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Why Cheap Labor Down South?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1929

At this writing there are probably more workers on strike in the textile South (some ten thousand) than ever before in the fifty years of the history of the industry. These strikes are in the new rayon mills of German corporations at Elizabethton, Tennessee, and in cotton factories in the two Carolinas.

The next largest number out at one time was probably in 1921, in the after-war deflation period, when members of the United Textile Workers were fighting against wage reductions with backs to the wall. At Charlotte, Concord, and Kannapolis, North Carolina, and at Rock Hill, South Carolina, and elsewhere, long-drawn contests ended in complete failure for the workers. The country is taking unusual interest in the present strikes, whether conducted by, the conservative United Textile Workers (affiliated nth the American Federation of Labor) as in Tennessee, by the National Textile Workers’ Union, as in North Carolina, or “leaderless,” as in South Carolina. The reason for this interest is that these strikes have an important bearing upon the future history of the textile industry in America. There has been some organization of labor in the Southern mills from time to time beginning with 1898, with resulting strikes, both long and bitter; but never before has so much national concern been aroused.

The strikes now in progress come at a time when the cotton, rayon, knitting and, to a less extent, the finishing industries are in migration from the North to the South, impelled particularly by the desire to avail themselves of low labor costs prevailing below the Potomac. Much as this drift in one of the country’s major industries implies, the situation is rendered more critical by the generally uncertain way in which cotton manufacturing finds itself by reason of the competition of artificial silk, the lessened demand for women’s cotton dress goods (fifty years ago a woman wore nine pounds of cotton and now her clothing, mostly not cotton, weighs nine ounces), and the growing ability of the Far East to supply its own needs.

If the saving in cost of production of cotton goods in the South as compared with the North, amounting to ten to sixteen per cent., is going to be diminished, it means that decay, of the old textile seats in New England and the Middle States will to that extent be arrested, and the spectacular movement of mills southward, which has gone on for upwards of a decade, will be checked.

Interest centers less in whether the Southern strikers gain their demands, than in the indirect consequences of the present outburst—whether unionism gets a foothold, whether public sentiment is aroused to effect improvement in low standards of labor.

Conjectures in answer to these important questions can be intelligent only as they consider first the query, Why has Southern cotton mill labor been conspicuously passive heretofore, in the face of low wages and long hours?

Three points of departure present themselves: 1. The character of the workers; 2. Policies of the employers; 3. Opinion of the public.

1. The operatives, some 280,000 of them, or sixty per cent, of all the cotton mill workers in the country, are almost entirely the Southern Poor Whites. Before the Civil War, slavery pushed them out of the picture. They became tenant farmers, or “share-croppers” in the coastal plain and plateau, or moved gradually back to the hills where they eked out a primitive existence. They were mostly illiterate. Except for a few who were engaged as overseers, those in the plantation districts were victims of a credit system of the landlords which left them little if any, real money at the end of the year. Those in the mountains had nothing to sell, or small means of getting out their products if they did; they managed to live with hunting, and by scant crops grown on steep slopes. All the things which have since been said about the sloth and ignorance of the Negro were said in full measure of these Poor Whites. There were few industrial enterprises in the South then, and such as there were often used Negro workers.

When, fifteen years after the Civil War, cotton factories began to be built in the South, the Poor Whites became the operatives. The mill builders had two motives in using this labor supply—it would be profitable because plentiful and cheap, and it would be an act of charity and patriotism to give them work in their needy state. If one is inclined to doubt the second motive, he must remember that the South had just come through the Reconstruction period, when all Southern whites were drawn closely together in opposition to the carpetbaggers and Negroes, and furthermore, a large number of persons in the local communities where mills wen.’ projected, occupying positions of importance, acknowledged an appeal to their sense of responsibility. Often, also, merchants believed that creation of a payroll was their only salvation.

