out," they effectively turned the minimum wage into the maximum that most workers could earn and laid off thousands of additional hands.
The textile industry enjoyed a profitable year in 1933, but workers felt the squeeze
of the renewed efforts to tighten management control
over the workday. Older millhands without pension plans were fired when they could not keep up with production, and the stretch-out hit spinners,
most of them women and among the lowest paid workers in the industry, with particular force.
Under such circumstances, workers found it increasingly
difficult to feed their families and to maintain the dignity and autonomy that they had treasured and protected throughout their working lives.
Millhands and the United Textile Workers union were no
match for those odds. After three weeks, workers
began returning to the mills, forced to give up the strike by force and financial necessity. On September 22, the UTW called off the
protest. Workers who had participated in the strike were often fired and evicted from mill villages after the General Strike
ended. Many found themselves blacklisted and unable to
find factory employment anywhere in the region.