The “Holy Crusade”
The specific strategy behind the deployment of CIO organizers across the South in May 1946 reflected a high-level CIO decision to create a tightly centralized operation, firmly under the personal control of the campaign’s director, Van A. Bittner. The jurisdictional problems inherent in a multi-union drive received a simple, straightforward solution: the CIO Southern Organizing Committee’s (SOC) Atlanta office would decide after a successful organizing campaign which international union would inherit jurisdiction over the new CIO members. The assignment of organizers to states and, at the outset, even to regions of states was similarly centralized in the Atlanta SOC office. The initiation fees to be collected with each signed union card would be sent to Atlanta; all petitions for NLRB elections would also be forwarded there; and finally, all state directors would report directly to Bittner, separate from any contact with their own internationals. To emphasize the subordinate role of everyone to Atlanta—and to stress, as well, the priority of organizing over political activity—Bittner instructed all state directors to resign from any CIO Political Action Committee to which they might belong. The Southern Organizing Committee, radiating out of Atlanta, was to be a tightly knit, scalpel-clean force of trade union activists, stripped of any preoccupations that did not directly coincide with the task of organizing the unorganized. It was to be a “no frills campaign.”1
Bittner, a veteran of the United Mine Workers, had been appointed to head the Southern campaign by CIO President Philip Murray one month earlier. Murray had also chosen George Baldanzi as deputy director of the drive. As it turned out, Bittner served Operation Dixie essentially as a civil servant carrying out the strategic wishes of Philip Murray and the CIO Executive Board. Actual direction of the campaign was in the hands of the more energetic Baldanzi. Bittner could perhaps fairly be characterized as something more of a trade union functionary than a labor activist.2 Throughout 1946, he was to spend much of his time in Washington and New York. While in the Atlanta headquarters of Operation Dixie, he seemed content to push paper. George Baldanzi ran Operation Dixie.
There was an unassailable logic behind Baldanzi’s appointment. From his work in the Dyers’ Federation and the TWUA, he was familiar with the many branches of the textile industry. He had also witnessed the deterioration of the New England textile industry, the union’s original base, and had organized Southern textile workers during the war, including the victory at the Dan River and Riverside cotton mills in Danville, Virginia, in 1942.3
Among other key appointments for Operation Dixie were the men assigned as state directors. In the six textile states, Baldanzi named men who, in the aggregate, constituted an interesting cross section of the labor movement. Named as South Carolina state director was Franz Daniel, a college-trained “labor intellectual” who was experienced, personally engaging, and quite capable. Daniel’s counterpart in North Carolina was William Smith. He coupled a courteous demeanor with a quiet passion to organize the textile industry. Tennessee’s Paul Christopher was a social democrat, with associations that placed him a bit to the left of most textile organizers. More than most of the state directors in Operation Dixie, Christopher could work easily with both ideological wings of the CIO. The Alabama state director, Carey Haigler, was more attuned to Washington than to the Southern rank and file, and was notably cautious on the race issue. Virginia’s Ernest Pugh was remembered for his caution, and Charles Gillman, the Georgia state director, was recalled as an unprepossessing and earnest man who had something of the solid citizen about him.4
The state directors set up state offices across the South in May and began assembling the diverse assortment of incoming organizers—representing scores of different international unions—into something approximating working teams. Aware of the Southern habit of reflexive hostility to “outside agitators,” Baldanzi decreed that Operation Dixie would be staffed largely by Southerners and, if possible, veterans of World War II. Internationals were so instructed in advance. As a result of his wartime organizing experiences in the South, Baldanzi wished to insulate Operation Dixie as much as possible from any charge that the CIO was radical, un-American, or alien to the Southern way of life.