These two ”drives”—profit and philanthropy—have continued side by side in the history of the Southern cotton manufacturer’s dealings with his workers. As time has gone on, the desire for profit has outstripped that of service for its own sake, so much so that the latter is now only, a gesture accompanying the former.

The workers came as a body from the country in the beginning; as the industry has expanded new recruits have constantly been transferred from the farms, and even those families which have been for several generations in the mills have relatives back on the land with whom they keep in touch. The Southern factory “hand” has therefore had a rural mind. Industry has remained a new experience. It has been a rescue. The mills have meant release from an agricultural serfdom, and they have brought relatively certain cash wages. These two prime benefits have acted to postpone criticism of the employer on the part of the worker. The operatives have thought of themselves, with the old pride that goes with poverty on the farms, as individuals, not as members of a group or class. This was the only expression of self-respect open to them.

Many of the first mills being located on isolated water powers, managements immediately built villages for the accommodation of the tenants and mountaineers who were being drawn in as workers. The Graniteville Factory in South Carolina, before the Civil War, had offered an example of a model village after which others patterned, When mills began to use steam power, and moved to the neighborhood of towns and little cities, they, continued to build their own communities of workers’ cottages, partly because there were no other housing facilities, and partly to be able to control their labor. These were company-owned towns, and as years passed they became more and more elaborate, and contained, besides homes, stores, schools and churches, welfare buildings, swimming pools, barns and pastures for milk cows, movies, restaurants, day nurseries, and whole social service departments.

The paternalism of the company town—systematized, all-inclusive, and at the same time intimate—has done more than any other one thing to make the workers uncomplaining and dependent. They have not owned their homes. The employer meant to the workers much besides a provider of wages; he was their religious, social, and domestic mentor as well. He charged himself with preserving health and morals in the community. Consequently the workers could not protest against low wages or long hours or the prevalence of child labor without jeopardizing their contentment in every other direction. The church and the school, not to speak of the welfare departments, have been sponsored and contributed to by the employers, and have been engines of his will and servers of his convenience. These villages not being incorporated places, inhabitants do not vote for local officers. There are no police, but rather deputy, sheriffs appointed by the county but paid by the company.

The operatives in company towns have been stall fed. They have received a considerable part of their compensation in kind—gardens, medical attention, free pasturage, wood and coal at cost, and, above all, exceedingly low rents (about a dollar per room per month). They have not known what it is to live on a cash wage as such. Their wages have been so low that all available members of a family have had to work in the mill, and the companies refuse to let houses except to families which can furnish two, three, or sometimes even four workers to the factory. Hence it has been hard for one or two members of a family to break away to another employment.

Living under patronage, the mill population has come to rely heavily upon the company and its agencies for supervision and relief. I do not mean that a large measure of tutelage over a long period of years has not been necessary and highly beneficial. Probably nothing less could have brought the Poor Whites back to life. Rut the company-owned mill village has some time since become a means of repression of the worker, consciously maintained by the employer because profitable in dollars and cents. Some managements recently coming to the South have preferred to locate in or near a town, where a special village would not be required, or have at least used the regular schools and churches of the community. Others have experimented with selling homes to operatives.

Being in separate communities has given the workers the feeling that they are different from other people. In some cases even where the mill is located in a city it has its own village, a sort of island in the general population, with its own public institutions. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker look upon the “cotton mill people” as undesirable, and these factory workers have been given an “inferiority complex,” which is generally dulling in effect, but sometimes, as in election campaigns conducted by demagogues who raise the issue of the Negro, gives vent to irrational as-sertiveness. Physical separation has made this population ingrowing. In a political and social sense it is like the results of repeated intermarriage among relatives. The people do not come in contact with common currents; they are shut off, for example, from such groups of organized workers as the South possesses, say, in the building trades.

Low wages and long hours have not allowed them the means or energy necessary for turning their attention to plans of collective self-help. In 1927 (the latest year for which there are complete figures) the average Southern cotton mill worker received a wage of $637.17, or $12.24 per week. Earnings in the North were in 1926 about fifty-five per cent, higher than those in the South. In 1926 the average full-time hours in the South were 55.58 per week, and in the North, 51.24. The legal limit in North Carolina and Georgia is sixty hours, in South Carolina fifty-five; Alabama has no legal limit. On the other hand, Massachusetts, the most important New England State, has a limit of forty-eight hours. The eleven-hour day and twelve-hour night are common in the South. These conditions present an anachronism the endurance of which by circumscribed workers is less remarkable than the complaisance with which they have been viewed by the general public. The proportion of women and children in the Southern industry has made organized protest difficult. For example, in 1919, thirty-six per cent, of the workers were women and 4.9 per cent, were boys and girls under sixteen.

A considerable block of the cotton mill workers have not entered protest against their conditions because they cherish the idea of going back to the land, perhaps saving enough from their wages to buy, farms. They have thus looked upon their stay in industry as temporary; in most instances their hope has flitted before them, but nevertheless the pursuit has persuaded them to endure hardships rather than jeopardize their aim. Some workers, also, have been sending money back to needy relatives in the country, and these also are reluctant to endanger their earnings.

Collective sentiment and labor organization have encountered obstacles in the scattered location of mills. The industry in the Southern States is not nearly so concentrated as in England, New England, or Pennsylvania. It reaches from Virginia to Texas, and, while plants are thickest in the Piedmont region, they are also distributed over the coastal plane and reach constantly farther and farther up into the mountains. The Piedmont Organizing Council, an attempt this last winter to educate the workers toward unionism, has had to confine itself to one district, and still has had to meet each month at a different point. A proportion of the operatives, variously estimated at from ten to thirty per cent., are “floaters,” and drift from mill to mill and village to village. This might be thought to produce a desirable effect in unifying sentiment over the whole area, but it does not, for these families are in search of a slight advantage, or move from mere restlessness.

Textile unions in the North, to which Southern workers have had to look for incentive and support in organization, have been weak and at cross purposes. Probably never have more than fifteen per cent, of the operatives in the industry the country over been unionized; at present the unions may contain six per cent, of the workers. The unions have fought each other on the issue of craft as against industrial form of organization; there are some unions confined to one district, while others attempt national scope. The largest organization, the United Textile Workers, upon which the South has relied chiefly, is opposed at intervals in its conservative policy by sudden and short-lived activity of radical leaders from outside. With the drift of the industry from the North, the stable union has found itself low in funds and morale at the very time when energetic efforts are needed in the South.

The Southern industry has not yet reached its limit in labor resources of the rural Poor Whites. Between 1925 and 1927, 34,416 additional operatives were reported. Almost none of these came from outside the South, and most were taken from farming. A decade ago, when the industry had been suddenly stimulated by war demand, it was believed the supply, of those who could be pulled from the plough or coaxed down out of the mountains was running short, but since then three influences have made it easier for mills to get help: the industry has been depressed for the last six years, producing under-employment; the boll weevil has driven many off the land; and there has been a general movement from country to town, greatly increasing the South’s proportion of urban population. The present strikes come at a moment when there are more operatives walking the streets than for a year or so previous. There has never in the history of the industry been a time when workers could not be replaced fairly readily with people anxious to get the jobs.

The work in Southern mills has been relatively unskilled and quickly learned. This, of course, means it has been hard for the hands to protect their jobs. The work, however, in recent years has been becoming more skilled and varied; particularly it has been speeded up, so that now observers declare that certain Southern operatives are in every way. equal in training and efficiency to those in New England. On the other hand, with the present tendency of cotton manufactures back to coarser products, experience will probably count for less than was promised.

