Southern Sadness

Book Review: Tippett, Tom, “When Southern Labor Stirs,” Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith, New York, 1931

I can’t resist any labor history book I find at Half Price Books. This one cost $45, so I assume it is hard to find today. Its message rings through the decades.

In 1929-1930, southern textile workers tried hard to organize into unions. They asked anybody who would listen for union organizers. The Communist-led National Textile Union and the American Federation of Labor-led United Textile Union responded. Bosses forced them into strikes at Elizabethton, Gastonia, Greenville, Marion, and Danville. Tom Tippett visited them all to record his history and opinion.

All of the strikes were major disasters. Tippett apportions the blame as he goes along and in a final chapter. The strikes were settled by armed strikebreakers and soldiers with bayonets, so it’s quite clear why the strikes failed. Governors sent soldiers and “law” officers helped organize the hoodlums, so the fault had nothing to do with the balance of power between the bosses and the workers – government intervention was always the decisive factor.

But our side gets some criticism, too. Tippett compliments the Communists for the depth of their commitment and the peripheral support that they offered the strikers. They brought lawyers, fund raisers, and publicists into the fray. He faults the AFL for their tepid commitment and timid approach. He excoriates both organizations soundly for not anticipating the government intervention.

One feels that the strikers in every case could have won if they only had to deal with the bosses and their local backers such as newspapers and preachers.

Tippett compliments the strikers for their commitment and their spiritual development as unified forces. He loves their songs. He tells of their bravery as they faced terrible hardships. Many of them were blacklisted, some were injured, some were imprisoned, and some were murdered.  . One of the outstanding murder victims was Ella Mae Wiggins, a pregnant mother of five who was killed by strikebreakers with shotguns.

The tales are both heartening, because of the heroic efforts, and depressing, because our side lost. In his summary, though, Tom Tippett sees a bright future ahead. He lists some things that could have been done better:

  • More attention to racial divisions among the workers
  • The entire labor movement, not isolated unions, should commit to organizing the South
  • Financial commitment must be strong because fired workers must have support
  • The AFL strategy of trying to win over the bosses should be set aside
  • The spirit of unionism must be cultivated and maintained
  • Unions must embrace advanced social programs that inspire solidarity

Tippett had great ideas, and many of them were to be adopted just 4 years later when the CIO gestated in the belly of the AFL. His faith in the future of organizing in southern textile mills did not bear fruit in his lifetime. The AFL gave up after these strikes. The CIO tried later, but eventually abandoned its effort to organize the South. The textile mills were long ago offshored to places with even more downtrodden and desperate workers.

But it takes a certain level of faith in the future to be an American union activist, so I deliver to you Tippett’s ending to these sad stories of the past: “…down underneath the southern unrest is a germ with a will to live that neither mobs nor massacres nor prisons can extinguish. It was best expressed in the words of a textile operative whose husband had been killed in front of the Marion cotton mill when she said, ‘somehow or other, we’re going to have a union.’ And they are.”

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON’s “Workers Beat” radio talk show at 9 AM Central Time every  Saturday. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: