Skip to main content

Employers Front!

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

I stopped yesterday before a melancholy building in Washington. It stands just east of the Capitol, and was known once as the Brick Capitol and later as Old Capitol Prison. Those who until recently had offices there were all gone. Its windows and doors were flung open. Its vacancy was accentuated by the weeds in the side yard, and yellowed newspapers and half-burned scraps from old files littered its terrace. It was on the point of being torn down to make room for the new building of the Supreme Court. The wrecker’s foreman was stamping through it, measuring it as for its coffin. A laborer was sweeping it; this seemed so unnecessary, unless it was to lay it out decently for burial.

In this building the nation really entered upon the protectionist policy, for Congress met here from 1815-17, and here, I believe, the superintendent of the Andersonville prison camp was confined before hanging. Chief interest for a Southerner, however, lies in the fact that here Calhoun lived, and here, after listening from a wheel chair to the reading of his last speech in the Senate, he died in 1850.

More than any, other, Calhoun was the representative of the Old South on the firing line of sectional debate, After lapse from earlier nationalist advocacy, he distilled the constitutional theory which in plain words meant secession. My metaphor is mixed, but no matter. When the cliff was hanging perilously, he sent up the shout which brought the avalanche of civil war. Other actors on the Southern side of the drama which stretched from Nullification to Secession were minor characters, taking consequence from him. He alone, in the contradiction of personal purity and public error, expressed the excruciating vexation of the period.

The South has undergone logical alternations of political and social dominance. From the days of colonization to the Civil War there was a ruling aristocracy of landed wealth and relative culture. During Reconstruction there was what may be called an oligarchical democracy — in every sense forced and unreal so far as rule of the people was concerned. When the South was restored to Southerners, there was a reversion to the old aristocracy, but now with a difference. At first there was general destitution, and even after recovery began, wealth did not exist in the old self-perpetuating security. Economic resources did not now hang upon mere ownership, but followed from skilful contrivance. In other words, the promising leaders did not rely upon planting, but began to look to commerce and industry. Also, the ranks of those who controlled the South were augmented by, the addition of some new men, who relied not upon name or position, but upon energy, particularly in manufacturing.

For rather less than twenty years these economic providers were the true lords of the South. They were not strident. The magnitude of their task of physical salvage made them modest. Anyhow, they were rulers by default of everyone else, and nobody bit the hand that fed him. For a time the factory was more important than the forum.

There ensued the day of the demagogue, which has not ended yet. He was the ungracious token of partial recovery of the country; he relied not a little upon the re-entrance of poor white men into economic well-being through the agency, of cotton mill employment. He was the product of free labor and industrialism, which made for centers of population easily addressed. The demagogue was in most respects inferior to the old landed aristocrat. He suffered much in comparison with the men who guided the South’s physical rehabilitation. But he added one element of promising importance—he did appeal for the favor of the common white man, and he did represent, however factiously, the wishes of those whose acclaim was his breath of life. He rode the South’s first ragged wave of democracy.

More and more politics is being replaced as the chief interest of the South by business in the widest sense—growth and diversification of industry, expansion of commerce, application of intelligence to agriculture, programs of social betterment put forward without self-seeking. Disaffection of southern states from Democratic allegiance in the 1928 election was significant of more than religious bigotry and dryness. This shift is attributable to economic progress, chiefly expressed in manufactures, public education, and automobiles. Just as a slight improvement in social status of the Poor Whites more than a generation ago gave rise to the ignorant or disingenuous politician, so a larger measure of economic competence in the masses transfers control to two closely allied groups — entrepreneurs and social workers, the latter comprehending educators, health officers, farm experiment stations, city managers, welfare departments of state and factory, and labor organizers. The second group is more articulate than the first, has a less divided purpose, and made itself heard earlier, but it is really subordinate in power, and depends upon business.

We may say, then, that the business man, chiefly the industrialist, is the new leader in the South. He is in a different position from the Southern industrialist of the ‘seventies, ‘eighties, and ‘nineties. He cannot be so much the individualist. The community looks at him not only gratefully, but critically. Other agencies of social progress have sprung up to apply a measuring stick to his performance. The present South not only wants to nourish industry, but it has an eye to the social implications of that industry. The industrialist is a constitutional monarch.

His power flows from his opportunity to exploit great natural resources; he is still in the process of industrializing an agricultural region, he gives subsistence and change of employment to hundreds of thousands who need both; in a word, he creates wealth. He commands capital, everywhere the most potent element in society, but especially so in the recovering South. He holds the sovereign secret of production. The limitation upon him is that he must answer to a social conscience—sometimes vague and inexperienced, sometimes timid, but more and more present.

Mr. Claude G. Bowers, who with touching loyalty has translated his vast admiration of Jefferson into conspicuous espousal of the Democratic party„ recently wrote: “I certainly think it would be a great tragedy for the South to abandon the sound fundamental principles and ideals on which its greatness rests in history to industrialism.” I am unable to agree with him. It is not certain that there are any “sound fundamental principles and ideals” in social arrangement, and in the second place, industrialism in the South is already supplanting the agricultural regime which was the foundation of Jefferson’s beliefs. Maybe it is through perversion, but it is nevertheless true that the Jef-fersonian tradition has come to serve in the South as a cloak for unwarranted and interested departure from national industrial practice. It is an excuse for peculiarity from which a small group profits. The first lesson which Southern industrial leaders must learn is that they are responsible for conformity, insofar as possible, with national standards. In matters technical and financial they have this knowledge and act brilliantly upon it; in their desire for a protective tariff they are proving themselves apt scholars. It is in their relations to their industrial partners—the workers— that they need guidance, and the recent actions of the textile manufacturers in the South call more for reproof than for encouragement.

The question arises here: In how far can deliberate individual and social effort modify economic evolution? Will exhortation by reformers and by enlightened persons within the ranks of employers avail anything? On this point Professor Karapetoff, of Cornell University, has taken a mechanistic view which, one must admit, is recommended by experience. Speaking of employers, workers, and the Southern public in the recent series of textile mill strikes, he says: “Each group has acted its part; has acted it almost in the way in which a skilled sociologist would have predicted it. The only unusual feature in the situation is the staging of a present-day, large-scale industrial conflict in a fairly backward agricultural community. . . . If [North Carolina] is to have large mills and factories you are bound to repeat to some extent the sad and cruel industrial history of our Northeast and England. I see no way out of it, because great masses are swayed by emotions (principally fear), and not by intellect. If this were not so we would have had an industrial democracy, long before this time.” He is “sorry for the otherwise peaceful elements of your population which all at once have been called upon to orient themselves and to take an active part in a situation for which there has been no gradual growth in the past, no precedent, and no reference marks.”

It may be true of the recent strikes that “as is usual in such cases, the heat of the basic animal fear and the desire for self-preservation rapidly melted the thin film of culture.” However, I believe that a better adjustment can ensue. Three factors in the situation lend hope. First, the workers, for their part, have shown notable restraint. They have had every provocation to unreason and violence, for they have been maligned, shot, evicted, had courts, militia, and sheriffs against them, and received tardy support from public opinion. In the face of this treatment, their demands have generally been minimal, they have sought advice in responsible quarters, they have welcomed the friendly offices of outsiders, they have tried to resort to conference and discussion. The American Federation of Labor, in sponsoring the present campaign of organization in the South, has reversed its old policy and invited labor criticism by adopting an engineering approach to the problem of cotton mill operation. It does not fight the efficiency systems which were the immediate cause of the strikes; rather, it has asked for adjustment and further inquiry, being willing to go the whole length of “class collaboration.” The way in which the thousands of operatives at Danville answered the ignorant and unjust strictures of the president of the mill must have been amazing to one outside and unacquainted with the South. They had, probably, the power to apply instant economic pressure and abide the consequences. Instead, they showed remarkable moderation and self-respecting tolerance. I shall never forget the behavior of strikers at Elizabethton, Tennessee, in their meetings in the spring of 1929. Here were raw recrnits to an industry owned by aliens. They were mountaineers suddenly thrust into factories and working under onerous conditions. I doubt whether debate in the House of Commons equals them in order, and in firmness without obstinacy.

A second hopeful element lies in the fact that labor conditions in the Southern mills, and the stand which employers have taken in defense of these, are anachronisms. It is not meant to be too sweeping. There is unhealthy tissue elsewhere in the American industrial organism, but the point is that it is everywhere recognized as being such and defenses of it fall upon unbelieving ears. A number of the Southern employers whose recent statements I have read murmur something about knowing they, are not perfect, and speak of their belief that they are making progress out of an unfortunate situation. But basically they give the impression of denying charges and resenting criticism. The right tactic for them, even in selfish procedure, is to invite intelligent, non-partisan inquiry into the situation in their industry. Without this, they must continue subject to the hostility of nine out of ten men outside the range of their immediate influence. And however slowly it works, this pressure of national public opinion is sure in its effect. The Southern cotton mills will have to yield to it in one way or another; they may conform to its demands, or they will find themselves forced into compliance. Restrictive legislation, withdrawal of protection, support to the contentions of organized labor, personal discomfiture of recalcitrant employers through public attacks, may all operate.

