Part 1 of 3: Labor History and Militant Unions in the South
Birth of the US Labor Movement
International Workers Day (May Day) is a celebration of worker contributions to our society and the struggles of past workers who fought, and sacrificed their lives, for many of the benefits we enjoy today. May Day is a national holiday in many countries and is especially associated with Communist states like the Soviet Union and Cuba. Many US workers, however, don’t realize the holiday’s origins are firmly rooted in the labor struggles of our own country.
The history of the US labor movement, which won the eight-hour day, an end to child labor, the right to organize, weekends, overtime pay, and much more (note: some workers today still don’t have enjoy many of these benefits), is often associated with factory workers in urban areas like Boston, New York, Detroit, and Chicago. Occasionally rural coal miners are lumped in, but the struggles and contributions of workers in the South, especially the rural South, are often ignored. The South, even in conservative regions like northern Alabama, North Georgia, and Upstate South Carolina, have their own history of militant labor activity and resistance.
This is the first in a three-part series on radical labor struggles and the fight for liberation in the South and Southern Appalachia. Obviously it can’t cover every issue in detail, but we will look at a broad range of important events that transcend racial, gender, and cultural boundaries. The first part covers the legacy of May Day and radical labor history in the South.
A Brief History of May Day
May Day began with the fight by workers for an eight-hour work day. Its origins date back to 1886, when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) issued a proclamation that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” At the time most workers, especially those involved in manufacturing and heavy industry, were expected to put in at least 10 and as many as 16 hours. Child labor was frequently used for some of the more dangerous jobs.
The FOTLU’s demand for an eight-hour day was supported by the Knights of Labor a year later, and eventually drew wide support from workers in the Trades and Labor Assembly, the Socialist Labor Party, and many anarchists and socialist groups.
On the first May Day, between 200,000 to 300,000 workers from over 13,000 businesses walked off their jobs. It remains one of the largest and most widespread strikes in US history. The labor movement, and the anarchist approach of direct action and a general strike, gained popular support from the public. The strikes remained peaceful until May 3rd, when police and strikers clashed outside the McCormick Reaper Works factory in Chicago.
May Day draws much of its significance from the Haymarket Massacre (May 4th, 1886), which occurred at the height of the 1886 strikes. As a massive labor rally was dispersing an unidentified person threw a bomb into a crowd of policemen, killing four of them. Despite the fact that, to this day, nobody knows who threw the bomb, eight anarchists singled out, tried, and executed for their supposed role in helping to create the bomb. The repercussions of the bombing and the execution of the Haymarket Martyrs, still resonate in today’s labor movement, especially in organized anarchist and communist circles. The treatment of modern workers and labor groups by police and the state are a testament to the lasting effects of the Haymarket incident and participants in the first May Day strikes.
Radical labor struggles have a long history in Georgia and across the South. From the violent battles of miners in Southern and Central Appalachia to the national textile mill strikes during the Great Depression to the black workers struggles of the 1960’s and 70’s to the recent Fight for 15, OUR Walmart, and immigrant rights movements, workers in the region can boast of an unbroken record of demanding better conditions and a bigger share of the wealth they create.
Coal Miners and the Roots of Radical Labor in Appalachia
The coal industry has long been a dominant force in the economy and cultural history of the Appalachian region, especially in places like West Virginia, Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and eastern Tennessee. People have been extracting coal from the Appalachian mountains since the 1880s, and gold and precious gems long before that. We’ll focus on the origins of organized labor in coal communities and two instances of militant resistance by coal miners: Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain.
In the early days of coal country the population swelled. Regions that had previously had almost no black residents saw a steady increase (McDowell County, VA went from 0.1% in 1880 to 30.7% in 1910). From the start, coal miners and their families were dependent on the big coal companies that dominated the region. They were forced to lease land that the wealthy coal tycoons owned, and relied on the coal companies for jobs and food. The coal companies swept in and bought up most of the land and mineral rights in coal country. When some small farmers refused to sell their family farms they were either tricked into selling by the coal companies or forced off their land by the state for the “common good.” This confluence of ownership and control of the labor market led to a situation where most workers, even those not employed by the coal companies, found themselves at the mercy of coal operators for survival.