Like Bittner and TWUA generally, Baldanzi was safely insulated from the CIO’s left wing and was, presumably, invulnerable to red-baiting—a charge that was almost certain to be leveled at any CIO campaign. In the case of Operation Dixie, however, that accusation came even more quickly than anyone had expected, and from a quarter that was close to home. The assignment of state directors and organizing teams was overshadowed in the public press by the reappearance of George Googe, the AFL’s Southern representative, who reminded Southern newspaper editors of the red threat represented by Operation Dixie. The CIO’s effort, he said, was in the hands of “broken down left-wingers.” Indeed the AFL went beyond press announcements. Alarmed by Operation Dixie, the AFL convened no fewer than 3,300 delegates from twelve Southern states to launch its own Southern campaign in May 1946. AFL president William Green sounded the tone that would dominate much of AFL rhetoric throughout the life of Operation Dixie: “Neither reactionary employers nor Communists in the CIO can stop the campaign of the American Federation of Labor to enroll 1,000,000 unorganized Southern workers in the next twelve months.” Green advised Southern industrialists: “Grow and cooperate with us or fight for your life against Communist forces.”5
between an organization of trade unions and trade unionists who have never swerved for single minute from the principle laid down long ago by Sam Gompers—the principle that you cannot be a good union man unless you are first a good American—and an organization that has openly followed the communist line and is following that line today.6
Thus, one of Bittner and Baldanzi’s first tasks in Operation Dixie was to defend the CIO’s Southern drive against attacks from the AFL.7 While buttressing its position against the AFL’s charges, the SOC worked on refining its organizing strategy. Operation Dixie was to reflect the 1930s organizing model used by the CIO: the largest industries were to be targeted first, and the “toughest customers” in the largest industries were to receive the initial brunt of the organizing assault. The priorities arranged themselves within these premises. Concentration was to focus on textile country—ranging from Virginia through the Carolina piedmont to the outer fringes of the industry in Georgia and Alabama. The top priority would go to North Carolina, where fully one-third of all textile workers in the South resided. Within that state, the bellwether textile chain was Cannon; and within the Cannon empire’s central complex—where 24,000 men and women labored—was the sprawling, deeply paternalistic company town of Kannapolis.8
In targeting places like Kannapolis, the CIO strategy centered on winning a symbolic victory, one not unlike the sensational 1937 triumph over General Motors at Flint, Michigan. The object was to create a transforming moment that would sweep away fear and mobilize a flood of Southerners into the CIO in much the same way that the epic victory over General Motors had given the CIO an overnight national presence.9
The CIO’s strategy did not revolve around Kannapolis alone, of course. Other flagships of the textile industry were also due for a reckoning: Burlington, Cone, Deering-Milliken, Bibb, all anchored in the greater piedmont, plus the massive Avondale Mills in Alabama. Nor was Operation Dixie to be solely a textile campaign. Other industries featured bellwether plants, too, each possessing both real and symbolic meaning. The enormous atomic center built in wartime at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, attracted the attention of the Atomic Workers Organizing Committee. The United Furniture Workers focused on such industry leaders as the Doak Finch plant at Thomasville, North Carolina, while the Oil Workers International Union, nurturing the breakthroughs in petrochemicals at Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Houston, targeted the entire upper Texas Gulf Coast. All fitted within the CIO’S circumference of priorities.10
Brave pronouncements in the public press notwithstanding, the CIO’s resources paled when measured against such a grand agenda. A million-dollar budget and a cadre of 250 organizers sounded impressive, but the geographical dimensions of the South were impressive as well. More than 1,500 miles separated the mills of Virginia from the El Paso mines along the Rio Grande River in Texas. Upon inspection, the seemingly robust figure of 250 organizers translated into little more than twenty per state in the twelve-state region the CIO had outlined. In North Carolina, for example, Kannapolis alone swallowed up an organizing team of ten people.11 Slightly lesser numbers—from six to eight—dispatched to other top-priority targets routinely consumed half the entire quota assigned to an embattled state director. In addition, the cost of underwriting 250 organizers represented a huge drain on a national CIO organization that faced an aggressive postwar business community throughout the Northeastern and Midwestern industrial heartland. The monthly checks sent South would become increasingly burdensome to union treasuries, depleted as they were by struggles close to home. The Dixie organizers would have to move quickly, and attain success quickly.
This, it turned out, did not happen.
The CIO discovered that it was going to take time to get started. On paper, a half dozen or so organizers constituted a “team.” But in reality, the Dixie staff straggled in one at a time from a score of internationals, each bringing different organizing philosophies, experiences, and apprehensions. Indeed, for some weeks, it was not at all certain that all participating internationals would follow through on their pledges. The discovery of Bittner’s intention to exercise iron control over jurisdiction alarmed the CIO’s left-wing unions. This fear was intensified by Bittner’s clearly expressed hostility toward Communists and toward political activity among organizers in general. Even with politics and ideology aside, the jurisdictional tangles were real enough.
As the Southern effort opened, the left-wing Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers union (FTA) organized a conclave at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee to review the entire issue of participation in Operation Dixie, a meeting that brought the contradictions within the CIO, and within the CIO’s left, into full view. Organizing the South was an old dream of labor radicals. In places like Gastonia, North Carolina, and Harlan County, Kentucky, they suffered great losses in premature efforts to realize the dream. Radical support for the idea of Operation Dixie was therefore beyond question; but Bittner’s terms, which were, of course, Philip Murray’s terms and those of the majority of the CIO General Executive Board, could be taken as an implicit attack on the left. The FTA wrestled with such questions at the Highlander meeting, amid genuine anxiety, and eventually decided to participate in the campaign. However, the issues of which new members were to go to which international, and which organizers were to be assigned where, haunted Operation Dixie throughout its life. The immediate effect was to complicate the initial task of assigning, briefing, and assembling the scores of two- to ten-person teams that fanned out across the South in early June 1946.12
Other institutional considerations, less threatening in the long run but no less complicating in the near term, burdened Bittner, Baldanzi, and their state directors. Some fifty organizers within the initially available pool were “on loan” and remained on the payroll of their internationals. The Bittner-Baldanzi emphasis on textiles routinely resulted in the assignment of a number of organizers to textile plants who had little experience for the task. They were not familiar with the shop floor work practices in the industry’s various branches and thus did not instantly understand the subtleties of the grievances of textile workers. This meant, quite simply, that they did not know how to exploit such grievances and use them as organizing aids. Indeed, their lack of familiarity with textile production processes undermined their credibility with rank-and-file mill workers, who quite naturally wanted to feel they were associating with organizers experienced in the industry and with relevant management practices. The simple fact of the matter was that a veteran with unimpeachable credentials as a successful organizer in steel might well be a flop with textile workers. Operation Dixie, then, got underway amidst a certain amount of administrative confusion, false starts, staff animosities, and personnel reshufflings that extended into the early summer.13
One early source of trouble betrayed a deeper difficulty, existing below the level of staff relations with Atlanta—namely, the relations of the staff with rank-and-file workers. The question concerned a matter of seemingly mundane simplicity—the collection of initiation fees from newly signed workers, a fee from which only military veterans were to be exempted. This matter, an absolutely elementary component of the organizing process, was to be handled in an understandably routine manner: workers signed a union card and paid a $1.00 initiation fee as evidence of their commitment to the union. Each week, field staff counted up all signed cards and sent in a comparable amount of money, with the noted exemption for veterans. In June, the first reports began to trickle in from the field staff, but the accompanying sums of money fell far short of the numerical totals reported; it was, it turned out, often difficult enough to sign workers without asking for money at the same time. Bittner ordered his state directors to look into the matter and a flood of correspondence ensued, as organizers on the front lines generated elaborate explanations as to why fees were not being collected.14
As every veteran labor organizer knew, the key component in winning over the majority of workers in all but the smallest plants revolved around the formation of an “in-plant committee” (or workers normally selected from among the earliest rank-and-file union advocates) that could carry the union’s story to the far corners of the workplace. Organizers could leaflet plant gates, distribute literature, conduct house-to-house canvasses, hold innumerable meetings at all hours of the day and night, and prior to elections even bring out the sound trucks; but only rank-and-file workers could carry the message inside the plant. Outcomes of organizing campaigns turned on the judicious recruitment of this core group of new union members. Their quality was measured by their determination, their prestige among the other workers, energy, and—routinely in the South—their willingness to risk being fired for union activity.
The recruitment of this core group went slowly in Operation Dixie. Some organizers blamed the weather for the slow development of in-plant committees,15 while others focused on police hostility,16 the opposition of ministers,17 the public pronouncements of elected officials,18 the harshness of company policies that intimidated workers,19 the graciousness of company policies that made workers grateful,20 or the Machiavellian nature of companies that were capable of both.21 As might be expected, recruitment in company towns was considered by organizers to be difficult, but the opposite was also pronounced to be true: workers who were more scattered were also hard to organize.22 Overall, the field staff of Operation Dixie had begun to encounter unexpected difficulty in enlisting the pivotal hard core of in-plant advocates. To encourage workers to come along, some organizers simply obtained signed cards without asking for the fees. In sum, the initial evidence from the field in the early summer of 1946 indicated that the World War II years had not quite broadened Southern attitudes toward unions as much as the planners of Operation Dixie had hoped. The South was going to be hard for the CIO to crack.
No one, whether in the field or in the leadership, said as much publicly. Bittner instructed his state directors to issue strict orders that the initiation fee must be collected. Indeed, fee collecting had been so inconsistent that it clouded subsequent decisions as to when NLRB elections should be petitioned for; the card count in otherwise promising plans was often large but unreliable because workers had not been forced to commit themselves by handing over the one dollar fee when they signed their union cards. As a result of election defeats in plants where a large number of workers had signed union cards, Bittner also issued instructions that no NLRB elections were to be petitioned for without his permission. “The first job to be done,” he said, “is to set up active, operating committees inside of the plant with special emphasis placed on Veterans committees.”23 In one sense, administrative fumblings in June may be seen—and certainly were seen at the time—merely as “bugs” that had to be worked out of the system. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that more was required here than a simple case of fine-tuning. As June turned into July, reports could no longer reasonably focus on the routine chores of field staffers establishing a base, renting an office, “getting the lay of the land,” or in the doubly hesitant phrase of one of them, “making preliminary initial contacts.” Dixie required numbers verified by accompanying initiation fees, and it became evident in July that the numbers were not there.24
Organizing, like any kind of selling, requires good morale. Bad news cannot merely exist; it must be explained away. Field reports across the South began to take on some of the elements of an art form. In their efforts to keep going, organizers unearthed a myriad of signs that they took as indications of progress, signs upon which they relied to such an extent that a special language, even a shorthand, grew up to describe them. “Committee No. 1 is functioning but had no new applications as of today,” reported a summary account from Kannapolis. Indeed, the details were more sobering than the summary: Committee No. 1 met “with hardly any attendance.” There was not much need, under the circumstances, to report the activities of Committee No. 2, as such a thing clearly did not exist.
As Operation Dixie moved to a new plateau of anxiety, the artistry of report-writing consisted of finding new ways to explain away the absence of signed cards: “No members signed up. Strictly leg work.” Vagueness on numbers was one solution: “That place is moving a little slow, but we are still signing up a few each week.” But an even better solution lay in discussing other matters: “Gained some good leads and made some progress on build-up.” “Things at Firestone seem to be shaping up right nice.” “I would call it a good day as reactions are favorable.”25
New terminology appeared. Organizers began to refer to the “throw-down rate” for leaflets they passed out to workers at plant gates. Thus a low “throw-down rate” became a major item in organizers’ reports in textile country where concrete numbers could not be produced. A Virginia organizer passed out 500 leaflets “with less than ten thrown down.” The technique could be extended to house-to-house distributions of labor newspapers: “Bill and Red passed out the paper to the homes today and out of some 950 homes only two refused to take the paper.” In such ways did Dixie organizers fill up the pages of the reports demanded of them, the absence of bad news inexorably becoming good news.26
The chief instrument in the service of morale was not the coinage of new phrases about “throw-down rates,” but rather sheer narrative skill as a complementary aid to their commitment to keep going under the pressure of intense opposition. The Alabama State Director for the Textile Workers Union of America, Edmund Ryan, head of a staff concentrating on textile organizing, hit a brick wall early. He made no reports for seven weeks and then managed deft distinctions in emphasis to different constituencies. To his own international’s president in New York, he reported, “Our membership gains in textiles still remain about the same as previously. In other words, we are holding our own.” Ryan followed the next day with a report to the Atlanta headquarters of Operation Dixie in which he basically tried to change the subject: “The relative slowness of the drive in textiles in Alabama does not reflect the success of the drive as a whole in the state. Tremendous victories have been won in wood, steel, and auto.”27 Buried in the reports of the state directors in the heartland of the textile industry was the awkward, almost unacknowledgeable lack of progress at the region’s largest mills. Avondale in Alabama, and Cannon and Burlington in North Carolina, all seemed to remain inpregnable. If Ryan showed verbal skill in Alabama, Dean Culver, the staff director at Cannon, demonstrated a mastery of the evolving style: “Membership returns the past week will reflect the fact that much time has been spent by the organizers in developing and attempting to develop active committees among those already signed up rather than concerted signing by organizers.”28
There was not yet reason for general disappointment, however. Some good news did materialize. Aside from textiles, in smaller plants across the region CIO organizers began to sign enough recruits to warrant NLRB elections. And the CIO began to win most of them. After six weeks of concentrated effort, Bittner finally had a story to tell that was sufficiently promising to pass along to the editors of the CIO News in Washington. The Southern Organizing Committee announced its first twenty-five victories on July 8. Two weeks later, Bittner was able to report to the CIO General Executive Board in Washington that the victory total had risen to thirty-six. Putting the best face on events, as his own organizers had done in reporting to him, Bittner struck a heartily optimistic pose. He focused on percentages rather than on aggregate numbers. The thirty-six victories in forty elections constituted “top-flight batting in any man’s league.” Stretching the evidence a bit, he added, “The program to date has been much faster than we anticipated.” But lest any of his audience conclude that Operation Dixie had begun to resemble the great CIO organizing sweep of the late 1930s, he added, “Let’s not kid ourselves. None of our organizers have been killed by a mob of people rushing in to sign membership cards.”29
Bittner’s positive assessment received wide play in the commercial as well as the labor press; left unspecified was the nature of the victories. Most came in tobacco, or in Southern branches of highly organized Northern industries—among auto, steel, oil, and packinghouse workers. Organizers in lumber, furniture, paper, pulp, and woodworking were struggling in a half-dozen states. And wood and wood products represented, with textiles, the heart of the CIO’s organizing challenge.30
Above all else, however, loomed the problem in textiles. The victories there stood at exactly one—at the Borden Manufacturing Company, a 700-employee plant in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Unfortunately, Borden’s significance as an indicator of the start of a trend was marred by the fact that it had been organized before, by the AFL, and thus did not qualify as the sought-after breakthrough.
What Bittner, his roving textile ambassador at large, George Baldanzi, and the key Dixie state directors all knew was that the first big test in textiles would come in August. All eyes focused on three North Carolina mills scheduled for NLRB elections in the first half of the month. The first skirmish was to come on August 6 at Caramount, North Carolina, home of the Sidney Blumenthal Company, a mill employing 500 workers. Two days later, the 460 employees of the Pee Dee Manufacturing Company were to vote in Rockingham, North Carolina, followed the next day by the 650 workers at the Hannah Pickett Mills in the same city. In no sense could these three modest mills be viewed in the same class as the sprawling Cannon empire, or Burlington, Avondale, Milliken-Deering, and the other giants of the Southern textile industry. These small plants were, nevertheless, psychologically crucial for the Dixie staff and for the mass of nearby piedmont textile workers who—all knew—would be watching.31
On August 6, the TWUA culminated its campaign with an election day mailing to every employee. It betrayed, perhaps a bit more starkly than the organizers knew, the importance they placed upon the outcome.
Your election comes at the time the big drive in the South to organize all the workers is in full swing. Already the CIO has won 39 out of 43 elections in this big drive. You will be the second Textile Workers to vote under this drive. You are also bringing hope to those who are looking forward to the day when every worker in America will be under the supervision of a government agent. The election will be secret. No one will know how you vote. AMERICANS NEVER STAND STILL. GO FORWARD BY VOTING FOR THE UNION.32
The election was close, but the CIO lost. The tally was 260 for “No Union” and 219 for the TWUA-CIO.33
Despite this setback, the remaining two mills offered the CIO somewhat better reason for hope. Management was more intransigent at the Hannah Pickett and Pee Dee mills than at Caramount, thus giving CIO organizers more grievances to exploit. In addition all echelons of the CIO staff had taken a hand in the Hannah Pickett and Pee Dee campaigns: Frank Bartholomew, the local organizer in charge; D. D. Wood, in charge of the Southern area of the state; William Smith, the North Carolina state director; and even George Baldanzi. In a special report to Smith two weeks before the election, Wood characterized the overall situation at both plants as “very bright. “Admittedly, “some strong company opposition” had surfaced, especially at Hannah Pickett, where the company had decided during the month before the election to grant a wage increase of eight cents an hour. Red-baiting had appeared there, with the company posting anti-union notices in the plant. While there seemed to be “quite a lot of fear” in the plant, he remained optimistic. The Pee Dee plant seemed in even better shape: “probably 90% or 95% of the people signed up.”34 It was with some shock, then, that CIO staff learned they had been decisively crushed in both plants in consecutive elections on August 8 and 9. The vote against the CIO was 315 to 95 at Pee Dee and 496 to 105 at Hannah Pickett.35
These numbers sent a wave of gloom through the CIO leadership. Indeed, North Carolina Director Smith was induced to review his entire organizational structure. Not only was the previous work of Bartholomew, the local organizer—and of Wood, his area superior—called into question, but also that of other leaders of organizing teams scattered throughout the Carolina piedmont. In the immediate aftermath of these three textile defeats, Smith reviewed all his organizers’ narrative explanations and concentrated on the numerical substance. The exercise was not reassuring. A graceful and urbane man, Smith was incapable of rough language. However, his post-Rockingham admonition to the head of his Wilson, North Carolina, organizing team reflected more than a new realism; it also revealed an edge of panic. Three weeks before the Rockingham debacle, the Wilson organizer had said, in the course of an otherwise optimistic report, that things didn’t “look too good” for the CIO in textile plants in Rocky Mount and Roanoke Rapids. The bulk of his report dealt with tobacco—even though that industry had far fewer workers than textiles. Smith wrote in response:
I realize that you have been having your hands full and I know you haven’t had too much time, but I do want to ask you a few questions. We do not seem to be getting any initiation fees in from our textile plants in your area and I am wondering what the devil is happening and what our organizers are doing and the cause of this let down.36
The same patterns were evident in Virginia and South Carolina, as well—very slow progress in the bellwether textile plants, clearly insufficient to warrant an election, and crushing defeats in those smaller textile mills where elections had been held.37
As the summer wore on, individual setbacks turned into an almost uninterrupted litany of defeat. In Alabama, the giant Avondale Mills proved approachable but unwinnable, while smaller plants were not even approachable. At Geneva and Enterprise, Alabama, police hostility and harassment were augmented by squads of workers—allied with the Klan—who stormed the hotel where CIO organizers had checked in and forced them to leave town. Organizing defeat and physical harassment surfaced in Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina as well. In a decisive ninety-day period from early August through mid-November, evidence accumulated from everywhere: the drive to organize the Southern textile industry had been decisively defeated.38
For the TWUA itself, the result was a calamity. The international’s investment in Operation Dixie was a staggering $95,000 per month, slightly more than the total sum contributed to the Southern Organizing Committee by all the other internationals in the CIO. And the outcome was totally unambiguous; no amount of arithmetic shuffling could explain away the vastness of the defeat. Not only were elections lost in small and medium-sized plants from one end of the textile belt to the other, but a far greater number had not even been brought to the threshold of elections. All the giants were standing untouched. Operation Dixie had collapsed in textiles.
Inevitably, the realities in textiles meant that Operation Dixie itself was in crisis. Whatever the long-term outcome, the evidence was clear by early autumn that the South was not to be transformed. The legions of “Dixiecrat” conservatives the region sent to Washington—a tide of Congressional votes that had made the New Deal coalition a besieged minority in Congress—would continue. Dreams of a giant labor vote to undergird a steadily more progressive Democratic Party would have to be laid aside. Even before the November 1946 elections confirmed the extent of the bad news for labor, the long-term prospects seemed clear from the earlier election returns coming in from NLRB contests across Dixie. It now seemed certain that a new conservative orthodoxy would characterize the postwar politics of America.39
How had it happened? Historical memory is a complex phenomenon. In the summer of 1946, CIO organizers tried, in a complex display of human ingenuity and optimism, to put the best possible face on the disastrous events in which they had become entangled. Years later, they could be very candid in their views on Southern workers.
From a textile organizer:
They would not stop and talk to you at the gate because the bosses are standing off looking, see. Then you’d run into this stuff: “I wish you wouldn’t come to my house no more. I got a nosey old neighbor over yonder and they tell their boss everything they know of.” That kind of thing. Just scared. Bless their hearts, you just felt so sorry for them.40
From a labor lawyer:
I remember sleeping in a little wooden hotel in one of those towns and someone shot through the hotel one night. I had a great big old steelworker who shared a room with me after that. I was not anxious to be a hero.41
In the difficult summer of 1946, a well-known labor progressive, Palmer Weber of Virginia, was sent on a mission to Greensboro, North Carolina. Years later, he recalled playing poker with CIO organizers assigned there—“a lot of nice young fellows from New York, Socialists.”