Some within the ranks of mill owners begin to show signs of appreciation of the confronting situation. Their words, one may, be sure, are carrying great weight with their colleagues, even though they be taken to constitute the most unkindest cut of all. Some of these have been strictures passed on bad labor standards in the South by manufacturers who have mills in both the North and the South, such as Mr. Eben E. Whitman and Mr. H. P. Kendall. These have been fearless and clearheaded, and mark a great advance over the position taken by Massachusetts mill men six years ago when they appealed to their legislature to protect them against Southern competition by relaxing legal limitations at home. At the end of April of this year Mr. Whitman told the National Association of Cotton Manufacturers that “the time has arrived when somebody’s feelings have probably got to be hurt in the process of placing ourselves in a position to go ahead. Every . . . destructive force that is bearing down upon us, if traced to its source, leads directly to the . . . exploitation of women and children in our mills. The growth of this unfair and selfish utilization of women and children through night employment in the cotton mills of the Southern States is . . . directly the cause of the downfall of this . . . essential industry. . . .” The evil of overproduction prompted this statement, but it is none the less grist to the mill of labor betterment, as is the success of the Cotton Textile Institute (composed of employers North and South) in tying up the vast majority, of cotton spindles in the moderate agreement to work a maximum of 55 hours a week in the day and 50 hours at night.

In addition to these voices which represent interests in both sections, there have been some from the Southern industry itself. Mr. W. D. Anderson said to the convention of Southern cotton manufacturers in 1928: “I am inviting your thought to the task of deciding whether or not we, who own and operate the mills of the South, are exercising ourselves to go to the limit of our ability . . . in seeing to it that those who labor with us in this great industry are receiving everything that is their due. I am not inviting you to any manifestation of sentimentality. . . . The thing I am talking about strikes down to the very mudsills upon which proper human relations are built. . . . Selfishness is an insuperable barrier to a common understanding.” Mr. Donald Comer, the president of one of the largest cotton manufacturing companies in the South or anywhere, in May of this year told the convention of Northern mill men: “Our predecessors have played their part and now we are at the bat. We must find answers to old problems, and new ones as they arise, else we shall, and should, forfeit our place of leadership. . . . Danger—Think—is the message I have for us today. Let’s keep ahead of threatening fists. . . . Men and women who daily, climb our factory stairs have not wearied in their trust of us. Trust is a sacred thing. Ours is the opportunity today.”

I am under no illusions. These men do not propose to embrace labor unionism. But, whether trying to contrive an exit from their own marketing difficulties, or smarting under labor protests, they are very honestly worried, and are not afraid to admit it and cast about for assistance in solving their problem. The smugness and self-gratulation, which formerly deemed it enough to boast of welfare work, is gone. In the important matter of labor relations there comes now, at least in a few who have spoken, a searching of heart, an examination of motives, and glances at the surprising stature of an opponent.

It is clear that the moderation of the workers and the inability of employers long to support an outworn creed lend color to the belief that the South may short-circuit the process of industrial betterment. A third pointer in the same direction is more debatable. It is that there is a sense of justice in the Southern people which will urge industry toward good labor standards. We talk much of Southern traditions. Those most worthwhile belong to the Revolutionary and early Constitutional periods, and upon these the present has a way of collapsing, as though a century and a half had not intervened between them. The main reason for this telescoping is that the education, wealth, and occupation of the masses of white people have not changed much until recent years. The substratum of the white South is essentially, English. England, everything considered, was not long in making adjustment to the social effects of the Industrial Revolution. We may think of capitalism clamping down on labor with the General Combination Act of 1799. This was repealed, it is true not without some manoeuver, in 1824, and though restrictions upon workers were partially re-imposed the next year, from this time forward the issue as to worker’s rights was less and less in doubt. Later lapses from this fair policy were pretty promptly rebuked and the position of workers further established by shouts of protest organized not simply by workers but by liberal-minded leaders of public opinion. England, in other words, considering the fact that she had burst upon an unknown sea, did something better than muddle through. It may not be too much to hope that this Anglo-Saxon turn for parliamentary amelioration of injustice to labor may be peculiarly resident in the South. It has slumbered, but now and again an eye opens.

The entrepreneur has earned the place of Southern leadership. Mr. Comer is right in saying that the employer is at the bat. Crowded stands are watching him. Many hope that he will not strike out. He cannot count long upon applause from a personal triumph. He must learn and practice, while he captains, team play.

Leaving aside the present depressed state of the industry, which no one looks upon as permanently threatening the success of the ordinarily talented Southern cotton manufacturer (though it is playing havoc in the North), the Southern enterpriser has thus far encountered and overcome technical problems. He now enters the vexed realm of social action. Some wonid not rely upon him for the needed imagination, and think he cannot initiate a social discipline which would prejudice his autonomy. It may be that he will move in this direction only under compulsion, mainiy of his workers. However this may be, there is no doubt that he is in the best position to take command, and it is certain that, if his policies are reasonable, he will get a following. He has been looked to by his employees in large and small things for half a centuiy. He enters the situation, which is bound to become more and more vexed in the next years, with the extraordinary asset of the workers’ confidence. At the very worst, they will reserve judgment until he has made a fool of himself. Every move which the American Federation of Labor and the United Textile Workers have made since the southwide organizing campaign was started, proves that the employer is being asked to step to the front.

Mr. Bernard Cone, whose importance in the Southern and national industry demands attention, speaking recently at the University of North Carolina, took a position of economic agnosticism which, if generally held to, would mean that the employer as a leader is beaten before he starts. “Up till recently,” he said, “the manufacturers have been reticent. They have remained silent and let too many untrue things said about them go unchallenged. But dignity ceases to be a virtue and more men . . . ought to come out into the open and tell their side of the story. I am sorry, but I have no remedy to offer. If I did, it would already have been applied. Mergers will not help. Unions will not help. Surveys will not help. Legislation will not help. The thing will have to work itself out like an epidemic of influenza. . . .”

Obviously, more is needed than for employers to “tell their side of the story.” The public will listen respectfully to this, it is certain, and without preconceived hostility. Such a recital will give many added points to steer by. But there must be constructive proposal besides. This demand would be satisfied with minimum embarrassment to the employer by his acquiescence in the application of organized labor for recognition and conference. This procedure is the most promising. It calls up labor’s dissatisfaction, articulate and inarticulate, for settlement. It furnishes the only and sufficient guarantee that labor will not butt ahead without knowledge of the employer’s other business problems; more than this, it makes available to the industry certain positive experience of textile unionists, and provides an expansion joint in organized workers’ understanding that they are to give and take.

A surprisingly large number of Southern cotton manufacturers, frankly, approached, have shown a willingness to hear the union’s proposals at the outset. Whether or not this results in outright co-operation in some instances, it must act as an insurance against ignorance and misrepresentation as to what the union is trying to do. It does not help at all to have the employer entertain and set forth a distorted picture of organized labor. In doing this he simply earns the title “mill baron,” which is equally unfortunate. One has said, “the big reason why the manufacturer doesn’t like the idea of a union is because of the methods of the union. You may call it ‘collective bargaining’ if you will, but that is a misnomer. . . . It’s collective dictation or collective domineering where the formulation of terms is concerned, and collective intimidation in putting them into effect.” The latest number of a leading trade journal in the heart of the textile South understands no more than that the section is swarming with labor organizers who had reached the starvation point in New England and who want Southern dues to live on; “but,” the editor says, “we have confidence in the good sense of the mill operatives . . . who have always refused to be the victims of such parasites.”

A skeptical employer offers the opinion that a proper union must have two purposes: “First, assistance to the member which will make him better fitted to perform his work; second, to assist in the general uplift of the industry with which he is connected.” And he adds: “When they come with . . . plans, headed by the proper type of leaders, willing to co-operate and to build, then I feel that they have some possibility of success.”

It will surprise this man to be told that this is precisely what he has in the South today in the United Textile Workers. No more authoritative profession of policy can be found than the words of Mr. Geoffrey C. Brown, who is the consulting engineer retained by the American Federation of Labor to speed the acceptance of the organization of textile workers in the South. “Trade unions have arrived,” he says, “at the realization that better wages and working conditions can be maintained only through the productivity and prosperity of industry. When this is admitted (and its truth is obvious) the next step is inescapable. Trade unions must co-operate actively with management to promote high productivity, elimination of waste, and low cost of production in organized establishments. Only under these conditions can payment of the highest wages become possible.”

Here is a program ready made to the needs of manufacturers beset by over-production, unaccustomed to working with each other in necessary policies of restriction, harassed by widespread labor unrest, and uncomfortable under public censure.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading