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Whose Prosperity?

ISSUE:  Summer 1929

This is a day when everybody is offering the South advice. Her friends, resident and absentee, counsel sanity and balance in her racket of industrial expansion. Northern critics, and they have been many and loud in recent months, supplement grave warnings with grudging congratulations on her industrial development, which some of them apparently hope will be accompanied by such ills as have been chronic in the North for a generation.

Northern sour-grape critics taunt the South with prophecies of social disorder resulting from gluttonous factory-grabbing. Those sincerely interested in the South’s economic and social welfare observe that such predictions are anything but spiteful and vain. For did not the first pain strike the South in what, during the 1928 election, was considered her middle — Elizabethton, Tennessee, where Mr. Hoover proclaimed a prosperity sustained by a tariff that would protect both manufacturer and wage-earner? And, these friends aver, the South—this young and incredibly gullible New South—does not yet know what ails her. Unless she looks at the experience of other and older industrial regions, she may writhe and groan under old quackeries, continuing to do the very things that accentuate her malady.

When fleshpot Republicanism came South like gift-bearing Greeks, it brought the proverbial full dinner-pail, whose fullness has been assumed without question until late months. The news of its coming was alone sufficient to electrify many a lot owner, merchant, and man sick of the old farm. The hill-billy, homespun and until then making ends meet by a sort of frugality, came to town, multiplied his needs, and got a job. Anglo-Saxon sons and daughters, described by, the industrialist who reconditioned the Leviathan as being “more dependable than Northern labor and not bedeviled by Old World radicalism,” went to work in mills where anachronic working conditions were not wholly absent. Bewildered by the miracle of industrialization, they nevertheless started out faithfully to remember the interests of the beneficent local industry, the merchant, and the realtor.

But it is difficult to be loyal on eight dollars a week if you are a modern girl, twelve dollars a week if you are a married man, eighteen dollars a week if you have a large family, or twenty-five dollars a week if your relatives and friends drop in often for meals. With the public prints noisy with prosperity ballyhoo, as was the case at Elizabethton for two years preceding the textile strike there, the underpaid workers grow increasingly mutinous and it does not require an outside labor agitator to touch them off. It is acknowledged by those who see red that no union officials arrived at Elizabethton until after the walkout. The strike was purely a home-made affair, a spontaneous protest against a prosperity that neither brought the workers better pay nor relieved them of the ills of an efficiency system.

The situation at Elizabethton was perhaps more acute than any like situation elsewhere in the industrial South. This condition was attributable in the main to the real estate boom that followed the breaking of dirt for the rayon plants there. Realtors sold lots to investors everywhere, who held them for speculation. It was but inevitable that the boost in real estate should be reflected in rents, board, and living costs generally. The price-level mounted faster than the wage-scale in the textile plants. Girls receiving $8.90 a week were paying $6 a week for board and not less than a dollar a week for bus-fare to their homes if they lived outside of town. Men employees making from $12 to $18 a week were paying from $25 to $35 a month rent for company houses. Because of the real estate boom the price-level went up prohibitively, an aspect of the situation regretted as much, doubtless, by the textile owners as by the workers.

True, the workers had not been accustomed to more before they left their farms and scrawny slopes. Yet they knew few bill collectors and enjoyed a measure of individual freedom instead of a treadmill existence. But in town all is different for these people. A wage of two dollars a day might make it possible to satisfy the grocer, but it will not meet the living costs increased by reason of their moving to town. How does a two-dollar-a-day worker manage to pay for, say, a kitchen range, not to mention other household necessities that have advanced in price in late years? What of inevitable doctor’s bills? Pelvic disorders are not uncommon nor doctor’s bills infrequent under a discipline that requires girl workers to stand in one position with no support whatever during long working hours and to obtain permission even to go to the toilet. What of taxes, insurance premiums, water and light bills, clothing, school books, amusements? Church assessments, too, must be met in this day of community surveys and intensive canvassing. Needless to enumerate, the items here listed cannot by, any sort of economy be included in a two-dollar, even a three-dollar, budget. The worker clutches desperately at installments, apprehensive the while of the sheriff in the offing.

Nor do the workers alone make public noise about this mythically diffused prosperity. In mill towns like Elizabethton—referred to repeatedly in this article because it was the strategic Southern city chosen by the Party of Prosperity for a campaign speech by its presidential nominee—the merchants complain that the workingman draws too little to meet his bills. Such a customer is a bad risk. Buying on installments as he does, he must of necessity pay much higher prices than does the man who makes anywhere from five to one hundred times as much money. In the final analysis he pays the other man’s discounts. His debts accumulate appallingly. If his family survives, and of course it does, somebody is certain to lose; and generally it is the merchant.

Merchants in towns where real estate booms have followed the location of factories are, taken together, anything but prosperous. Wholesalers in nearby cities extend them credit from week to week, expecting anything to happen in seven days time. Not infrequently the wholesaler finds a vacant room where a week before he had a dealer. In these towns credit is as unstable as shifting sands. Solvency is a rarity, and property fires are so numerous that many insurance companies are compelled to pull out. The sheriff is busy posting sales of property levied upon, and lawyers vulture over the remains of undercapitalized enterprises. Mr. Hoover may have said grace over a prosperity attributable to Mr. Coolidge, but the fact remains that a prosperity based on a wage scale that enriches the industries while impoverishing the average consumer cannot be socially beneficial. At any rate it cannot settle accounts all over town. It leaves a bad economic odor. There is a lot of smoke in the picture, a great flourish of activity, but little sunshine. Conditions are, in all too many respects, degrading.

Finding his credit withdrawn and no increase in his pay envelope, what does the workingman do? He talks vaguely and wistfully of “better times” elsewhere. To move his family and household would require cash, and he has no savings. Besides, the sheriff would stop his furniture before he could get five miles away with it. Anyway, he writes to other places about the chances for a job. There is Charlotte, North Carolina. He once knew a man who made money there. With a laborious effort he composes a letter to—well, the mayor. “How’s work in Charlotte?” he inquires. “Can a man get a job there? What do they pay labor?”

Within a week he receives a reply from the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, to which his letter had been referred by the mayor. The Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce reports that common labor receives $2.50 per day. This is better, but not encouraging. He writes other letters. Labor in Chattanooga, he is told, receives the same. Columbus, Georgia, pays only $1.50 for common labor and $2 for unskilled factory labor. And he is unskilled, competing with thousands of others in like circumstances. Where is he to turn? The cotton industry is “sick.” Rayon has to a large extent supplanted cotton. What of the coal fields? The coal industry in the South also is sick; especially from the standpoint of the miners, who have only part-time employment. Moreover, labor-saving machinery and new efficiency devices are supplanting men. His lot appears hopeless. He has been snared to town from his habitat in the hills to become a social problem.

This sort of social problem is becoming more and more serious, chiefly because the Red Cross, the Y. M. C. A., the Salvation Army, and other organizations that help the underprivileged are quitting many of the towns. Raising quotas is yearly growing more difficult.

At a time of general prosperity there should be no cause for picketing, which means that there is keen competition for jobs. And yet Southern labor, to use the inelegant but expressive term, has been scabbing not only on organized Northern labor but on striking Southern labor as well. A bit of history is necessary here. The black slaves, after their emancipation, scattered over the country, and this pleased Northern manufacturers. Then, to an extent, white labor took the place of the black slaves. Northern industrialists frowned at this and, as in the coal industry, sought to shift the scales of competition in their own favor by mandate of commission and judicial fiat—”pernicious favoritism,” a Southern congressman has characterized it. The chief difference between the economic problem that caused the War Between the States and the economic problem that lately has been alarming the North is one of color: then it was cheap black labor, and now it is cheap white labor. Unable today to beat the South in peaceful business competition, because of cheap unorganized labor in the South, Northern manufacturers have been relocating their plants below the Potomac—where, of course, they have the added advantages of raw materials at hand and certain concessions given by the go-getters. And now organized Northern labor is annoyed by the spectacle of Southern labor working for so little. It is in effect scabbing. Hence at every opportunity Northern “agitators,” despised in certain quarters as were the buzzards of carpetbaggery, hasten South to help boost wages there to a level that will benefit both Northern and Southern labor.

When textile workers in Tennessee and the Carolinas struck for higher wages and better working conditions, they incidentally quit scabbing on their Northern comrades. And then what? Other Southern laborers, none too comfortable in this famed era of prosperity, began to cast covetous eyes at the vacant jobs—ready, to scab on their neighbors! Because of their multiplied needs and boosted prices they could not remain idle long, as was possible in the more leisurely life before the industrial revolution. Southern labor as a whole is not yet union-minded and therefore cannot perceive the likeness of a protective closed shop for itself to a protective tariff that shuts out competition for its employers. And the only protection the scabs enjoy is that given them by the state troopers and national guardsmen following the issuance of injunctions against strikers going upon company property.

This is the ache that is beginning to disturb the South’s young dream. That these strikes are merely sporadic and not forerunners of widespread discontent and eventual labor war in the South, one cannot say positively. Certainly there will be endless trouble if the manufacturers do not take a leaf from the records of other places and other times and exercise common discretion, if not humane wisdom, in an effort to avert strife. And such wisdom, if discerning friends of the South are to be heeded, lies in policies of fair-play, reasonable profit taking and disinterested social furtherance, rather than in policies of sheer exploitation. It remains to be seen whether Elizabethton, the political gateway, to the South in 1928, will be a Pass of Thermopylae in 1929.

The attitude of the writer of this paper should not be regarded as pessimistic, for it is not. Nor should the writer be lumped with those afflicted with a nostalgia for “the good old days.” He prefers to be, not an old-timer, but a new-timer. His attitude is, he hopes, not that of the dreamer lost to a sense of reality under the spell of that parody, “Beautiful Ideals of Somewhere,” but rather the attitude of vigilance and awareness and co-operation. In recent months he has visited some of the industrial towns in the South and has been amazed at the material progress made there since he trekked, fifteen years ago, through several of the Southern States. There is evidence everywhere of many indubitable improvements. It would be foolish to deny them if one wished.

It is with a genuine feeling of pride, in fact, that one beholds the marvelous panorama of achievement which, to quote the awe-struck Manufacturers’ Record, “will forever stand out as the mightiest ever wrought by mankind.” It is, no denying, very gratifying to be told that the South has nearly seven million automobiles, more than in all the world outside of the United States, The scale on which hydro-electric developments are taking place staggers the imagination. The mind is bewildered by the expenditures in 1927 for roads—nearly four hundred million dollars. That the South is producing sixty-three per cent, of the nation’s output of coal and forty per cent, of the world’s production, despite competition with Northern operators favored by the government, shows that the South has both a will and a way. With manufacturing in all lines recording amazing growth, with agriculture made more productive by means of labor-saving machinery and more efficient management, with fifty-eight per cent, of the world’s cotton produced in the land where cotton once was about the only export, with bank resources in the South for 1928 equal to the total bank resources of the country in 1900, with unprecedented appropriations for education, with a million dollars a week being expended for the erection of churches—with all this development and progress to reflect upon, there would indeed be cause for high rejoicing were it not for the fact that labor in the South has had little or no mention in the voluminous symposia distributed to the world. A significant exception was the mention of a low wage scale, in an advertisement circulated some months ago by Tennessee factory-grabbers, as an inducement to industries about to relocate. In fact, the available labor supply too often is thrown in with material concessions like real estate and tax exemptions.

A perusal of the Blue Book of Southern Progress issued by The Manufacturers’ Record for reference to respectable wages, in the tabulations of profits, will reveal little that is heartening. There are pictures of skyscrapers erected as temples of finance, and of magnificent cathedrals for religious worship—an “outstanding feature,” the Blue Book says, of life in the South. There is much about hogs, cattle, sorghum cane, fertilizers, but negligibly little about self-respecting laboring people. There are lyrical pages about the South’s prosperity and progress. But whose prosperity is it, and whose progress?

Plainly it is a prosperity for a class, a property-owning, trafficking, complacent ruling class, which has benefited most by the introduction of machinery. It is a prosperity not greatly unlike certain prosperities made possible by a slave class—and there are, of course, those who think a housed and foddered slave element indispensable to civilization, affording leisure for the development of artists and thinkers and the sort of culture which, as Clemenceau not long ago re-emphasized, was the dry-rot of ancient Greece. But the first fruit of the South’s trumpeted prosperity has been not directly an artist class, nor even an incipient culture, but a materialistic class in the rawer sense, bond-traffickers, realtors, loan-makers, contractors, traders in sundry commodities, and a plethora of tax-gatherers. Is this class to constitute a permanent superstructure rising upon a foundation of industrial slavery? Can there be any real and evenly, distributed prosperity if the laboring people, who make up the largest part of the buying public, are to be compressed into this new foundation like the tortuous strata of a concrete wall?

Such rhetoric sounds, to be sure, like nineteenth century socialistic platitude. But does not history seem just now to be enacting the old commonplace of repeating itself in the South? Much has been said of late about equalization of advantage and opportunity. It is the song of public relations speakers for the corporations—the modern socialized public utilities in which employees own stock, thus making such corporations in a measure publicly owned if not publicly controlled. It is the song of those who either ignore or forget the wage-slaves who could not buy shares of stock on any terms. Inequality of opportunity in the South, particularly in the textile areas, is not a soap box myth, echoed by the imagination of one harking back to the days of Marx. A South Carolina legislative committee, investigating textile disturbances, made a report condemning the efficiency, system as a species of sweating. Professor Frank Graham at the University of North Carolina told the State Conference for Social Service that the textile industry was “suffering from glaring maladjustmerits,” that North Carolina still has the sixty-hour week, and that it still has the fourth-grade clause which invalidates the child labor law for children between fourteen and sixteen. The University, to quote the Raleigh News and Observer, was “slapped in the face by the textile interests” when it proposed a survey of mill conditions.

The report made some months ago by James J. Davis, Secretary of Labor, after a survey of American wages, revealed a very significant discrepancy between the so-called living wage and the average price-level in the country. It revealed the inadequacy of the toiler’s wage. The report was no doubt an embarrassing one for Secretary Davis to make, since it rendered preposterous his panegyrics on tariff-protected American labor in the late Republican election. Reported from what must have been a reluctant source, the facts must be accepted at face value.

If, then, the buying power of the laboring people is inadequate, as reported by Secretary Davis, and living conditions among them anything but attractive, where is our vaunted progress and where is our shouted prosperity? It is a matter to be looked at clinically, perhaps, rather than sentimentally, and certainly not cynically. It is at least a cold economic problem, if not one of humanitarian aspect.

It is idle to indulge in comparisons calculated to show the South no worse off in vital respects than the North or the West. More than that, it is dodging the issue as conceived by the South’s true prophets, her liberal educators, churchmen, editors, capitalists, and statesmen, and kept alive by her best leadership. Her problems are peculiarly her own, and she alone must solve them, for Washington will do little for the South that is not expedient, as witness the government’s attitude of favoritism in the Lake Cargo coal rate case. The South must rise, as she has been rising, by her own efforts. And she is counseled to pattern her new order after no particular social form. Especially is she advised to remember that her uneven craft went to pieces on the rocks of a slavery that was convenient and powerful as a factor in competition with Northern capital and labor. Therefore, to compare the South with other sections of America, for the purpose of showing superiority in this or that, is to overlook the fact that the South is in the midst of a renaissance that compels her to avoid anything remotely suggesting human slavery if she is to spare herself the travail that has been so costly to other regions, or prevent a repetition of what eventually destroyed her once proud civilization.

Even if one had no sympathy for striking textile workers, believing them better off than formerly, one could muster no enthusiasm for the whoopee and the rationalizations of the boosters. The smug, hypocritical utilitarians are unfair, unsportsmanlike, in their attitude toward those who compose the lowest stratum of society. It would seem that even from the standpoint of the go-getter who points with pride and easily sees red, the South should advertise to the world a well-paid and self-respecting working class. She should convince others that her wealth, potential and realized, is such as will provide these two things: good wages as well as good profits. If these two desiderata are incompatible, as some of the Northern capitalists moving across Mason and Dixon’s Line would lead Southerners to think, then the South has admitted within her borders a Trojan Horse packed with exploiters; and talk of a prosperity for all and of human progress is the delusion of shortsighted promoters.

What is the gain if the seed of prosperity sown in the South by the protectionists in late years fails to sprout in the workingman’s patch?


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