One of them was saying how hopeless this whole thing was. He said, “I’m beginning to think our problem is to get out of here alive.” “What do you mean,” I said. Well, a week ago he had been out at Cone Mills, distributing leaflets. Workers came out—wham—hit him, knocked him right down. I said, “You’re sure it wasn’t company police?” “No. No, it was the workers,” he said. “A group of them said to me, ‘Don’t ever come back around here. We don’t need you. You’re going to cost us our jobs.’” I said, “Well, what did you do?” He said, “I’m not going back there and distribute leaflets again. They might kill me.”42
After two and a half months of trying to organize textile workers in Greensboro, the organizer realized that the workers he approached saw him as an enemy, rather than a potential ally in their struggles for a better life. While the news defeated the young man, it hardly surprised Weber:
These people had just come off of cut-off and cut-over woods, and come off of red clay country farms. They figured these were the best jobs they had ever had. Their brains were soaked in the Depression mentality of the 1930s. When they saw a union organizer, the union organizer was a threat to their jobs.43
None of these judgments, whether related to the ferocity of the opposition or the depth of “fear” in Southern workers, can be taken at face value. As will become evident, the complexities of the social realities into which the CIO Southern Organizing Committee intruded in 1946 cannot be easily compartmentalized or neatly summarized. Matters of race and religion, as well as the historical legacy of poverty and paternalism, all helped to weave the blanket of resistance that ultimately suffocated the CIO. Similarly, a measure of evidence accumulated that the CIO itself contributed to the failure. Although each of these ingredients merits attention in appropriate sequence, it seems useful to consider briefly some other concrete, on-the-scene interpretations.
The demonstrable elan visible in CIO organizers who covered the South in June was sustained through mid-summer amid a generally shared understanding that “it took time to get things started.”44 The August defeats in textiles—the industry that had attracted more organizing attention than any other—sent the first shock through the CIO staff. The ensuing six weeks were traumatic, mounting frustration slowly ebbing away into despair, silent resignation, and, finally, anger. The judgments that emerged from this variety of reactions were equally varied. Some blamed the CIO for placing Bittner and Baldanzi in charge, “Northerners who did not understand the South.”45 Some blamed the Communists.46 Some blamed the Communist issue.47 Some, as we have seen, blamed the workers, while some emphasized the incompetence of other organizers.48 Quite a number blamed the race issue,49 and some, boosters to the bitter end, declared the effort a success.50
In the aggregate, the shocking defeats of August, confirmed in September, forced the CIO leadership into the deepest kind of soul-searching. Early in October, the CIO organization in the most important textile state, North Carolina, participated in four elections. Two, in small tobacco plants, were won; and two, in textiles, were lost. The state director, William Smith, reacted by writing an intimate and revealing letter to Bittner:
Frankly, I am worried and heartsick about the loss of these two textile elections this week as I realize only too well that unless we crack some of the major textile mills in the state, the rest will not mean too much. I never wanted to do anything more in my life than to do a real job in the textile industry. The lethargy and disinterest of the textile workers is enough to frustrate anyone and frankly, while I have some ideas, I do not know the answer to it all.51
The impasse the Southern Organizing Committee faced in textiles was truly baffling. There seemed to be two distinct ways for textile companies to thwart the CIO. Most common was the adoption of a stance of unrelenting intransigence, a tactic evidenced in the managerial styles of mill executives at Sumter in South Carolina, Elizabethton in Tennessee, Milliken-Deering and Bibb in Georgia and Avondale in Alabama, and in a score of large- and medium-sized plants in the North Carolina heartland of the industry. While the tactics of intransigence varied in style from mill to mill, there were patterns. Local law enforcement authorities often shadowed CIO organizers from the moment they arrived in town, accosting them in public places, arresting them for leafletting or for using a sound truck. Quite frequently, they were detained merely for “questioning.” The effect was not merely to impede the process of orderly trade union activity, but, more important, to engage in what might be described as a cultural war to discredit individual CIO representatives and the CIO itself.
