A Case Study in Textiles
Defeat at Kannapolis
Since the textile industry historically had proven most resistant to unionization, the organizational drive in textile country was clearly the first priority of Operation Dixie. The priority, however, was not merely a Southern one. Textiles constituted the preeminent “runaway” industry; the flourishing mills in the South represented the other side of the coin from the closed plants in the North.1 The campaign in textiles thus built upon the underlying strategic rationale of Operation Dixie—to protect labor’s recently acquired and still fragile base in the North. Unfortunately, the very industry on which Operation Dixie’s success depended turned out to be the one in which it showed the least success.2
Almost all the hazards the CIO faced in trying to organize textiles were at work at the huge Cannon Mills in Kannapolis, North Carolina. Kannapolis was the largest mill village in America, an unincorporated city of 50,000. Its owner, Charles Cannon, was firmly in control of the town’s economic, political, and social climate. Almost every street, every home, even the fire stations and grocery stores were owned by Cannon. The mayor, the police chief, and the ministers were all part of the Cannon “family,” as were, of course, the workers. In every way, Kannapolis provided graphic physical evidence of the meaning of the word “paternalism.”
The first thing that distinguished textile operations from other industries in the South was their size. Not only were individual textile plants often larger than plants in other industries, they were often part of a chain and clustered together in the same, or a nearby, town. To organize one plant in a company might simply lead to a shift in production to one of the others, causing layoffs and derailing the organizing drive. Thus, all the nearby plants had to be approached by the union at the same time. This situation also increased the number of workers involved, further complicating the task of organizing. In Cannon, Plants 1 and 4 consisted of eleven mills at Kannapolis, and Plants 2, 5, 6, 9, and 10 housed six additional mills in the adjoining village of Concord. The Cannon chain had a total of four other small plants, three of which were in nearby China Grove, Salisbury, and Thomasville.3 Thus, twenty of Cannon’s twenty-one mills were concentrated around the main hub of Kannapolis,4 employing some 24,000 workers.
The structure of the industry imposed harsh strategic choices upon the managers of Operation Dixie. Sheer size in textiles seemed to force upon the CIO a choice between mobilizing an enormous campaign against all the plants in a given chain or mounting no campaign at all. The alternative would have been a small-plant agenda, first organizing the rest of the industry one plant at a time, prior to beginning any assault on the bellwethers.
Attempting to organize bellwether plants had serious drawbacks, however. One of the most compelling arguments against it stemmed from the fact that bellwether plants were often the only industry in an area and had been built with their own mill towns around them. The level of control that owners of such plants exercised over the lives of their workers was much greater than that found in towns with more than one employer. The peculiar problems posed by the paternalism of textile mill villages added an altogether different dimension to the task of union organizing and more often than not made an organizer’s job significantly more difficult.
At the same time, however, any strategic campaign that turned on organizing small plants, plants whose owners exercised less community control than those with their own mill villages, also presented significant obstacles. The most intimidating prospect turned on the probability that a small-plant agenda would be immensely time-consuming. Across the South, small 50-to-500-employee textile plants were so numerous that literally hundreds of organizing campaigns would have to be sustained. This constituted a logistical burden well in excess of the CIO’s resources.5 It made no economic sense. The national CIO could not afford to keep hundreds of organizers in the field while they chipped away for years at hundreds of small textile mills scattered across the South. The trickle of dues-paying members thus obtained could never generate enough funds to offset the organizing overhead: the CIO would go broke trying to support a small-plant agenda.
Moreover, in terms of the CIO’s organizing traditions, a small-plant campaign had no “transforming” element that could sweep away fear and help stimulate among workers a new vision of society. A victory at a small plant was . . . a victory at a small plant. It sent no galvanizing signal to the South’s long-suffering working class. Without the kind of mobilization stimulated in the North in the late 1930s, the CIO could expect no breakthrough in the huge textile chains that dominated the region.
Reflecting the importance of textiles to Operation Dixie’s success, the CIO leadership hedged its bets by choosing a compromise between the large and small-plant strategies. While the drive would concentrate on the giant chains, the most promising of the smaller plants—those with a known history of worker discontent—would also receive a measure of attention. Regional assignments reflected these assessments. Of all the Southern states, North Carolina, as the center of the textile industry, received the largest number. Of the twenty-five organizers assigned to North Carolina in late May and early June 1946, fifteen were assigned exclusively to textiles, with the remainder divided among all other types of industry, most prominently tobacco and wood and wood products. Of the fifteen organizers in textiles, ten were dispatched to Kannapolis under the direction of a thirty-two-year-old organizer named Dean Culver.
The son of a railroad worker and a native of Iowa, Culver had come to North Carolina at the age of twenty-two in 1936. He had found employment in the town of Badin, a company town owned by Alcoa Aluminum. The traditional assortment of control, benevolence, and fear characteristic of company towns was at work in Badin. Yet Culver was able to organize the plant and carry it into the CIO. He was, with some justice, proud of his achievement, one that had brought him to the attention of CIO leaders in the South and had led to his appointment at Kannapolis. A political progressive and an experienced organizer, Culver brought a certain measure of confidence to his assignment as head of the organizing team at Cannon.
None of Culver’s initial ten staff members were from Kannapolis. Most, like Culver himself, had caught the attention of Operation Dixie planners through their work during organizing drives in their own plants across the South. Kannapolis itself had been free of such campaigns since the activity accompanying the 1934 national textile strike. Although several staff members on the Cannon drive had had at least some experience in previous mill village campaigns, and some had grown up in mill villages, they were not fully prepared for the elaborate portrait of sophisticated paternalism that they encountered in Kannapolis.
The CIO team’s first discovery concerned the prestige of Charles Cannon himself. As president and chairman of the board, Cannon maintained a highly visible level of involvement in the lives of his workers—to the extent that both Cannon Mills and the town of Kannapolis became extensions of his personal presence, influence, and power. In spite of the size of Cannon’s mills in Kannapolis, he was able to maintain a bond with his workers that felt relatively “personal” and special to them. A CIO organizer who married a former Cannon employee confirmed the popular impression.
They loved Mr. Cannon. Everybody loved him. He was their daddy. The father, the grandfather, the great-grandfather, all lived here. And everybody looked to Uncle Charlie Cannon. He was a Santy Claus. “He was good to my daddy. He was good to my granddaddy. He was good to my great-granddaddy. He give us a job, give us a place to live.” They’d say, “I gotta be faithful to him. Long as he likes me, he’ll take care of me.”6
So pervasive was this view of Charles Cannon among the citizens of Kannapolis that CIO staffers came to call it “the Cannon myth.” It was something to be avoided while organizing. One could criticize hiring practices, work rules, wage levels, and sparse fringe benefits. But one could not criticize “Uncle Charlie.” To do so would have been counterproductive to effective recruitment. Culver was not deterred. Badin was located fewer than thirty miles from Kannapolis and Culver felt he was in touch with the aspirations that lurked beneath the surface of this public display of affection and gratitude for Charlie Cannon.
There were, however, certain tangible signs, materializing out of preliminary organizing efforts in Kannapolis, that indicated the campaign would be neither easy nor quick. The town itself contained no motels or rental property, as it was an unincorporated township owned wholly by the company. The CIO staff, therefore, could find neither housing nor an office there. They secured both in the adjacent town of Concord.7 The town’s physical layout generated a special psychological impact. Plant 1, the heart of the Cannon chain, was described by one awed organizer as “a huge collection of seven different mills, a bleachery and finishing plant, a machine shop and a powerplant. This is all enclosed in one area by a high woven-wire fence.” There were eleven gates, seven of which were used heavily at shift changes. Plant 4 was about one-half mile from Plant 1 and had ten gates, at least five of which were used during the three shift changes each day. The number of gates made it all the more difficult to talk to the 24,000 workers who came and went. In addition, a number of workers parked their cars within the gates—making it nearly impossible for the CIO staff to make contact with them at any point around the workplace.8
With interaction at the plant gates reduced below their expectations, the CIO staff printed up a series of leaflets and, with them, began a sustained effort to recruit an initial “in-plant committee” of activists who could assist the organizing staff in contacting other workers in the plant and in planning meetings in workers’ homes. This process moved very slowly in the initial organizing month of June. As the CIO staff interpreted the general climate, Cannon’s policies generated among many workers “great fear and suspicion of one another.” Whatever Cannon could not find out on his own, some worker would tell him. One organizer compared such employees with what he knew of people in Communist countries: “They’d report anything that was going on to the company.”9 Ironically, this “fear,” as the staff was soon at pains to explain to the Atlanta office, was as much a function of company benevolence as it was of raw oppression.
Short-range popular issues are very few, because 1) the workload is comparatively light (compared to other textile plants); 2) employment is more stable; 3) housing is very good in comparison to other textile villages, although most of them lack adequate plumbing; 4) rents are probably below cost (about $5 a month); 5) wages, with a few exceptions, are higher than in other textile mills; 6) the community is neat, clean and comfortable.10
The “fear” that organizers frequently referred to was therefore oddly compounded of workers’ belief that they were part of Charlie Cannon’s family and as such would be protected, alongside a deep anxiety about opposing him. This anxiety seemed to derive not only from what the CIO staff described as an “emotional” fear about being expelled from the fold, but being fired and then evicted from relatively cheap company housing.11
In spite of evidence of fear among workers, organizers reported that attitudes were “favorable” throughout the first month of the campaign, even though people were “unwilling to sign.” Such euphemisms slowly became almost a way of life; one staffer found “favorable people now more favorable, altho still reluctant to sign up.”12 The “situation with regard to the women” was that “most of them are waiting to see what the men do. Have got some good potential leadership but have been unable to sign many up or move them into activity as yet.” Nevertheless, cautious optimism was the predominant theme: “Am sure I can get several to next Sunday’s meeting.”13 The staff also contacted veterans, but the immediate response was so light that they felt compelled to report that “at least one” had signed up.14
So by the end of the first month of effort, the Kannapolis staff had made some contacts, signed a small number of cards, “met some opposition . . . among lady workers,” and “made a geographical survey of the village of Kannapolis.”15
July brought new information on the campaign. In a lengthy “Initial Report on the Kannapolis Situation,” produced early in the month, organizers explained the reaction to their campaign both by the pull that “the Cannon myth” had on the workers, and the prevalence of “fear” that could assume a number of different forms. “The fear of being fired and losing their houses is very strong with them. I think we should go rather slow for a while on putting out [membership] books until we get more of a committee built up.”16 “Did house to house work among women workers without too much selection. Women are plenty scared.”17 “There is more fear at Cannon than I found at Firestone”—a mill in Gastonia, North Carolina, whose employees possessed a tenaciously lingering memory of a disastrous strike in 1929.18 “If we can get the fear out of these people, I think we will be able to put it across.”19
The report held out more hope for reaching World War II veterans because they were “less influenced by the Cannon myth.” Veterans, it was reasoned, “have had sufficient experience, and have only recently arrived back under the influence of the popular opinion, so that these generalizations are not entirely valid when applied to them.” Veterans were deemed not yet “reintegrated into the Kannapolis pattern”20
Revealing more than the presence of fear, the report made clear the difficulties involved in formulating concrete solutions to problems that proved hard to identify in more than an abstract way. Among the workers, “the desire to improve present material conditions is almost non-existent. It may possibly be cultivated, but this would require a long period of time and expenditure of much money in an educational program.” The author suggested, however, that seniority might be exploited as an important issue: “the desire to feel more secure in their jobs is a factor with most workers, particularly women.”21
There was a deeper and more puzzling problem that the organizers also mentioned: the workers “can and do read,” owned radios and automobiles, and had had some contact with the world outside Kannapolis—far more than workers in “the average textile mill village.” Given this relatively low level of physical isolation, the staff struggled to explain why time had stood still for the workers of Kannapolis, and why they had not yet realized that they needed the CIO.
They seem to be insulated in a different way from liberal ideas than that which exists in the average plant. They have had contact with thinking, liberal sources, but there is a general pattern of rationalization built around the prestige of Charles Cannon, which does the same thing to the mental attitude of these people as physical separation and hard social lines do in the average mill village.22
Although this “Initial Report” offered very little in the way of a concrete plan of action, it posed the central dilemma of organizing Kannapolis: how could an organizer—or a supervisor receiving such a generalized summary—plan an assault on a formless “mental attitude”?
In response to such field reports, the CIO leadership at the state level in North Carolina and in the Southern Organizing Committee in Atlanta seemed at a loss for creative solutions. One directive sent to the Kannapolis organizing team at the end of June instructed them to dress up their image. Organizers were to “become part of community life by going to church on Sundays.” They were to remain in “‘respectable’ parts of town” and mingle with” ‘respectable’ people.” They were not to “indulge in drinking” and were to “drink ‘chocolate sodas’ rather than beer.” Finally, they were admonished to avoid entering “any home where only the ‘womenfolks’” were present, and to “return when the head of the house” was there.23
The resistance they encountered gradually induced organizers to keep something of a low profile in an effort to cope with workers’ fear of premature exposure as union activists. In a form letter inviting workers to a staff meeting, Culver instructed prospective recruits to “bring any person with you as our guest and yours, whom you are sure is a friend of yours, but please do not give this little meeting any wide publicity. . . .”24 Internal staff correspondence revealed the CIO analysis: “The reason for using the Hotel conference room instead of the hall is the fact that the people may be as yet afraid to come to the Union hall.”25
During the last two weeks of July, the CIO staff at Kannapolis struggled hard to maintain morale and energy in the face of very tough going. Against increasingly negative evidence, the staff demonstrated a determination to remain optimistic: “Only have 5 applications this week but set up machinery that I believe will PAY OFF SOON—.”26
Against this background of minimal progress won at great effort, active involvement of the CIO leadership is difficult to locate. In examining months of internal CIO reports, one searches in vain for decisive action from the North Carolina state director, William Smith, or from Baldanzi and Bittner in Atlanta. Only Dean Culver’s immediate supervisor, D. D. Wood, the “area director” for the Southern region of North Carolina, found a way to talk openly and clearly about the mounting crisis in textiles. In the second week of July, Wood took his team leaders in the Southern area to task for mishandling the collection and submission of initiation fees.27 He also reprimanded them for the poor quality of reports on contacts made with local officials and ministers in the Southern area: “This is special work and requires a special report.”28 Nor did Wood seem to think his teams were working hard enough: “We had lull during the week of the 4th [July] and we must make up for it during the next ten days.”29 Wood worried that the CIO’s resources were being squandered. He confronted Culver:
We find that you have several people working in the office most of the time. We feel that there is no need for two people in the office hereafter, with the exception of yourself, and unless you have a mass mailing, no organizers are to work in the office. The National Union can not pay two people salaries to do office work.30
By July 19, Wood had lost his patience. “It is not clear in my mind exactly what is wrong in our area.” Wood noted that his superiors had been
waiting very patiently for results in this Southern Area and the time has now come for explanations and I feel sure they are not interested in excuses. As I pointed out before, in the other areas they are getting such great results that in comparison it looks as if we haven’t even started.
Wood also added that his next meeting with the state director would be most “embarrassing” if he had nothing more to report.31
For his part, Culver struggled desperately for a way to break through. “At the Locke Mills we experimented with the device of enclosing several pieces of literature in one envelope, unsealed, and watched the effect very carefully.” He suggested that such an innovation would be worth trying at Cannon, even if it were “considerably more trouble.” The bottom line was that workers with an envelope were thus less likely to throw the papers away, “finding they had a neat convenient way” to keep them.32
On August 8, 1946—the date of the first shocking defeat at the Hannah Pickett Mills in Rockingham, North Carolina33—North Carolina state director Smith pleaded with Atlanta for five additional organizers for Kannapolis. Smith wrote that more staff was needed because “we have a long way to go yet and have merely scratched the surface in Cannon.” Inexplicably, he added: “The drive is progressing splendidly.” He stressed “a spirit of victory over there,” and expressed with confidence that “our drive, without question, is cracking.” It was, on the contrary, cracking up.34
By mid-August, after seven weeks of effort, any residue of optimism slowly seeped out of organizers’ reports: “The atmosphere” in Kannapolis was “still too cold” for committees to form or operate “with any real degree of success.”35 Three days later, Culver described a staff session with similar grim brevity: “Meeting was a little depressed.”36 The “still too cold” of August 5 had become the “very cold” of August 20.37
And so the Cannon campaign stumbled on into September, amid declining morale that extended beyond the staff of Kannapolis, to Wood and Smith in Charlotte, and Baldanzi and Bittner in Atlanta. The entire Southern effort, meanwhile, was costing the national CIO and its internationals almost $200,000 per month.38 Culver, meanwhile, had begun to fight to maintain his dignity and to hold on to his job. “No person that I have ever met could have, in my opinion, produced much more organization using the tools available to me and my staff in this particular time. . . . I have made no strategic error of any consequence.”39 He then advised,
What is needed now is accurate, down-to-earth, motivating publicity, unless, of course, the organizing committee anticipates a long-range educational program before great organizational success is won. I am doing the best I can. . . . The make up of my staff in this situation is, as you know, mostly hard working, young, local boys, who do not understand much about the labor movement, or its history. And while they certainly want to organize the Cannon Mills, what is needed is a more crusading spirit, not simply directed toward the obtaining of membership but directed toward the obtaining more of the good things of life for people.40
The public announcement of Culver’s removal as the head of the Cannon team came on October 23, 1946.41 His successor, Joel Leighton, was briefly optimistic about prospects for overcoming “the deadness that has been here.”42 However, the enthusiasm expressed by the new lead organizer at Cannon did not last. It could not be sustained in a surrounding climate of despair, an emotion that seeped into every corner of the South where Operation Dixie organizers had mounted campaigns in textiles. From May 15, 1946, through the end of the year, the TWUA participated in forty-seven elections in nine Southern states.43 The CIO won twenty-one of these elections by an aggregate total of 2,967 to 1,381 votes. Twenty-six elections were lost, with 7,126 “no union” votes, 3,478 votes for the TWUA, and 365 votes for “other unions.” Meager as these numbers were, they concealed another dimension of the CIO defeat—namely, the overwhelming percentage of textile workers in plants that, like Cannon, were never brought to an NLRB election. These unorganized textile workers numbered over 500,000.44 As for Kannapolis, the CIO maintained a presence there throughout the course of Operation Dixie. Sporadic efforts to organize Cannon continued through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, until the first election was held at Cannon mills in 1973, one the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union lost. As of December 1986, Cannon Mills was still without a union.
And so, in the end came the organizational retreats that signaled defeat. The Kannapolis staff dwindled, as did the ranks of organizers throughout the rest of the South. The press offices closed down and the membership books full of unsigned cards were folded away. Remaining, amid the wreckage, were the workers—still nursing their hopes and grievances, and their fears. Cautious but watchful, they had weighed the options and, in the end, had decided against taking that final fateful step that would have separated them from the way things were before the CIO came to Kannapolis. At the time (and years later) when they reviewed the decisions they made in the summer of 1946, their thoughts turned to Charlie Cannon. For some, he symbolized safety. As one old-timer put it, “Mr. Cannon didn’t fire you for every little thing you done. You felt security, just knowing you had a job and could pay your bills.”45 The thought, turned over in the mind enough times, became the basis for extravagant praise. Charlie Cannon became a man who could be seen as fair and even generous—“a man with a big heart,”46 as one long-time employee explained. Another veteran of fifty-four years in the mills remembered the Cannon management as “good people to work for. You could talk to them and they’d listen.”47
Yet the litany of praise concealed many contradictions. Charlie Cannon was “strict,” but in a way that was to many, helpful: “If he heard of anybody runnin’ around with somebody else’s wife or husband, you lost your job,” one worker said approvingly.48 On the other hand, such “strictness” came through to others as simply malicious. One old millworker described the Cannon management as “cruel.” But he lowered his voice as he said it, furtively conveying a view he did not want his fellow villagers to hear. Anything that could be interpreted as a disrespectful attitude, he said, “was enough to get anyone fired.”49
But people who lowered their voices in retirement in the 1980s did not sign union cards in the summer of 1946. “I just saw that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to even get your name on [a union list]. Because once you openly come out for the union, you was marked.” Such people would “never advance any at all. And I believe if you’re going to put eight hours in one place every day that you might as well make the best of it, whether you like it or don’t like it.”50 Other workers who felt the same way were even able to put the imposition of piece rates into a benign perspective: “You worked hard, but you worked at your own pace. If you wanted to make good money, you worked harder. If you didn’t, well. . . .”51 In sum, Cannon knew that, for his workers, half a loaf was better than none. This was the primary lesson of the Southern past, one that found expression in the words of a worker who concluded: “Even though it wasn’t extra good, it was good.”52
Clearly, one of the elements at the heart of decision-making by Cannon employees was their sense of the balance of forces between those who ran the world of Kannapolis and those who spoke for trade unionism. A hidden ingredient of Operation Dixie, one that surfaced in hundreds of mill villages that lay far beyond Kannapolis, was the memory of the 1934 general strike. As an event of Southern history, the 1934 strike has received little attention from historians, which is surprising because it was the largest industrywide general strike in American history. Some 400,000 Southern workers walked off the job in 1934. The action, initiated from below by workers rather than at the instigation of union leadership, spread over textile country like a cloud, closing whole districts, whole states. The stories of “united workers” and of “militance” were real, and so were the stories of “desperate picket lines” and, finally, of “desperate hunger.” The strike was widespread, it encountered implacable opposition, and it failed. The resulting roll call of blacklisted workers ran into the thousands.53
The strike, however, did not engulf Kannapolis. Cannon Mills, in fact, was one of the very few companies in the South that escaped the full brunt of the 1934 uprising, despite the fact that “hundreds of organizers came to Kannapolis.”54 The folklore of 1934 was vivid in 1946, as it remains vivid for many in the 1980s. Bessie Shankle, who worked at Cannon Mills from 1939 to 1970, had an older sister and brother-in-law working there in 1934. The pickets sometimes make it impossible for them to get inside the plant to report for work, she recalled. And even though they had not joined the strike, their family “nearly starved to death” by the time the conflict was over.55 Even those who had not been directly affected by the strike remembered it. Although textile workers might not have been earning much, “they at least had a job. And they knew that the union in Gastonia and other places did not support the workers and a lot of them nearly starved to death.” As a result, “most of ’em were really scared to go for the union.”56
The Shankle family oral tradition about the 1934 general strike was not completely accurate. It incorporated memories from Gastonia where the searing events of the 1929 strike created vivid stories quite apart from the events of 1934. But in the deepest sense, the tradition is all the more effective as the conveyer of an emotion rooted in historical events, if not always precisely remembered events. The operative memory conveyed by Shankle family tradition was that “the union” brought trouble, picket lines, hungry families, and defeat.
All working classes in all societies have such ingredients buried in their oral traditions. Such memories fortify deference by providing deferential people with a rationale for continued passivity. It was in this sense that the long struggle in textile country in the 1920s and 1930s, punctuated by moments of extreme drama in 1929 and 1934, added up to a powerful barrier for CIO organizers in 1946 (and thereafter).
The “Cannon myth” that CIO organizers found also served to fortify deference among the workers there. Stories of the purported “kindness” of Uncle Charlie persisted, alongside stories of management “cruelty,” precisely because they served to justify and explain inaction. The simple fact was that many stories praising Cannon were authored by workers who did not join the CIO for the elementary reason that they were afraid to do so. It was easier to praise “Uncle Charlie” than to talk about one’s fear.
“Paternalism” is a word that sometimes conceals more than it reveals. To an extent that remains difficult for outsiders to grasp, workers in company-owned mill villages in the American South lived under the most debasing kind of police tyranny. Uncle Charlie could not only fire a worker, or elect not to fire him, for “runnin’ around on his wife”; he could cause people to lose their jobs for other transgressions including, but extending beyond, a “disrespectful attitude.” Cannon had access to all arrest records. Indeed, such records were kept in triplicate, one copy for Cannon Mills, a second for the newspaper files, and a third retained by the sheriff’s office. The effect of such extreme forms of social control are hard to exaggerate. The resulting “popular attitude,” however it might be characterized, was something deep-seated that CIO organizers confronted every day as they passed out leaflets at the gates of Cannon Mills.
The workers wanted help—the low throw-down rates provided certain testimony of this—but they preferred getting it in some way that did not fundamentally threaten them. As the CIO organizer’s report affirmed, “We must find some way to get the fear out of these people.”
The objective was worthy. However, the means were not at hand in the summer of 1946.