2. One is bound to say that the tradition of Southern chivalry is at a discount when it touches the relations of cotton mill managements with their workers. The operatives have been given an overdose of sugar in the way of village paternalism, but have regularly and universally been denied the bread and meat of reasonable wages and hours. The true attitude of the employer, not to be excused by his protest that he knows best what is good for “his people,” has come out in instances of labor organization and strikes. Boasted friendliness of mills to men has proved to be a fair-weather policy, completely dropped in a squall. The devices which employers have brought into play everywhere have quickly appeared in the South—the use of troops and hastily, enlisted deputy sheriffs; expulsion of organizers from company-owned towns for trespass—in the present strikes even the kidnapping of labor leaders; eviction of operatives from company houses; breaking up of union meetings; prompt use of strike-breakers (in one case, at least, Negroes); the attempt to forestall strikes and enlist public sympathy by ostensible lockouts; discrediting of leaders by arousal of racial, sectional, and religious animosity, and the spreading of ill report about the morals and designs of organizers; starvation of employees into submission. The strikes now in progress in North Carolina bid fair to add to the mill men’s record another instance of victory through mere depletion of the workers’ slender resources.

The trade paper editor ordinarily taken as spokesman for the Southern employers said in the early stages of the present strikes: “There have been numerous unions organized and strikes engineered in Southern cotton mills during the past thirty years, but the . . . operatives know-that not one strike has ever been successful and that in almost every case, the . . . fees and dues collected . . . has (sic) gone into the pockets of the agitators and has disappeared with them. It is also true that most of the professional organizers have been men of such low character as to disgust the decent people in mill villages, . . . One of them who got away with considerable funds, left two illegitimate children in mill villages in one town.” Similarly the cry of Communism has been raised by the employers—even against the American Federation of Labor—and this bugaboo still frightens a South in the early flush of capitalism.

The employers have kept the idea before the South that any checking of their program means curtailment of prosperity, and opportunity for work is so new that the public listens with the same respect shown the threats of the mill men in England a century and more ago. Managements have encouraged the maxim that the cotton manufacture in the South is a white man’s industry; the implied danger of Negro invasion is supposed to render the operatives glad to hold what they, have, rather than reach out for more, Employers have had a whip in the fact that they preside over virtually the only industry. There are no other jobs to go to, either locally or in other accessible places.

3. The cotton mill workers have had little assistance from public opinion. Thinking people conceived the South’s problem as relief from poverty. The welfare work in the villages seemed an important step in this direction. Further, the South has always been less aware of the need for justice between classes than of the appropriateness of kindliness shown by a superior to an inferior. Graceful patronage has been all that public opinion demanded. And industry is still new in this section. The people do not know its necessary outworkings; the disturbances in industry elsewhere have come to the South as dim and unreal report. The cotton manufacture there, enjoying low costs of production through expensive human subsidy, has been generally prosperous, and so the ordinary fatalities of industry, for example in severe unemployment, which bring on questioning elsewhere, have not come home. The churches have either had nothing to say on the subjects of low wages and long hours in the mills, or have distracted attention from economic wrong by stressing the calamities of individual sinfulness. One denomination has employed a minister in the heart of the textile district to bolster the welfare programs of cotton mills and deprecate collective bargaining by the operatives.

Colleges and universities privately supported have been too anxious to get funds to run the risk of alienating possible givers by forthright analysis of industrial conditions. State schools have been fearful of curtailed legislative appropriations. Professors in large numbers know the facts and would like to draw obvious conclusions, but they feel that their jobs are at stake. In a few instances, however, there has been hopeful improvement in frankness recently. Newspapers have been largely absorbed in politics rather than in discussions of labor matters, but during the present strikes more courageous statements have come from the press than from any other quarter.

How long will it take for all of these disabilities of workers to disappear to the point where we shall have recognition in the South that we are no longer only an agricultural society, that we have opened our arms to capitalism, and must develop the usual methods of rendering it wholesome for all concerned? An additional vexation in the answer is the likelihood that, when improvement for white workers comes, ten million Negroes may be turned to as a new labor resource—a group large enough and needy enough to invite repetition of the whole painful process of industrial betterment.


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