Miners spent all day in the coal mines, with many losing their lives or becoming crippled, then spent their money at company stores on overpriced food and goods, then went home to land owned by those same coal companies. Most of the money coal operators paid their workers eventually made its way back into their pockets. Every small town in coal country was a company town by default and workers were left with little option but to bow to the interests of their bosses.
From the 1870s to the 1890s, while workers in urban areas mounted fierce resistance and made substantial gains against factory owners, the Knights of Labor and the National Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers struggled over influence with miners. This struggle eventually led to the creation of the United Mine Workers (UMWA), who won a significant victory during an 1894 strike and eventually helped mine workers win an 8-hour day and safer working conditions in 1898. It took many more years for these improvements to make their way across Appalachian coal country and the coal operators fought the miners every step of the way.
Conflicts between coal miners and operators in Appalachia were notoriously brutal. In 1920 private security agents for the coal operators (the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency) swept into Matewan, West Virginia and began evicting residents from their homes in the Stone Mountain Coal Camp. The UMWA had been working to organize miners in the area at a time when labor unions didn’t have legal protections from government. Workers could be fired or blacklisted for even talking about joining a union and the coal operators did everything within their power to break union organizing efforts. Residents of Matewan, with assistance from local police chief Sid Hatfield (a rare case of law enforcement siding with unions) surrounded the agents, resulting in a bloody fight that killed seven of the agents, two miners, and left several other wounded. 
Perhaps the most notorious case of militant resistance in Appalachia was the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain. While most of West Virginia was organized into the UMWA, southern West Virginia was still controlled by coal operators and company towns. In August 1921 armed miners sought to install their right to a union by force in Logan and Mingo counties. In all, 10,000 coal miners battled about 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers (who were fighting in the interest of the mine owners) fired over 100,000 rounds at each other in the bloodiest armed battle since the Civil War. Five days later President Warren Harding sent in the US Army to break the conflict. Many of the miners involved in the battle were tried on charges ranging from murder to conspiracy to treason. Almost 1,000 were convicted, but many were acquitted by sympathetic juries or pardoned a few years later.
The immediate aftermath of Blair Mountain was a dramatic decrease in UMWA membership and substantial gains for the coal operators. The union was set back significantly by the Blair Mountain incident and didn’t recover until after the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in 1935. Despite this, the legacy of the Battle of Blair Mountain lives on in Appalachian folklore and remains a point of pride among working people in the region to this day.
Unions have lost the prestige they once held in coal country while new less labor-intensive methods of extracting coal have left many residents unemployed and dependent on government assistance for survival. This has led to tension among residents, with the remaining miners finding themselves at odds with residents concerned about the environmental destruction caused by strip mining, mountaintop removal, and hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The coal operators, like their predecessors, have proven themselves masters at diving residents, successfully pitting struggling miners against residents worried about clean drinking water and the irreparable destruction of the surrounding landscape.
The 1934 Textile Workers Strike
In the 1880’s, textile mills began to migrate from their traditional base in New England and the mid-Atlantic states to southern states in search of cheap labor and an escape from organized unions. By the 1930s, more than 70% of the textile industry had relocated to the South. When the market for cotton and textiles declined in the 1920’s and into the Great Depression, conditions in the mills deteriorated and mill operators cut workers’ hours with no corresponding wage increase to help them survive. In 1929 Southern workers launched hundreds of walkouts that spread across the region, from South Carolina to Alabama and throughout Southern Appalachia. Most of the strikes were spontaneous and organized by the workers themselvses, with little or no organized union influence. These actions fostered an even greater tension between workers and factory operators and led to a rapid decline in labor relations.
The Textile Workers Strike of 1934, which involved 400,000 US workers, touched nearly every corner of the eastern United States. Unlike previous strikes, much of the militant resistance between 1929 and 1934 originated from textile mills in the South. In Gastonia, North Carolina and Elizabethton, Tennessee, striking mill workers were met with violent suppression. They responded with militant action, staging wildcat strikes and walkouts under communist-led unions like the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU). These actions often conflicted with the wishes of more mainstream unions like the United Textile Workers (UTW). Conditions were so awful that workers in Greenville, South Carolina staged numerous strikes, knowing they could easily be replaced by the countless unemployed workers who couldn’t find work at the time.
In July 1934, UTW members in northern Alabama launched strikes that spread from Huntsville to Florence, Anniston, Gadsden, and Birmingham. These eventually spilled into Chattanooga, Tennessee and Dalton, Georgia. While not as widespread or as militant, mill and textile workers in Columbus, LaGrange, and at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill in the Cabbagetown neighborhood of Atlanta (an area populated mostly by emigrants from the mountains) went on strike and mounted resistance that led to the deaths of several workers.
While largely unsuccessful at its stated goals, the 1934 Textile Workers Strike was instrumental in the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA, also called the Wagner Act) which finally granted workers legal protection to form unions and protect them from retaliation by bosses for collective organizing activity. The NRLA (coupled with the 1947 Taft-Hartley act), which had been presented as a major success for workers, ultimately undermined their interests by creating an opening for union bureaucracy and promoting a tendency for union leadership to collaborate with management against the interests of the workers. It also left unions and their leadership dependent on politicians (mostly Democrats) to protect their influence and financial interests.
While unions were extremely effective at improving wages and conditions for certain workers in the post-WWII era, much of the financial and political corruption that gives modern workers a bad impression and prevents them from joining unions can be directly traced to the Wagner Act and Taft-Hartley and union leaders who place their personal interests ahead of the workers.
Militant Labor in Southern Mills and Communist Collaboration
Many mill towns in the pre-WWII South operated as company towns, in a fashion very similar to coal towns of Appalachia. Workers in these areas found themselves at the mercy of mill operators. With the onset of the Great Depression, and more desperate circumstances for mill workers, relations in local mills grew more tense. Workers in the Dalton textile industry were organized under UTW Local 1893, which initially operated in secret and regularly found itself at odds with management. By 1934 the union grew so influential the local press considered Dalton an important player in upcoming state elections.
As the 1934 textile strikes were taking off, a wave of strikes, walkouts, and militant activity swept across northern Alabama and made its way into Chattanooga, TN, western Georgia, and the textile-centered city of Dalton, Georgia. They began as wildcat strikes, with many turning violent, but by September the UTW called for a general strike. In Dalton, 1,200 millhands took place in the walkout and showed their support in a Labor Day rally, the largest of its type in the city’s history. The local press reported that 1,500 workers “representing every trade organization” took part in a parade in support of the strike.
Union organizers promised the strikers would remain peaceful, which they did, until gunfire erupted between picketers and “armed deputies” (comprised primarily of non-union workers and strikebreakers). Two men were killed and 20 more injured in the skirmish.
While the 1934 strike was mostly ineffective at achieving the textile workers’ demands, it shifted the perspective of workers in the area from a narrow localism to a broader regional and national working class consciousness. They had become part of the national labor movement.
In 1939, Dalton workers at Crown Mill went on strike after contract negotiations with management failed. They managed to shut down all three plants during their three month struggle. They eventually gave in after the company brought in scabs to break the strike. Workers eventually signed a contract that granted considerable concessions to management, but the union survived and was instrumental in improving conditions for workers and helping to sustain a strong textile industry in the area, even after other textile mills throughout the South shut down in the 1980s and 90s.
Union activity and resistance in Georgia weren’t limited to the textile industry. During the Great Depression workers in major Georgia cities took part in mass actions to protest unmet needs and demand a government response to their horrible economic situation. Meanwhile, sharecroppers in rural Georgia joined forces to fight back against exploitation by planters.
In both situations, workers collaborated with organizers from the North, including the Communist Party and other organized socialist and communist groups. While the focus of communist organizing in the South was centered in Alabama, by 1932 it made its way into rural Georgia and had an impact on the labor movement across the state. While factory and farm owners tried to label organizers from the North “outside agitators” (a common tactic used by capitalists and the ruling class in strikes, protests, and urban uprisings even today), the focus of these efforts was strongly centered on local initiatives and issues and their course was determined by local workers and residents.
Black Workers in Georgia During the 1970s
Despite efforts by earlier unions like the Knights of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO, before they merged with the American Federation of Labor) to develop unions that crossed racial barriers and include workers of all skill levels, most US labor unions — especially in the South — were dominated by skilled white male workers. In factories in both the North and South, when black workers were employed at all, they were often given less-desirable and lower-paying jobs as janitors, porters, or foundry workers. Black auto workers in the North, especially in Detroit, were politically radicalized during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s and used what they had learned to organize for better conditions. Black workers in the urban South grew more radical in the South toward the end of the 60s and into the early 70s in the wake of the Black Power movement.
Workers at the Mead Packaging Corp. facility in Atlanta found themselves at odds with union leadership and management in 1972 and created the Mead Caucus of Rank and File Workers, made up mostly of black workers. In August 250 workers organized a wildcat strike without authorization from their union, the International Printing Pressmen and Assistants Union of North America (IPPAU-NA) Local 527. The union leadership was notorious for under-representing workers and for its open support of white supremacy.
Striking workers received no support from their union and were met with police violence, but the strike enjoyed strong support from the community and civil rights organizations and 75% of the workers remained out during the strike. Many strike participants and their supporters were members of the October League, a revolutionary communist organization that played a significant role in the strike, the Black Panther Party, or other radical political groups.
The Mead wildcat strike lasted seven weeks, after which the union and management gave in to many of the workers’ demands. All sides reached an agreement whereby the local union agreed to represent worker demands, committees were established inside the plant to hear and address grievances about racial discrimination, and the company promised not to retaliate against strike leaders. Regardless, 36 workers were suspended during the strike and some were fired. Many were able to get reinstated after going through the lengthy National Labor Relations Board arbitration process to get their job back and some continue to work there today under the Teamsters Local 728 union.
The 1970s also saw resistance from workers at Church’s Chicken location in the Atlanta area. The company was notorious in the black community for its disregard and poor treatment of its mostly black workforce. In 1972 Church’s workers staged a city-wide strike and boycott campaign that shut down the majority of locations in the city. This strike forced the company to agree to speed up its integration of black workers into management and promote more black workers to management positions. In 1973 the company elected its first black board member and launched an ad campaign touting itself as an ideal environment for black workers to “learn the necessary skills in operating a fast food outlet.” It also launched a campaign to rebrand itself in the black community, making small contributions to civil rights organizations and sponsoring a number of local little league baseball teams.
None of these actions addressed the exploitation of Church’s workers in a meaningful way. While a small fraction of black workers made it into management, most remained stuck in low-paying and less-desirable positions as cooks or cashiers. The 1972 strike did succeed at increasing working-class consciousness and confidence in the collective power of workers to force improved conditions. This sense of solidarity, combined with the failure of management to address conditions, led to further strikes and boycott campaigns in 1977 and 1979.
The looming threat of a strike and boycott campaign in 1977, which drew support from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), forced the management to grant several concessions to workers. However, without a union or organized infrastructure to enforce the agreement, the company backed out on its promises and left conditions for workers largely unchanged.
Workers continued complaining about racism, poor treatment by management (even black members of management), and demotions or firings without justification and no recourse. This led to a 1979 strike by 35 Church’s workers, which eventually grew to over 100 workers from multiple locations. The strike lasted several months, gaining support from civil rights leaders, black business owners, and even some Church’s store managers (who joined in the strike). The striking managers eventually became the center of attention, detracting from the workers demands and changing the campaign’s focus.
Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, who was struggling with his own set of problems from striking city sanitation workers, helped foster an extremely hostile environment for the city’s labor movement. Church’s management launched a smear campaign against Hosea Williams, a civil rights icon and key figure in the strike, while police antagonized the striking workers. They eventually arrested Hosea and one of the protesters for “using a bullhorn” shortly after the strike began. A week later, police arrested civil rights leader Tyrone Brooks and another protester on similar charges.
The 1979 strike eventually devolved into a legal battle between Hosea and the company, during which the strike lost steam and the workers’ demands went unmet. In the 1980s Church’s made a public effort to improve its reputation, making what it called a “stronger investment” in the black community. The company made large donations to civil rights organizations, which eventually helped it gain support from the SCLC, NAACP, and Operation PUSH. Unfortunately, black Church’s workers didn’t receive the same sort of attention from the company and conditions remained poor.
The Mead and Church’s strikes, while forgotten by much of the Atlanta population, made a lasting impact on the local labor movement. The Fight for $15 campaign has gained steady support in recent years and a flurry of organized union activity in the food and retail industry has popped up across the area. In 2013, Sodexho food service workers at Emory University won the right to form a union and forced management to grant them a contract with better wages and working conditions with the support of the Students and Workers in Solidarity group. Several students and workers were arrested while protesting in support of workers on campus and gained broad publicity and support through a media and direct action campaign. More recently, fast food workers in Atlanta have led several strikes, walkouts and protests, which have steadily gained support from the local community and the broader labor movement. They’re part of a larger nationwide movement by thousands fast food workers to win a living wage and union recognition.
Manufacturing, Solidarity Networks, Hope for a Brighter Future
While labor unions have steadily lost influence in the United States over the past several decades, union membership is the South continues to rise. The five states with the fastest growth in union membership are all located in the South (all five, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Virginia are also home to portions of the Southern Appalachia region).
In the 1990s the auto industry, in search of cheaper labor and less union support, shifted production facilities to the Southeast. While this helped them escape the influence of organized labor for several years, workplace organizing in the region has seen a recent upsurge. Much of this activity has been centered around central and eastern Tennessee, Upstate South Carolina, and West Georgia. In 2013, the United Auto Workers (UAW) added 1,800 workers at a General Motors facility in Spring Hill, Tennessee, with corresponding gains for unionized workers in the construction trades. Workers at Kia facilities in Georgia and BMW facilities in South Carolina have also launched efforts for union recognition.
Volkswagen, which recently opened facilities in the Southeast, has a reputation as a labor-friendly company. In 2013, with vocal support from the company, workers were set to vote in support of a union at a the Chattanooga VW facility. After overwhelming pressure from state politicians, the workers narrowly lost a vote for union recognition in their workplace. It was later revealed that, in addition to threats from lawmakers trying to halt the spread of unions in the state, Tennessee governor Bill Haslan attached strings to to $300 million incentive package to VW on the condition that labor talks be concluded “to the satisfaction of the state.” The loss robbed organized labor of momentum in the region, but union activity continues its slow, steady rise in the South.
In 2013, a 42-year old worker, Teresa Weaver Pickard, died from heat exhaustion at the Sewon America auto parts facility in Lagrange, Georgia (a Korean company that makes parts for Kia automobiles). Workers had complained for years about poor conditions and broken A/C units at the plant and reported physical altercations with management.
The UAW had been trying to organize workers at the plant for several years with little success. The company, like many other automakers who set up shop in Southern states, spent a considerable amount of time and resources pushing anti-union propaganda and (often with the complicity of local politicians) busting any efforts by workers to organize to protect themselves and fight for better wages. As a result, workers at Sewon America and other factories in the South and the Appalachia region are still underpaid and mistreated.
Following Teresa’s death, local groups like Jobs for Justice, the Atlanta branch of the IWW, and several other social justice and civil rights organizations collaborated with Sewon workers to bring attention to the workers’ situation and push for union recognition. The campaign was short-lived after many workers at the plant declined to participate for fear of retaliation by management and the risk of losing their jobs in an area that suffered from extremely high unemployment and poverty.
In the past several years more radical working class organizers have developed the idea of grassroots solidarity networks. These networks are strongly influenced by the idea of cross-industry (and cross-cultural) working-class solidarity and the long legacy of direct action. Direct action is the idea that workers can gain meaningful changes by exerting their collective power rather than waiting on union leadership or politicians to do things for us.
The Atlanta Solidarity Network (ASOL) is a loosely-organized group of workers from different workplaces with a number of wins under their belt. Much of their success comes from helping workers who haven’t been paid or who have been fired from jobs without cause either get paid or get their jobs back. By placing public pressure on bosses, and getting local workers and allies from across the country to launch phone-zaps and negative publicity campaigns that interrupt their cash flow, ASOL and other solidarity networks have helped exploited workers win some sort of justice without waiting on the broken machinery of government agencies.
Recently Action in Dahlonega (AID), a solidarity network in the North Georgia mountains, has helped workers get justice and get paid. Their first major success came after a Dahlonega restaurant owner closed two restaurants in Dahlonega, leaving workers without jobs, and opened three new restaurants in a nearby town. Their boss had a long history of underpaying workers and he refused to give at least 10 of the workers their final paychecks after closing. The workers and AID launched a public campaign to put pressure on the boss. After a strong show of support from the local community, the boss gave handed over the workers’ paychecks within 4 days. AID also works on local community issues, like trying to remove local signs that Cherokee residents find offensive and building a free store open to anyone in the community regardless of need, to build a strong network between workers who share common class interests, even when they don’t come from similar political backgrounds.
Breaking Down Boundaries
While union membership is slowly rising in the South, there’s no doubt mainstream unions have lost much of the influence they once had and union members often see no value in being members and paying due. Much of the influence mainstream unions retain is inextricably tied with the Democratic party, making their appeal to large segments of the working class extremely limited.
Our nation’s working-class history isn’t restricted to one political group. People from all political backgrounds, or none at all, share a common goal of working to make someone else wealthy, struggling to pay bills, and working harder to survive with fewer resources. At one time even socially conservative rural Americans collaborated with communists and socialists to work toward their shared interests in the workplace.
Even our neighbors in the mostly-conservative South and Appalachia realize they’re being exploited by wealthy business owners and politicians. They face many of the same problems and share many of the same concerns as those on the radical left wing of the political spectrum. While we might not agree on many issues, we can often find solidarity and common ground in the workplace. The long history of radical and militant labor in the South and Appalachia have much to teach us, not just about relationships between bosses and workers, but also about the relationship between different segments of the working class. In the end, either we’ll all enjoy a greater share of the wealth we produce, or none of us will.
Sources and More Information
- A Brief History of May Day: http://www.iww.org/history/library/misc/origins_of_mayday
- West Virginia’s Mine Wars: http://www.wvculture.org/history/minewars.html
- Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley, John Gaventa
- Southern Workers Spark Massive Textile Strike: http://apwumembers.apwu.org/laborhistory/13-5_1934textilestrike/1934textilestrike.htm
- Creating the Modern South: Millhands and Managers in Dalton, Georgia 1884-1984
- The Unemployed People’s Movement: Leftists, Liberals, and Labor in Georgia, 1929-1941
- Militant black labor organizations: http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/rbwstudy.html
- “Wildcat at Mead” film, http://wearemany.org/v/wildcat-at-mead
- Mead Wildcat strike aftermath: https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-1/atlanta-wildcat.htm
- Atlanta Church’s Chicken Strike: https://redatlanta.wordpress.com/category/atlantas-untold-fast-food-strike-history/
- Chattanooga’s Radical History: http://www.chattanoogan.com/2013/3/25/247459/Chattanooga-s-Radical-History.aspx
- Chattanooga Times-Free Press: http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/business/aroundregion/story/2014/feb/02/unions-gain-in-southunions-find-new-southern/130487/
- Yahoo News: http://news.yahoo.com/uaw-reports-55-percent-membership-vw-plant-tennessee-125453121.html
- Teresa Weaver Pickard Story: https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/06/06/sewo-j06.html
- Action in Dahlonega story on Workers’ Victory: https://actionindahlonega.wordpress.com/2015/04/25/dahlonega-workers-win-wages-theyre-owed/
- Action in Dahlonega story on racist local signage: https://actionindahlonega.wordpress.com/2015/04/17/confronting-dahlonegas-history-a-brief-statement-about-forgetting-our-brutal-past/
- Students and Workers in Solidarity – Emory University: http://sws-emory.webs.com/