BEYOND THE FRAGMENTS
[Women] are the background to history. Our present situation imposes fragmentation and isolation. Divided inside and against ourselves and one another we lack both physical and class solidarity . . . The family maintains us in the interior world and the class of our man gives us status in the exterior . . . This puzzles us and means it is harder for us to begin to experience our own identity as a group.1
So might a Durham worker, had she been versed in feminist theory, have articulated her situation: “Breaking silence.” “Becoming visible.” “Creating a language that will translate what we have experienced into a plan for collective action.” “Healing the divisions.” “Moving beyond the fragments.” These phrases capture the dilemma posed by class exploitation, racial domination, and gender subordination. But at that time no theory had emerged that linked these experiences of oppression, as inextricably as they were bound together in daily life. Instead, women dealt with their problems in partial ways.
The labor movement was the central arena into which the women of Durham channeled their energies. It offered working women a public space to discuss the problems they shared with working men and with working people of both races. It taught women a language that connected their economic plight to that of other workers, and it called them to collective action—although it demanded that its participants use a language conceived in the masculine gender and constructed in a white idiom. Still, a fragmented reflection of the real situation faced by black and white working women took shape. By examining women’s experiences in the labor movement, we can better appreciate the impediments to their emergence as a unified class. At the same time we can recognize their achievements as we witness their struggles to go beyond the fragments.2
Before the 1930s Durham workers and employers rarely clashed in organized fashion. When they did, men took the lead. In contrast to the leadership of women in some southern strikes, Durham women were passive observers or silent victims in a struggle waged by men.3 The dismissal of two women from the Duke factory in the mid-1880s typifies their early role. According to the Journal of United Labor, the two cigarette makers lost their jobs merely because their father belonged to the Knights of Labor.4 In fact, black and white women joined the Knights in Durham and its vicinity but they never took a central role in its losing battles.5 During the 1900 strike at Erwin Mills, women again appeared as passive victims. According to a local newspaper, the strike sent “one lady into spasms.”6 After summoning the “heads of families” to a meeting closed to the “young men who were the leaders of the organization,” W. A. Erwin announced that all union members and their families would be dismissed. The guilty were evicted from their homes.7 Women then appear in the accounts as homeless victims of a battle of wills between a benevolent patriarch and his rebellious sons.8
During the next flurry of organizing activity in 1918 and 1919, the tobacco and textile unions invited “the ladies to enlist.” This time, however, the unions hoped to avoid defeat by refraining from provocation. Instead, Local 153 of the Tobacco Workers International Union (TWIU) pledged that “members will discourage and prevent any strife,” “render a good honest day’s work every day,” and if discharged, “submit without protest.”9 Aiming to win the confidence of the employers, the union was left defenseless when American Tobacco refused to reciprocate. After offering bonuses to workers, promoting a few blacks to operative positions, and firing the TWIU organizer, the company successfully disrupted the union without disrupting production.10 Similarly, W. A. Erwin refused to bargain with the members of a textile union that claimed one thousand members from “all sections of the township.”11 Sending a confidential agent to spy on his employees, Erwin rejoiced to learn that the “union had just about gone to the bad.” Content with their promised bonuses, the Erwin workers ceased making complaints against their employer. Like the men, the “ladies” appeared to be “satisfied.”12
Women do not appear among the active combatants of the labor wars during the 1920s. There was “no union of any kind for women workers in Durham,” although skilled male knitters employed at the Marvin Carr Silk Mill organized a local of the American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Workers in the mid-1920s. After the Carrs ordered union members to train new workers (who were required to sign a pledge against joining the union as a condition of employment), a strike resulted. Having lost the strike, the union members left Durham to seek jobs in cities like Philadelphia, where their union offered them help.13 By the late 1920s the remnants of that union existed “entirely sub-rosa due to the fact that when the worker’s affiliation is discovered . . . he is soon laid off and usually discharged, ‘if he doesn’t take the hint,’ as one member of the knitters’ union put it.” For the rest of the decade the battles often were conducted underground as the Carrs, Lewis, and Carmichael of L and M marshalled their forces against “the threatened invasion of radical unionism.”14 Alfred Hoffman, the dynamic organizer for the Hosiery Workers, the United Textile Workers, and the American Federation of Labor, came to Durham in 1927 to lead the union side. Trained at Brookwood Labor College in “economics and social psychology,” prepped in “journalistic requirements,” and able to “analyse labor problems intelligently,” Hoffman initially predicted that southern workers “will go along just so long and then they will explode.” A year in Durham dampened his optimism. Emphasizing the “need for patient work,” he told the convention of hosiery workers that employers used a blacklist, “a very fine spy system,” the mill village, and direct threats to intimidate union activists. Innovative methods, such as a motor parade by the former Durham workers who had found jobs in Philadelphia, the organization of a Piedmont Organizing Council, and extensive publicity in the union press, generated excitement, but employers still retained the upper hand.15
Although Hoffman never explicitly addressed his appeals to women, another Durham activist was quietly probing into reasons for the unpopularity of unions among Durham women in the 1920s. Mary Cowper talked with young women whom she’d met through the YWCA Industrial Girls’ Club and learned that most knew little or nothing about unions. They eased their discontent by frequently changing jobs and companies. One young woman, whose father knew about unions, offered a disturbing response: “There weren’t many [unions] in this part of the country,” she said, “because people are afraid there will be trouble and they will lose their jobs. They also said that leaders are lacking and that people won’t stick together and it only makes trouble to try to better conditions.” Other young workers appeared too frivolous to think seriously about their working conditions, or thought that they could “help change the working conditions soon” if they became supervisors.16 Had Alfred Hoffman and other labor organizers learned the results of the Cowper survey, it would have confirmed their conviction that men, not women, should remain the primary target of unionization.
Yet the experiences of some Durham women suggested that a male-oriented strategy overlooked many opportunities. Nellie Carter, along with other Durham women, attended a summer school for working women in the late 1920s where she studied economics, history, and labor issues.17 The brief period at the Southern Summer School for Women Workers offered these women a “social space . . . to talk to one another, to reflect upon their lives, and obtain a fundamental sense of their worth.”18 But disappointment followed Carter’s return home. Durham’s male activists ignored her suggestions. She denounced them, declared that she knew more than they about union organizing, and withdrew from active participation. On her own, without the aid of other enlightened women, Nellie Carter could not overcome the resistance of men who had never been encouraged to consider women’s leadership.19 She found it impossible to believe that an alliance between women and the labor movement was “a natural one.” In the harsh environment of Durham, some dreams died.20
White women were not alone in their frustrations. Aware since 1900 that blacks must be brought into the TWIU, the union’s national leadership urged that “the interest of both whites and colored are locked up in the success of the union,” but local leaders found it difficult to act on that advice. Any violation of racial taboos led to fierce attacks against unions in the regular and industrial press. Nor did many union activists wholeheartedly endorse racial equality, as the pages of the Union Herald, an AFL organ published in Raleigh, made evident. Having defended the Ku Klux Klan, the paper also declared that “the organization of the colored workers does not mean, in any sense of the word, social equality,” and it opposed the extension of the vote to black women.21 Whether the paper was opportunistically protecting the local AFL from attacks by manufacturers or expressing honestly felt racial beliefs, such comments could only encourage prejudice in its white readership. Black workers in Durham recalled persistent discrimination by organized labor that dated back to the refusal of the Knights to give black workers a fair chance for a job. Similar practices continued in Durham into the 1920s:
One morning I came to work and saw my men standing around with their coats on looking at a cloth sign stretched across the front of the house we were building. In the middle was a skull and crossbones and large red letters saying, ‘Run, Nigger, Run.’” I told my men to tear it down and go to work. I complained to the Mayor and was no further molested on that job.22
Black workers recognized that the rise of trade unions was often accompanied by their exclusion from skilled trades. White trade unions did not protest when a construction firm refused to hire a black mason. In fact, union leaders blamed black reluctance to “make temporary sacrifices for the sake of future gains.”23 The arguments made by black Durham businessmen that “labor agitators only create mutual suspicions between blacks and whites” expressed the convictions of many Durham workers. Black women, having been generally ignored by organized labor and seeing the discrimination against black men, responded with still greater skepticism. Even as late as 1935, less than 10 percent of the black female tobacco workers interviewed in Durham endorsed unionization, compared with 20 percent of black men and white women, and 40 percent of white men. Any local activist who wished to bring blacks into the labor movement had a long history of betrayals to contend with.24
Moreover, the labor movement was too weak to be appealing. Unions had not won a strike against a Durham employer into the late 1920s. Durham workers had also witnessed the traumatic defeats inflicted on workers in other cities and in mill villages across the Piedmont. As a young girl, Jessie Ervin watched the eviction of a union leader at Pilot Mill in Raleigh. A wave of strikes near Charlotte in 1919 resulted in the jailing of the man who had organized the Durham union on a charge of incitement to riot.25 Many Durham workers knew about the failed Henderson strike of 1927, Alfred Hoffman’s first experience after coming to the South.26 When Hoffman was arrested during the Marion strike in 1929, Durham workers lost their charismatic leader. The mass firing of 3,000 R. J. Reynolds employees in Winston-Salem, seventy miles west of Durham, served as a warning to Durham tobacco workers. The eviction of textile organizers in Greensboro in 1930 by the Cones, close allies of K. P. Lewis, reinforced the lesson in employer power.27 A new decade began with the long and bitter Danville, Virginia, strike in winter 1930—1931. North Carolina workers may well have concluded, “Folks can talk all they want about their right to join the union, but right don’t count much when money is against you.”28 Indeed, there seemed no end to defeat.
But many of the defeated were not discouraged. Some Danville workers came to Durham still determined to unionize. They joined with Durham workers who believed that “right” was more important than the “might” of employers. By the late 1920s, they had begun to consider the proper relationship between themselves and their employers as a question of ethics: “a conception of justice for ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them.’”29 James Evans, the Cone organizer, remained faithful to his vision even as he eked out a living on the tenant farm to which he’d been exiled. He clung to his hope “that in not so many years the laboring man will actually have justice.”30 Teachers at the Southern Summer School for Women Workers believed that their students were sharing in the general awakening of working-class consciousness in the South. As they expressed it, their students were “beginning to wonder why they suffer from poverty although they spend their lives working from dawn to dark.” Although there were no visible signs that the schism between black and white workers could be healed, once confident employers were beginning to fear that “no one knows the workers as they know themselves.”31
▪ A sullen interlude followed the defeats of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Workers confronted an economic crisis that devastated the textile industry, crippled the hosiery industry, and left only tobacco unscathed. Jobs vanished. Wages plunged. The stretch-out speeded the pace of work for those fortunate to have jobs. Cocky foremen intimidated disgruntled employees by threatening to replace them with one of the hordes of unemployed. As some workers understood it, the supervisors were telling employees, “You’ll do what we tell you. You’ll shut your mind up and let us think for you or we’ll starve you to death.”32 Unwilling to risk their jobs, women and men sometimes wept as they were browbeaten by supervisors.33 While textile overseers drove their remaining employees harder in order to ride out the economic storm, tobacco foremen speeded up the machines and spurred anxious employees to increase productivity.
The sullen mood began to lift in summer 1933. Taking advantage of a sympathetic administration in Washington, workers sought to extend “the meaning of freedom” into the workplace.34 Suddenly they were not alone. Their notions of justice had acquired the stamp of legitimacy, the sanction of law. Latent energies began to stir. The pledge of federal protection “in the exercise of the workers’ right to organization,” a promise embodied in Section 7A of the National Industrial Recovery Act, was eagerly embraced by the white men who greeted an organizer sent by the TWIU.35 E. L. Crouch arrived in Durham the day the Blue Eagle of the NRA took flight. The next day seven workers from L and M gathered at the home of Sam Latta, a longtime union activist. During July and August they gathered in increasing numbers in E. L. Crouch’s hotel room to debate strategy. The core group pressed for a mass meeting in early August, but Crouch advised them to wait “so that we may have all the workers around, women, the colored, and those in smoking tobacco.” Somehow, in their eagerness to redress injustices, the male vanguard had forgotten the majority of the tobacco workers in their city.36
Yet the discussions in the hotel room revealed something more than simple eagerness among white men and hesitation among all the other tobacco workers. They revealed a deep attachment to patriarchal and white supremacist values. These men—fixers, machine operators, and other employees in the cigarette departments—complained because L and M gave each cigarette-making machine operator a can to “catch” the cigarettes. They demanded that they be “given girls” to catch cigarettes, as was the practice at American.37 W. R. Culbreth particularly objected to TWIU proposals that the NRA code for the tobacco industry include a 35-cent minimum wage. Writing to E. Lewis Evans, president of the TWIU, he complained that the minimum wage would mean “an increase in negro pay of about 100% and increases my pay none.” He added, “I can not ask a white man to join an organization having gone on record for such a thing.”38 Evans replied that “the Negro . . . is a strong competitor in our industry and, if we do not travel with him economically, the BOSSES will use him to defeat our general purpose.” This reasoning apparently convinced Culbreth, although black workers remained lumped together as “the colored” or “the Negro.”39 Thus the TWIU began a campaign to recruit all of Durham’s tobacco workers but remained biased toward white men.
When Duby Upchurch arrived in January 1934 to replace E. L. Crouch, the white workers at L and M had already formed Local 176 and the white employees at American had formed Local 183. Black workers were only beginning to meet. Aided by a mass meeting at the black YWCA that was addressed by Louis Austin, the editor of the Carolina Times, Local 194 at L and M soon attracted more than three thousand workers, primarily black women.40 Despite the impressive gains, Upchurch believed that black workers were “not reliable” recruits. He also discovered that some black ministers had “denounced the union from their pulpits.”41 Talks by Henry Addams, an organizer dispatched by the Hosiery Workers to Durham, and R. R. Lawrence of the North Carolina State AFL failed to change the ministers’ stance. Upchurch and Evans then decided that the ministers had been bribed by white employers and black businessmen.42 By the end of 1934, the membership of Local 194 had shriveled; Local 193, established for black workers at American, was almost moribund. Nevertheless, the TWIU continued its emphasis on white workers and expected that black workers would eventually fall into line.
Just as the TWIU was addressing itself to its reluctant black recruits in spring 1934, the United Textile Workers (UTW) and the Hosiery Workers resumed their efforts to organize Durham textile workers. An industrial espionage agent hired by Erwin Mills surveyed the attitudes of the workers. Disguised as a radio salesman, the spy noted that the women he spoke with either opposed the union or remained silent; he found that men were evenly divided.43 Two months later, a rabidly anti-union journalist, who had interviewed Albert Beck of the UTW, wrote K. P. Lewis some reassuring news. Although Beck had made good progress in organizing workers at Golden Belt in East Durham, he had more limited success at Durham Hosiery Mills and had found it “impossible to do any real work” in West Durham.44
During summer 1934, however, the opinion of Durham workers shifted in favor of the unions. The national campaign orchestrated by the UTW for recognition, the elimination of the “stretch-out,” and the establishment of the thirty-hour week evidently spoke to workers’ needs. By August 1934 Beck had created Bull City Local 2155, which included seven separate locals in the mill villages of Durham. At a mass meeting that month, two thousand Durham textile workers gathered to plan a general textile strike for September if the textile industry did not accept its demands.45 It appeared that Alfred Hoffman’s prophecy had finally come to pass: Durham textile workers would go “along just so long and then they will explode.”46
White tobacco workers also responded to the rising current of labor militancy. Having reached “near the perfect organized state,” Durham workers at L and M pressed for action. Upchurch proposed that the campaign be extended to other L and M plants in Richmond, Toledo, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco.47 Some white activists, convinced that “they must have the colored workers or else they will never get anywhere themselves,” plunged into a campaign to reach black workers. The appointment of Charles Parrish, a Durham native holding “advanced views on the Negroes,” renewed the attempt to get “hold of the leaders of both men and women among the colored race.”48 Meanwhile, white male union activists from Durham journeyed to Washington to testify in favor of the TWIU’s proposals for the code governing industry conditions. Although cautioned “not to advertise the trip to Washington as no colored worker was invited,” they appeared at the hearings as spokesmen for all the tobacco workers of Durham.49
The workers’ desire for action was beginning to strain the cautious framework established by the TWIU. Yet Evans, after more than forty years in the TWIU leadership, remained convinced that persuading employers to accept union labels was a better policy than pressuring them to make concessions through workers’ actions. Furthermore, he distrusted rank and file initiatives. Despite a warning from a long-time associate that the new locals “are going to demand a voice and a say-so in how the organization [is] run,” Evans insisted on running the union his way.50 The agitation subsided as workers’ attention turned to the tobacco code and local organizing, but the possibility remained that workers’ demand for a “say-so” would undermine the authority of heavy-handed union officials. The sources of discontent had not been eliminated.
Inspired by the excitement of the August mass meeting and armed with pledges of support from black and white tobacco workers’ locals, Durham began preparations for the general textile strike on Labor Day. A large motorcade carried local workers to Pine Hill Cemetery. There the president of the Hosiery Workers spoke over the grave of Clem Norwood, one of the employees dismissed from the Marvin Carr Silk Mill, who had later found work in the Philadelphia area. Killed during a hosiery strike in Philadelphia, Norwood symbolized the solemn commitment Durham workers were being asked to make. Four thousand men and women listened as the union official spoke:
We men and women of labor, gathered at the grave of Clem Norwood who died that our cause might triumph, do hereby pledge ourselves to carry on this great fight against the evils of poverty amid plenty, oppression in democracy, and against all social greed, selfishness . . . bigotry . . . and class discrimination.51
Later, white Durham workers gathered at a park to listen to speeches and express their solidarity. No longer uncertain about voicing their opinions, women exhibited the same enthusiasm as men.52
The next day the determined strikers shut down all the cotton mills in Durham. Within a week the hosiery locals, after an unsuccessful attempt to gain recognition from the Carrs, joined the strike. Local merchants supplied food, credit, and tents to shelter the striking members of their community. Kemp P. Lewis found it “galling . . . to have a mob refuse to allow him entrance into his office,” but did not call in the police in order “to keep Durham from being torn up with bitter antagonisms, leading to disorder and crime.” Durham, as he told his stockholders, was a city “permeated with a union sentiment.”53 Golden Belt officials endured a similar humiliation.54 Disciplined but feisty, Durham workers joined the “flying squadrons” that carried the call to strike to communities where union fever had not reached the same intensity. After three weeks, the UTW ended the strike when Franklin Roosevelt promised an investigation of conditions in the industry. Many of the more than seven thousand strikers paraded from Five Points up Main Street to the Durham Hosiery Mills in East Durham, shouting “Victory is Ours” and “We Killed the Stretch-out.”55
But the victory soon turned to ashes. According to one striker, the workers never understood the “reasons for striking.” According to another: “The government will make the next move . . . the workers gained in the strike but . . . the Union lost a lot of ground and friends.” A West Durham woman concluded that “they had not gained anything as they are going back to work the same as before the strike.” A scholar endorsed the pessimistic assessment of the strike after interviewing numerous union officials. “The UTW really had no southern strategy,” he wrote, “or any other strategy for that matter.”56 In the aftermath of the inconclusive strike and a governmental report that failed to offer concrete improvements to the textile workers, the UTW collapsed.57 Although the size of the strike protected Durham workers from wholesale firings that punished workers in more divided communities, local activists shared the doubts about the UTW. The imprisonment of the local’s treasurer for embezzling $500 from the strike fund further disillusioned members.58
Vengeful employers, unable to vent their frustrations through mass dismissals, pledged that the strike would cause no changes in their operations. The Carrs told the union at Durham Hosiery Mills, “We will not let you folks represent the whole crowd.”59 One hundred workers at Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company lost their jobs, after which J. Harper Erwin assured the remaining employees that the company would “show no partiality between union and non-union employees.”60 Six watchmen at Durham Hosiery Mill No. 6, the black-run mill, lost their jobs because they had allowed strikers to enter the mill at night. When pressed by the federal mediator to rehire the watchmen, the Carr spokesman refused. The lesson of the strike, he told the official, “is that we have been too sympathetic.”61 Kemp P. Lewis expressed a similar determination to continue the company strategy of installing new machinery, increasing workloads, and eliminating unnecessary workers.62 Never again would unions in Durham’s textile industry draw such an enthusiastic and united constituency as the UTW attracted—and misled—in the general textile strike of 1934.
Tobacco workers had witnessed both the strike’s exciting beginning and its disillusioning aftermath. The defeat clearly discouraged many potential union members, especially among black workers. The majority opinion was that unions were “ineffectual or too radical or too costly to the workers in the matter of fees, or . . . placed their jobs in jeopardy.” One worker at L and M combined many strands of workers’ pessimism:
One wouldn’t work here now because colored have been deceived too much. A dollar to join and twenty-five cents a week is too much to let somebody run away with . . . It would be a pretty hard job to get a union in this town because colored people have been treated so dirty. It takes a lot of money to run a union—to buck capital. If 7 or 8 hundred hands in any of these factories went on a strike there’s enough people here to keep the factories running. When they had the hosiery mill strike, the union lost, and many of those that lost their jobs are out in the street right now.63
A white woman who caught cigarettes at American expressed a similar disbelief:
They had a union but I don’t know what become of it. No one ever goes any more. I’ll tell you, when you put your money into a thing you want to get something out of it. I was re-instated once, but it’s no use.64
A black woman, a member of Local 194 at L and M, described the reasons for the emormous expansion and contraction of the local’s membership:
The white man said it was good to join the union cause they would see we would have a job. We ain’t ever been in nothin’ like that. Durham never had nothing like that, so we was scared to mess with it. They told us, “Well, if you don’t join somethin’ or ‘nother is going to happen next week.” So I jumped up there and joined. He told us at one time they was goin’ to have a strike at Liggett and Myers and if you didn’t belong to the union, you would be put out. I didn’t believe much in it, but everybody was talkin’ so I joined. I didn’t see where it did the hosiery mill no good. When they had a strike they had, they all had to get relief. I hear that white man done took all the money and left . . . When we got the last raise since Christmas, the white man [of the union] says, “You see what the union done? We got a raise.” Course I don’t believe the union done nothing. We got that raise cause the boss man gave it to us.65
The solidly established local among the white workers at L and M was only slightly hindered by the defeat. But support for the black locals and the white local at American was less deeply rooted and the strike’s failure confirmed the doubts of many workers. Some had been frightened into the union or carried along on a wave of enthusiasm. Now they decided that the union “ain’t mounted to nothin’ here” and never would.66 At L and M, the local for black workers saw its membership plunge to fewer than two hundred members, a tenth of its former size.67 Black Local 193 at American disintegrated.
There were positive notes buried within the general disillusionment. One woman, fired for inviting another worker at American to join Local 183, reported on the discussion with her former supervisor:
I went to see him with some plain talk. He just wouldn’t talk. Treated me cool. He just said No. He treated me cool, I noticed, at least three weeks before he laid me off . . . His niece, the one I got to join the union, went with me. The niece bawled him out.68
The report suggested that even the relatives of foremen might be drawn into the union—and side with a coworker against an uncle. In fact, women sometimes acted more forcefully than survey data suggested, perhaps because they tended to answer questions posed by a stranger with reserve. Ella Faucette, for instance, was a black woman who put aside her doubts to “get it existing.” She persuaded other workers to join.69 Rose Weeks joined Local 183 at the first meeting she attended:
One of the women asked me if I’d be interested. “We have a meeting tonight, would you be interested?” I said, “I sure would.” I saw that somebody had been doing a lot of talking, the hall was full. The waves of enthusiasm lasted about six months and then some of the women started dropping out, getting behind with their dues . . . The union had only forty paid members and I was one of them. It was mostly women dropping out and some of the men. I thought it would be wonderful if everybody that worked could stick together and back each other up and love each other that much.70
A white woman at L and M eagerly embraced the union because it offered a chance for workers to live “more like God would have us live.” She and other women members had concluded that the only way “you can survive was through organization.”71 Their experiences had convinced them that the risks were preferable to the costs of passive submission.
The success achieved by TWIU locals in Durham varied in direct proportion to the cohesiveness of the membership. Local 176, the original white union in Durham, forced L and M to sign the first collective bargaining agreement in Durham history in 1935.72 Because many American employees had been newly hired in the early 1930s, its white labor force lacked a similar cohesion. Its management also mounted a more vigorous resistance to unionization. Yet, after establishing a common front with white locals at American plants in Reidsville, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia, Local 183 signed a contract in 1936.73 Meanwhile, black locals floundered. Local 194 repeatedly risked losing its TWIU charter as its membership fell below the required number of dues-paying members; the newly chartered Local 204 for black American workers performed similarly. Only Local 208, formed by black manufacturing employees who split from Local 194 in 1937, succeeded in negotiating with employers. Its membership, primarily male and more securely employed than were the female stemmers who comprised the majority of Local 194, became the first black local in Durham to sign a contract—and only a year after its founding. During that same year the locals enrolling black women pleaded for help from the TWIU leadership. Daisy Jones, the corresponding secretary for Local 194, asked Evans to “please have a little more patience with us.” She reported that “our members . . . are being unusually changed from one department to another, from one shift to another. It is very difficult to keep in touch with them or them with the local.”74 After scolding her, Evans granted an extension beyond the dues-paying deadline. When the local asked for a black organizer, however, Evans refused. “The supervision of Local 194,” he informed the local’s president, “is entirely in the hands of T. L. Copley and H. A. McCrimmon.”75 In December 1938, the executive board of Local 204 addressed the same request to Evans, asking for “a part-time organizer” because “we do feel like a colored organizer can get closer to most of our people.”76 Evans again responded negatively. These unions, unlike their white counterparts or Local 208, could boast no accomplishment after three or four years beyond mere survival.
Although some tobacco workers made gains through quiet but steady pressure on employers, Durham’s textile workers confronted the dispiriting results of a failed strike and a deteriorating local industry. The Carrs justified wage cuts, layoffs, and the installation of new machinery by declaring that Durham Hosiery Mills had operated at a loss during the first six months of 1935. Nonetheless, these moves precipitated a strike in July 1935.77 A. F. Carr, then Durham’s mayor, played a significant role when police escorted non-striking workers across picket lines. Non-striking workers attacked two union officers, including Bonnie Glenn, the local’s president, on the strike’s first day.78 Other fights erupted between strikers and non-strikers. After a month, the strike was broken and the union destroyed. Three months later, the company closed down its No. 1 plant. Four hundred and fifty white workers lost their jobs; the white spinners from No. 1 moved to No. 6 to start working on the night shift.79 Economic crisis thus brought black and white hosiery workers into the same mill, but they continued to work separately.
Textile organizing then centered on Golden Belt and Erwin Mills, companies that were surviving the industrial crisis by substituting the latest technological advances for “worn-out machinery,” by constantly reorganizing the labor process, and by keeping a tight rein on the payroll.80 These policies enhanced productivity but also heightened tensions in the work force. Luther Riley, long active in the union drive, described the interaction between company pressure and union activism:
It would swell up to a certain size and then it would reduce. Each time it would never reduce to the first nucleus . . . And then it would expand even greater and then it would draw back again . . . The company would realize what they were doing and would let up, then the thing would cool off . . . They would start putting pressure on again and finally it got to where it just wouldn’t recede. It just stayed there and that’s when the Textile Workers Union of America came.
The “pressure” that finally impelled Erwin workers to organize was the “Bedaux” version of the “time study system,” which Erwin used “to stretch people out.”81 The union that Riley referred to was the Textile Workers Organizing Committee (TWOC), which had been established under the auspices of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) to sponsor an organizing drive among southern textile workers. Equipped with seasoned organizers from the ranks of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and other unions, the TWOC officially arrived in West Durham in November 1937 when a committee paid its first call on Kemp P. Lewis.82 Three months later, the TWOC won an overwhelming electoral victory in an election held under the auspices of the National Labor Relations Board.83 For the next four years, the company and the union engaged in fierce but indecisive combat.
Maintaining a “calm and pleasant attitude” while refusing to negotiate with his employees, recognize the union, or consult about company policy, Lewis insisted on the managerial prerogative to run the company as he saw fit. When the local threatened a strike in July 1938 to protest the company’s refusal to discuss a contract or an announced wage cut, management prepared by shipping out finished cloth, shutting down the bleachery, removing the books from the office, and taking the weights off the looms. A strike by the women in the sewing room over a workload issue in June 1939 produced an Erwin offer to “bring in engineers to study not only sheet tearers’ jobs, but all the jobs in the bleachery and sewing room”—a proposal that the company had planned even before the strike and therefore not a meaningful concession to the workers.84 Furthermore, the company hired Carl R. Harris, an industrial engineer, to handle labor relations. Harris, in the view of the employees, frequently went “overboard” in his quest for increased production, placed impossible workloads on their shoulders, and neglected human relationships in the process.85 By reducing labor relations to a technique, Erwin Mills lost the loyalty of its workers, who felt that they were being treated like moving parts.
Although repeated defeats had cooled the ardor of many Erwin workers, recurrent layoffs, wage cuts, and workload changes aroused others. According to Esther Jenks, the sewing room was a perpetual “hot spot.” The women who sewed, inspected, and folded sheets became “really upset about the way they got laid off” and the favoritism shown in decisions to call them back to work. Workers like Jenks, a battery-filler, had problems with workload changes. Because she worked on the second shift, she also suffered occasional days off when the overseers gave a day’s work to the spare hands. Combined with the general increase in the pace of work and the requirements for workers to keep up production, Jenks concluded that the company had deliberately moved “away from their people.” Managers had grown so obsessed with “all these technical things” that they had forgotten “the human element.” Feeling abused and manipulated, women like Esther Jenks welcomed the opportunity to join an organization that offerred them a voice.86
The rise of the CIO, its presence in Durham’s textile worker communities, and its efforts to develop a new form of militant industrial unionism, widened existing cleavages in the AFL-affiliated TWIU. White activists, chafing under Evans’ heavy-handed, personalistic authority, resumed their campaign for union democracy. Durham leaders were attracted by the drama of the CIO-sponsored challenges to industrial giants and defended their textile colleagues against the purges the AFL demanded of all its affiliated bodies.87 Black workers, gradually learning about a labor movement that placed “social equality” on its agenda, began to question TWIU practices that catered to white prejudice.
Aware that a majority of his southern constituency was attracted to the “Lewis way of organizing,” Evans toyed briefly with bringing the TWIU into the CIO under John L. Lewis’s charismatic leadership.88 But fearing the loss of the union label, which AFL members honored, and possible raiding by the International Association of Machinists, who were pursuing machine fixers, Evans decided to stick with the AFL.
A series of letters between Evans and Durham correspondents suggested an additional motive for Evans’ decision: the greater racial egalitarianism promised by the CIO. Endorsing H. A. McCrimmon’s decision to prevent the former president of a black local from addressing a meeting because of his suspected radicalism, Evans gave McCrimmon the power “to make them do what they should do and never give them any free right to do as they think they should.”89 A month later, in June 1937, an exchange of letters with Sam Blane, a local leader, gave Evans the reassuring news that neither CIO nor “Communist” activity was brewing in Durham. Evans responded by launching an attack on “communistic-social equality” and accused the former leader of the black local of expounding that philosophy.90 Undoubtedly worried by the CIO’s support for successful campaigns among tobacco workers in Richmond, Evans continued to express suspicion of local black leaders in Durham while trying to prevent a white rank and file revolt.91 Responding to the competition from the CIO, local whites redoubled their efforts to organize black workers while steadfastly resisting “social equality.”92 For their part, black workers had several choices: they could accept the TWIU as it existed under Evans’ paternal dictatorship, forge an alliance with white activists to remove Evans from power, or pin their hopes on a distant CIO which, thanks to the local strength of the TWIU among white workers, never came into Durham in force. Workers like Oliver Harvey, who refused to abandon their belief that “’union’ means together,” stayed outside the labor movement that reached Durham in the 1930s.93 A two-sided struggle for control over the TWIU ensued between local rebels and the Evans clique.
The April 1939 strike against L and M, the first strike by tobacco workers in Durham history, occurred during the internal battle within the TWIU. Having formed connections with other white locals at L and M plants in Richmond and other cities, Local 176 broke with Evans’ conservative tradition by having “an honorable, peaceful strike” for a preferential shop. Local 208 took an active part in the work action, which succeeded in closing L and M factories across the nation. Lacking the exuberance of the 1934 textile strike, the TWIU locals picketed the closed plant for eleven days before the company capitulated to their demands.94 The new contract, signed in June 1939, informed employees that L and M preferred that they join the union and also established collective bargaining as a permanent fixture in company labor relations.95 This achievement, based on interracial cooperation between the two TWIU locals, strengthened the alliance between rank and file dissidents. A new generation appeared to have overcome the barriers to class-based unity that employers had depended upon to keep workers divided. Nervously, Evans and prescient employers like Kemp P. Lewis awaited the next stage in the creation of a united working class.96
For black women in the stemmery, the L and M strike served as another demonstration of their impotence, or, to the disaffected, the irrelevance of the union to their welfare. Active supporters of Local 194 excused the organization’s absence from the picket line, saying the local was “too weak” to strike. Chester Clarke, who believed that “times commenced getting a little better” after the union was organized, remembered the reasons other black workers didn’t join as readily as he did: “I joined when they commenced organizing. A whole lot didn’t join; they said the union wasn’t no good. They found out what was good . . . later after they got straightened out like they wanted! I mean the white folks and all joined . . . The white and colored went in then and he gave them that nickel raise.” Yet even Chester’s wife wasn’t convinced. Roxanne Clarke explained her decision to give up her job at L and M during the strike: “Then when they had the strike—we was in the union—they said that all them that went up and marched wouldn’t have their jobs back, so I went down to Robertson, at the factory down there, and worked. I said I wasn’t gonna march out there.” Later she regretted her decision (“I didn’t see into it like I do now”), but she never returned to L and M.97 Annie Mack Barbee’s version was much more cynical:
The black people had no choice when the white people closed down on their side . . . I don’t say that the black people did it ‘cause they didn’t have no voice, no how. And that was oneness. But they did it. I’ve said, as poor as black folks is, you know they won’t stay home. No, that was their bread . . . The white people did it . . . I guess they got what they wanted.98
Although many employees at L and M and American developed positive attitudes about the union, the deep-seated mistrust felt by many black women was an important factor in the union’s feeble beginning.
In fall 1939, the white locals and the black male leadership of Local 208 joined with other southern locals in forcing the TWIU to hold its first convention in over thirty years. The convention’s decision to sever the presidential office from the office of secretary and treasurer struck a blow at Evans’ monopoly of power.
The victory over L and M and Evans’ loss of two of his offices did little to ease the problems facing black stemmers. Locals 194 and 204 continued their uphill battle for survival. Now, as indicated by Daisy Jones in another letter pleading for a dispensation from dues payments, the local faced a massive threat to its existence. The tendency for the company to replace stemmers with machines had accelerated after the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. Writing to Evans, Jones reported:
L & M has and is still installing machinery that is taking the jobs from the workers and laying them off rapidly, sometimes as many as twenty-five in one day. For this reason everyone has become alarmed. They are watching to see just what will be best for them. The second reason: we have not been working but four days per week. That makes the money hard to get for dues or anything.99
The plight of the local was intensified by the terms of the contract negotiated by the TWIU for Local 194 in October 1939: these displaced workers enjoyed seniority rights only “among women by various occupations in the stemmery.”100 No matter how long they had worked for L and M, they could not bid for jobs held by black men in the stemmery, the cigarette department, or for jobs held by white workers in any of the departments. L and M proceeded to cut its stemmery labor force in half during the late 1930s unimpeded by the TWIU or the other locals who protected their positions in the factory hierarchy.
While black women were being “cut off” from their livelihood, white workers and their black allies were triumphing over Evans and the old guard.101 In late 1940 the coalition chased Evans from office altogether and placed a Louisville man in the presidency. Durham activists like Sam Blane assumed official positions as vice presidents and paid organizers. Roy Trice, the president of Local 208, narrowly lost the chance to join George Benjamin from Winston-Salem as the TWIU’s first black vice president.102
While Durham tobacco workers were celebrating victories and enduring layoffs, the torturous course of labor relations in West Durham continued. Frustrated by the stalemate in contract negotiations, Local 246, soon to be a local of the newly formed Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA), broke off negotiations for an indefinite period.103 Instead of attempting to negotiate, the local focused its energies on representing workers in meetings with management over shop-floor problems. Following company policy, however, supervisors listened to complaints but refused to yield on any issue. When a shop committee pressed a complaint from loom fixers concerned about the discharge of “a boy” from the third shift, the supervisor told the union representatives: “We always expected in the future to handle these things as we saw fit and we never expected to take these matters up with them as it was a matter entirely in our jurisdiction.”104
After the inclusive strike by about 250 employees in the sewing room, the Erwin management felt confident that the union represented “a few hotheaded and dissatisfied employees” rather than “the more substantial, the more intelligent, and the most highly respected and best paid type of our employees (many of our loom fixers, weavers, etc).”105 Accordingly, the management decided to implement the advice of Carl Harris to alter the workload assigned to loom fixers. Eliminating four of the fourteen loom fixers assigned to the weave room, the management told the disgruntled fixers that they could take a demotion to become weavers, be laid off if they felt too old, or be sent to overhaul looms. To emphasize their determination, an Erwin official told the loom fixers that the company contained an inventory sufficient to survive a strike.106 Similar complaints from women in the sewing and spinning departments about increased workloads, which “meant throwing some out of work,” received the same adamant response. The Erwin management had resolved to eliminate the irritation of constant discussions with discontented employees. The local, for its part, could not avoid the challenge posed by the company. Both sides geared up for a decisive battle.
On March 11, 1940, the loom fixers walked out. Fifty per cent of the Erwin employees from the No. 1 plant initially joined the striking fixers.107 Another half of the labor force tried to cross the picket lines to work and fights broke out. Esther Jenks and a non-striking employee were involved in one battle. As Jenks recalled the encounter: “In fact, this lady said I pulled her hair. She made the brag that her overseer would give her anything she wanted. She didn’t have to join the union. But I didn’t hear of her bragging after that. And, she joined the union, this girl did.”108 Arrested, Jenks appeared in court, where she was particularly angered by non-strikers who lied on the witness stand against their fellow workers. But the refusal to change company policy gradually wore down the strikers. By March 26, Lewis reported to one of the Carrs that the company was “running nearly all the machinery and [had] replaced a great many strikers.”109 Sensing victory, Lewis credited “our having proper police protection” for the company’s ability to “keep our gates open and gradually build back our operations until . . . the strikers voted to go back to work.” He wrote the governor of North Carolina on the day after the vote to applaud his stand that “people who want to work should be allowed to work.”110 Although he expressed regret that many strikers “had to lose their jobs,” a franker letter to an Erwin director claimed that the dismissal of some three hundred union supporters had cleared “the atmosphere” in West Durham for good. Confident that the union had now grown “very unpopular,” he planned to move in for the kill by calling for another election to recertify the union before resuming contract negotiations.111
The three hundred Erwin workers who had lost their jobs now faced their severest test. They were out of work and had suffered a resounding defeat. Eldred Jenks, who had not broken ranks because his daughters had threatened to kick him in the head if he did, soon returned to work as a warper because his skills were still in demand. The oldest Jenks sister also was called back to work, but Esther and her sister Ethel remained unemployed. Esther could find nothing for the next eleven months.112 Luther Riley was out of a job for six months and his brother Lester was out for a year. While their right to be rehired at Erwin Mills was being appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, the unemployed strikers “helped one another the best we could until we got us something to do.”113 Religious faith sustained women like Esther Jenks. Other workers found odd jobs.114 “Share and share alike,” the old motto of the family economy, offered the social security that workers could not find through their own efforts.115
Sure that he held the upper hand, Kemp P. Lewis tried to consolidate his gains. The TWUA counterattacked by charging that the strike concerned not only a change in work assignments but Erwin’s failure to bargain in good faith. Lewis insisted the company had always been willing to sign a contract if it contained a clause that the “union would not coerce or intimidate non-union” employees.116 He followed his attorney’s advice and refused to reinstate the dismissed employees, because to do so would risk a return to “union domination.”117 Pursuing the policy that had brought on the strike, the Erwin management proposed in July 1940 to install “the new work arrangement in No. 4 similar to the one . . . that caused the strike.” In the face of renewed employee protests, Lewis insisted that managers “do our duty.” He wrote to an Erwin director, “It would be fatal if it should get out that we are afraid to take action when the necessity arises.”118 When Local 246 began to press for negotiations in September 1940, Lewis replied that the company would insist on “a proviso in the contract that an election must be held, and that the fair way to vote would be for only those that worked to vote.” He also warned the union delegation that the company would not “stand for anything like insubordination or impudence or anything of that kind.” As he told W. R. Perkins, an Erwin director and former associate of the Dukes in the American Tobacco Company, “We are trying to hold a firm grip on the discipline of the mill.” Lewis’s optimism did not last. “A great many of those who are still unemployed because of the strike are very bitter,” he told Perkins six months later and assured him that he would be kept “advised of any developments.”119 Final victory seemed to be eluding his grasp.
Although the local lost some membership in the aftermath of the strike, the nucleus remained. The shop stewards and general shop committee representatives resumed the tedious battles with a recalcitrant management. Sending an experienced organizer into Durham in late 1940, the TWUA launched a new membership drive in the Erwin chain.120 The union also won its appeal before the NLRB; the board held that the fired workers deserved reinstatement. Esther Jenks and the other union stalwarts finally returned to work, living testimony to persistence and federal support for the union position. Bitter feelings lingered. Jenks and other union supporters ostracized those who had betrayed their fellows. When a woman who had given false testimony against a striker reproached Jenks, she exploded: “I’m going to tell you exactly how I feel about you. If you get on that stand and swear a lie against one of my fellow workers, you’ll lie on me. I don’t want no part of you.”121 Aided by workers’ renewed anger over changes in work assignments and by the favorable decision of the NLRB, Jenks and her allies brought more workers back into the local. When the National Defense Mediation Board ruled in March 1941, one year after the strike, that Erwin Mills must sign a contract with Local 246 in order to sell cloth to the military, the workers who had borne the costs of the strike savored the moment of victory.122
▪ As the preparations for war created a new climate for labor relations, the women who had embraced labor activism could enjoy the fruits of their efforts. A favorable conjuncture of people and events had transformed Durham into the best organized city in the state. Although women never assumed leadership roles in union activities, their participation, given their numbers, was crucial to success. They served as shop stewards, corresponding secretaries, financial secretaries, and the like, and generally the men in the unions recognized their contributions.
Decades later, many women still spoke proudly about their activities. They mentioned the tangible benefits that had been achieved—seniority, pensions, improved wages, job security—and also the intangible rewards of greater dignity, respect, and the right to a “say-so” about work conditions. Esther Jenks described her union as a “basic freedom.” Dena Coley mentioned increased salaries, access to “different kinds of jobs,” and seniority, she added, “We had to come so far.” Pearl Barbee declared that “the union did a lot” for her by forcing L and M to allow her to sit down after she got too sick to stand. Joe Daniels remembered that “all of us pulled up together, white and colored. One didn’t get more than the other.” Horace Mize revelled in his old comradeship with Sam Blane; the two had traveled through Durham neighborhoods inviting black workers to join the union. Rachel Medlin exuded pride in her years as a union officer. Ada Scoggins claimed that the “union made a whole lot of difference. You could get better satisfaction. If a thing went wrong, you could tell your head official and he’d straighten it out.”123 These survivors of a harsher time relished the power that came from having a voice in their working conditions.
The shift in the balance of power between employers and workers was reflected in the political system. An alliance of trade unionists, the liberal professional middle class, and the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs wrested control of local government from the old conservative coalition of manufacturers and their business allies. The Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, once the exclusive domain of the black business elite, welcomed black labor leaders to active membership. A labor paper bound the new working-class constituency together while promoting the liberal political program favored by the national labor movement. The Durham Labor News and the CIO-affiliated Industrial Union Council supported civil rights legislation being debated in Congress. Education sponsored by the TWUA locals taught workers to extend their vision of their rights to include political activity and support for pro-labor candidates.124 When a new generation of Second World War veterans assumed leadership of the local labor unions, they found that Durham’s labor, racial, and liberal coalition offered a unique environment. Wilbur Hobby rose from the Local 183 to become a prominent leader at the state level. When younger blacks took control of Local 208, they began to press their demands for equal treatment in the union and in the larger society. Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka seemed to create the momentum for a great transformation similar to the passage of the NRA thirty years before.
The urban contours of Durham offered visible evidence of the shifting balance of economic and political power. The Erwin mill village was an early casualty. No longer willing to subsidize housing for ungrateful employees, Erwin Mills began to sell its houses in the 1940s. Esther Jenks, aided by her sisters, became the owner of a home in West Durham. Some houses were sold to buyers who didn’t work in the mills—to the distress of Bessie Buchanan, who missed the old, homogeneous community. Tobacco workers, black and white, acquired automobiles and took advantage of postwar housing policies to purchase homes far from their workplace. Conversely, the decaying mill villages in East Durham became slums surrounding abandoned mills. Only Golden Belt survived in that section of Durham. Pearl Mill and its village gave way to an apartment complex that retained only the mill tower to mark its former identity. Other apartments, single family houses, and duplexes disrupted the former coherence of industrial neighborhoods. Some disappeared altogether. Urban renewal, roadbuilding, and the expansion of Duke University and its medical complex eliminated Monkey Bottoms, Buggy Bottom, a major section of Hayti, and parts of West Durham. As working-class communities surrendered their territorial integrity, many of their inhabitants moved into segregated suburbs. Unlike the railroad that had attracted people and industry to Durham, the new roads encouraged the population to drift away from the city’s industrial heart. Apparently Durham’s organized working class had realized its share of the American dream. The industrial city dissolved into the endless suburbs of the post-war South.125
Yet a person seeking former industrial workers to interview quickly discovers that not all are living in ranch-style houses or refurbished mill tenements. Interviews confirmed that not everyone had shared in the prosperity. The same interviews also elicited some criticism and indifference toward union achievements. Black workers and some of the older textile workers were more likely to express dissatisfaction, while white tobacco workers and younger textile workers were more positive. Ella Faucette, an ardent early supporter of Local 204, remarked, “It was unfair” that “black jobs never did come up to the white.”126 Pearl Barbee mentioned that she had been “cut off” like other black women. Oscar Scoggins, referring to his aunt Ada and other black women, spoke bitterly about the policies that displaced so many black workers from the industry. When asked what happened to the women “cut off” he answered, “Nothing, except die.”127 His aunt, however, returned to domestic service. Other women joined the public form of that occupation by entering the dormitories and endless corridors of the university they called Duke’s. Annie Mack Barbee spoke more caustically about the union. She recalled a female shop steward’s intervention in a dispute between a black worker and the foreman who had called him “boy.” After the steward prevented the angry worker from throwing the supervisor out the four-story window, the worker cursed her and the “union mess” that offered him no support in his battle to be addressed by name. Barbee clearly endorsed his sentiments. She also remembered her last day of work at L and M:
The very day we quit working up there, here come the machines . . . Here come the machines and the white man was up there putting up signs for the bathrooms—“White Only.” That’s up there at Liggett and Myers. So the white women went up there and they didn’t need to put no signs . . . I didn’t get anything from Liggett and Myers . . . The mass of black women didn’t get a whole lot of nothing from them.128
By implication, her indictment encompassed both union and company. Neither had opened new areas of the factory to displaced black women, despite their seniority. Both Theotis Williamson and Bessie Buchanan agreed that work had been easier and community life better in the old pre-union days. When asked whether the union had brought improvements to West Durham, Buchanan replied: “Not a bit in the world. In my opinion, it made it harder and harder. Now they have upped the wages a lot, but it’s killing the people. So what has been gained by it?”129 Other retired textile, hosiery, and tobacco workers, clustered in the subsidized housing that Durham offered its impoverished elderly poor, were clear evidence that the benefits of unionization had not lifted everyone out of poverty.
Interviews with the men who had led Durham’s unions offered some clues to the mixed reviews. Wilbur Hobby, a product of Edgemont, the Second World War, and Local 183, spoke about the impact of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision on the labor-liberal-black alliance in Durham. Heightened racial tensions had split the alliance, allowing conservative whites to regain control. These tensions, moreover, had weakened the tobacco worker unions; some whites joined the Klan and some blacks became civil rights activists.130 The internal dissention made it extremely unlikely that white tobacco workers would open their positions to displaced blacks. Oscar Scoggins felt that the union and ultimately the federal government had betrayed black workers. The union had allowed the dismissal of most black workers, so that a majority in the 1930s became a minority in the 1950s. Beginning in the late 1940s, Local 208 had pressed for equal treatment from the union. Their lawyer in the 1960s, Floyd McKissick, spoke in their name: “We want a chance to get any job that we have laid down our blood and guts all through these years and inhaled all of that tobacco dust down there.”131 Yet in 1964 the federal government combined forces with the TWIU and L and M and required a merger between black and white workers. There had been little pressure for integration until the blacks were effectively outnumbered. Some members left the TWIU after that defeat in the courts, and its memory still rankled them decades later.
Another former union official spoke about the fratricidal conflict that had engulfed the TWUA after its failures to continue the southern offensive. A walkout at the 1952 TWUA Convention had led the Durham local to become affiliated with the remnants of the UTW. Other battles against “red hots,” or radicals, who attempted to move the union leftward also left their marks in suspicious attitudes toward outsiders.132 By the 1960s, the Burlington chain had accepted the Durham local into its mostly non-union plants because the union posed little risk. Its isolation and inward-looking character displayed little potential for a membership drive in the rest of the Burlington empire. Although veterans remained loyal to the union, its spirit had aged with its membership.
Some problems were beyond the ability of union or membership to overcome. The national drift toward conservatism after the Second World War, anti-union legislation like Taft-Hartley, and the decline in union militancy were felt with special force in the South, always the weakest area for the movement. The decline of some local companies, particularly textiles, and L and M, decreased the demand for labor, thus undermining labor’s bargaining position. Durham, like the nation itself, was shifting from industry toward service. Duke University and the health industry replaced manufacturing as the major employer in Durham, thereby creating a two-tiered labor force of low-waged custodial and cafeteria workers and high-salaried professionals. The dispersal of workers during the Second World War was accentuated by the post-war dissolution of the working-class communities.133 Resembling the rest of the nation, Durham’s decline as an industrial center after 1940 was a major factor in undermining the power of organized labor.
Labor’s successes came at a particular historical conjuncture when the nation had lost faith in its business elite and the federal government smiled on the industrial working class. The movement lost its vitality when that moment passed. The civil rights and the feminist movements stirred after the labor movement had begun its retreat. The ideologies of these three movements, unfortunately, never merged into a single coherent vision. Lacking a feminist analysis, the unions never fully mobilized their female constitutents. Warning restless black members against creating a “division between black and white,” the unions achieved a partial solidarity that denied racial antagonisms instead of dealing with them.134 Similarly, the civil rights movements’ insistence on the primacy of racial injustice masked gender and class conflicts within the black community. Each movement might have benefited from the insights of the others.135 The working-class women of Durham thus lost an opportunity to hear challenges to pervasive assumptions about women’s place and work.
The comments of Durham workers must be seen in a particular perspective. These workers, after all, belonged to the most successful unions in the state. Durham’s white tobacco unions were the most active in the TWIU and the most earnest in their efforts to enlist black workers. Together with the CIO-affiliated unions in Richmond and Winston-Salem, the TWIU transformed the tobacco industry into the most unionized sector in the South.136 Similarly, compared with the difficulties experienced elsewhere by union organizers in textiles, Durham was a rare success story. Durham unions survived in both industries from the peak of labor militancy in the 1930s and 1940s through the decline in the post-war period. Still, the victories were flawed by the stubborn persistence of racial conflicts and gender inequalities. Annie Mack Barbee’s sarcastic reference to “oneness” on white terms was echoed in Ozzie Richmond’s assessment of the TWIU’s record after the 1939 victory at L and M: “It kept on going the same when the union came in. I think because the majority of the whites seek to overrule the black. It stayed that way. Some on the committees would say they weren’t going to let those blacks take white folks’ jobs.”137
Most white tobacco workers believed that blacks had received their just rewards. Rose Weeks insisted that blacks “had no desire to run that machinery after civil rights,” despite black agitation.138 Martha Harris had worked for decades in rigid separation from blacks. She responded to the changes that brought blacks into all parts of the factory by avoiding any return visits. She also opposed the practice of women taking “men’s jobs.”139 The former president and one of the organizers of Local 176 blamed declining productivity and workmanship on equal opportunity legislation:
To keep women on the job, management relinquished certain requirements . . . and it has a tendency to bring down the overall efficiency . . . Whenever you’re paying two people identical and one is less efficient than the other, it’s easier for the one who’s more efficient to fall down. It takes a strong person to say that I’m going to do a good job. Now this doesn’t just apply to the sexes. It relates more clearly to the color line. We find that, in most instances, due to integration, that quality has diminished a great deal.
His belief that only white men were “strong” and “efficient” enough “to do a good job” revealed the divided loyalties of a privileged white worker who identified with the company at the same time as he spoke for the workers.140 Although a few white workers welcomed the movement of blacks into better jobs, most regretted the passing of a time when everyone knew their “place” and kept to it.
As their comments make clear, class solidarity for the vast majority of tobacco workers was subordinate to caste solidarity. Yet the overwhelming significance of race must not obscure evidence of everything else. Even as junior partners, black leaders felt that they were making gains for their people. They viewed their union with pride and were willing to fight for it against the more radical CIO-affiliate.141 Indeed, their bitterest statements concerned their forced integration with a white-controlled local, not their struggles during the segregated years. Similarly, the competing claims of class and race must not obscure the issue of gender. The leadership in the locals and the partnerships between local leaders involved black and white men. The same local of black male workers that broke away from the stemmers in the late 1930s to forge an alliance with the white L and M local served to champion the interests of black workers in the post-war decades. Male bonding and male jousting set the tone of the new relationship. Women, however, remained isolated from one another and from power on either side of the color line. The balance of power began to shift visibly between the classes and the races, but sexual politics showed almost no change.
The flaws that undermined support for unions among Durham’s textile workers are also easy to identify. The very process that sparked the union, the “stretch-out,” continued despite the union’s presence. Indeed, Bessie Buchanan accused the union of major responsibility for the faster pace of work that was “killing the people.”142 Control over the workplace remained firmly in management’s hands while Durham unions concentrated on bargaining for better wages and benefits. The passage of a “right to work” law contributed to the weakening of the union. Now workers no longer had to belong in order to gain union representation. As the TWUA gave way to the revived UTW, the weaknesses in the union became more evident. When the movement for workers’ health gained momentum in the 1970s, the Durham local remained on the sidelines of activity sponsored by the successor to the TWUA, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. Although the Durham local clung to life as other locals disappeared, it was only a ghost of its once vibrant self.
The historical legacy of the Durham unions, then, is a mixture of achievements and setbacks, a record that gives credibility to both their supporters and their detractors. The achievements of individual workers, on the other hand, deserve a more positive assessment. The desperate rural refugees who trekked into Durham made considerable progress in only a few decades. They had been set to work in a divided work place and molded into a segmented labor force. Domestic labor and childcare, more segregated and isolated than labor in the factory, tied the family’s female members to their households. Economic exploitation also encouraged women’s dependence on male breadwinners. Already divided into antagonistic racial groups, they colluded in their own fragmentation; even so, they managed to overcome some of the distance between black and white. And as one generation succeeded the other, the working-class communities matured. The typical female industrial worker shifted from a young unmarried woman to a married woman who perceived herself as part of a permanent wage-earning class. Greater commitment to improving job conditions underlay a willingness to ally with the other racial group. Married women in the Erwin sewing room led the walkouts that forced managers to consider their needs. Without their female membership, neither the TWUA nor the TWIU could have established a foothold in Durham.
▪ Let us briefly consider women apart from their identity as workers and union members. Such an approach is essential, because working-class history all too unwittingly adopts a male-defined measure by which women are found wanting. The question is often posed: Why are women so hard to organize? But if we adopt a perspective that allows for women’s needs, the question becomes: Why are class issues defined in male terms? And more specifically: Why are unions irrelevant to so much of women’s lives? Recast in this form, the answers come more easily. Unions almost never link the personal and the political, the private and the public work places. Instead, they accept the conventional definition of work, politics, economics, and organization. A union becomes a formal, bureaucratic structure, an instrument for collective bargaining, an organization apart from daily life. This narrow vision essentially ignores the validity of other important community institutions, such as church, school, and household. Shallow-rooted in the workers’ communities because of estrangement from the churches, the unions survived but did not flourish among women, the most attentive and ardent churchgoers. Without proper nourishment, the union as a living entity wilted in the long southern summers. Its narrow definition of class, which did not incorporate an understanding of culture and community, left the movement vulnerable when its opponents mustered their forces against it.
Women can never be wholehearted participants in a movement premised on their continued exploitation. A “movement culture” (to borrow a phrase from Lawrence Goodwyn) must infuse new, egalitarian values and ways of seeing to replace the hierarchical patterns imposed by the dominant culture. Men must yield control over women’s reproductive capacities, labor, and persons. Releasing black women’s potential, moreover, requires a reformation in racial as well as sexual attitudes. Rather than accepting racial and sexual hierarchies as natural or God-ordained, women and men must recognize them as flawed social conditions that can be changed.
No cultural transformation of major proportions took place in Durham. The legacy of the past, the constrictions of the present, and the limited vision of the movement that recruited Durham workers into formal bargaining with their employers offered only reform. The timid TWIU accommodated itself to the prejudices of its white members and sacrificed its black female constitutency. The more daring TWUA faltered before it could welcome black workers into its midst. Black and white women—“sisters under their skins”—never fully realized their kinship in a society where skin color blinded them to their common interests.
Measured against what might have been, the journey into Durham factories and urban households fell short. But if women’s subordinate position, as many theorists argue, is a result of their primary responsibility for household labor and childcare, then Durham women steadily gained greater freedom. Almost entirely unpaid in the countryside, they now claimed a share of society’s resources through wage-earning. Formerly isolated in rural homesteads, they now enjoyed daily social contact in the workplace and the surrounding community. Once politically disfranchised, they had become active in the public realm of shop-floor, church, community, and city-wide politics. Through their own efforts, aided by federal legislation and the power of their unions, they achieved a living wage by the 1940s. Families headed by women, despite their limited resources, could more readily survive in the city than the country. They had demonstrated their ability to organize in the church, the community, and the work place, and had gained a precious sense of their own power and entitlements. Their pride in having survived the hard times and tribulations was well deserved. With gritty determination, they had done “women’s work” and “men’s work” for women’s wages. They had arrived at a better place.