Many other ingredients made up the thick mixture of intransigence. Workers showing initial responsiveness to organizing appeals could be called in by the company for a quiet conversation about the implications of worker participation in CIO “in-plant committees,” and references made to past employees who similarly allowed themselves to become known for their prolabor sympathies. Such employees, it could be noted, were no longer around. Rumors about the CIO penchant for “race-mixing” could serve to rile some workers—it did not take many—to go en masse to confront and threaten CIO organizers. Should the organizing team make measurable progress despite such hazards, other tactics were available. The rumor could spread that the mill would shut down in response to unfavorable NLRB election results. If necessary, rumor could turn into a public statement to the same effect, offered either explicitly or implicitly by management and duly publicized in the town or mill village newspaper. Employee fear was the mill owners’ most useful weapon against the CIO. In apprehension, CIO staffers told one another, “We have to find some way to get the fear out of these people.”52
Yet the grievances of textile workers were both real and multiple. It was widely understood that Southern mill workers were paid less, often far less, than their counterparts elsewhere. Tight supervision, both in the plant and throughout the mill village, made working conditions oppressive and life itself difficult. Job security was fragile in some plants and nonexistent in most of them. Vacations, sick leave, and health protection were minimal or entirely absent. Safety standards were low and accidents on the job, especially in older mills, were frequent. Workers’ grievances were so pronounced and so long-standing in some places that workers essentially organized themselves soon after the first arrival of CIO representatives. NLRB elections, in such cases, could be obtained with relative speed. More often than not, however, what happened after election dates were set demoralized the field staff of Operation Dixie. Intransigence of mill management—even historically rooted resistance going back more than a generation—could suddenly disappear, to be replaced by conciliatory attitudes that mill workers found startling. Union proposals on wages and working conditions around which the CIO had organized could—up to the very eve of NLRB elections—be resisted, but then partially, substantially, or totally accepted by management. The thought accompanying these actions was direct, simple, and appealing to many: “We can settle any problems we might have right here in the family, without outsiders coming in and telling anybody what to do. We don’t need, in our town, these ________ coming in and trying to change our Southern traditions.” The blank could be filled in with various phrases of description, depending upon the predilections of individual mill executives: Yankees, radicals, Communists, race-mixers, thugs, CIO conspirators, or non-Southerners with foreign-sounding names.
In some mill villages, only those descriptive phrases were necessary in order to dampen union possibilities; in others, the phrases gained cultural authority only after marginal or sweeping concessions were offered by management. As textile organizers knew from past experience (or discovered in the course of Operation Dixie), mill owners could prevail by being aggressive, by being conciliatory, or by being both in sequence. At year’s end, the frustration and despair of the Carolina leadership had seeped into every corner of the Southern campaign. Like William Smith, they “did not know the answer to it all.” In early December, a statewide meeting of organizers in Tennessee produced a summary judgment so ominous it had to be softened: “There is a certain amount of defeatism.”53
After only seven months, the “Holy Crusade” had produced results that called for an overall reevaluation at the highest levels of the CIO. The 1946 national CIO convention at Atlantic City heard Bittner’s report with outward displays of understanding and occasional reaffirmations of militance. But international presidents, in many cases urgently pressed by their treasurers, placed rhetoric alongside the balance sheet of income and expenditures. It was no contest. Operation Dixie was costing $144,000 a month while the balancing inflow from initiation fees and union dues was not remotely comparable.54
In the leading Southern industries—textiles, tobacco, wood and wood products—the results were difficult to believe. In trades allied with wood, some 340,000 potential recruits were available to the International Woodworkers of America, the United Paper Workers, and the United Furniture Workers. Operation Dixie organized fewer than 25,000 in 1946. The Woodworkers gained 3,887 new members in Mississippi. The union added 2,774 in Arkansas, 1,401 in Louisiana, and 1,207 in Tennessee. The Woodworkers’ membership in every other Southern state was less than 1,000. The United Furniture Workers of America recruited 1,400 in Tennessee, 1,350 in North Carolina, and 1,000 in South Carolina. The highlight was a dramatic victory at Thomasville, North Carolina, after a protracted strike and a bitter, exhausting boycott. This victory brought 1,200 new CIO members. Sadly, this constituted almost 95 percent of the North Carolina total for the year. The Southwide total in furniture in 1946 was 6,245.55
The CIO tobacco workers’ union (FTA) performed well, its twenty-three election victories in North Carolina accounting for a statewide gain of 7,582 and a total membership in the state in excess of 20,000. Considerable progress had been made in the cigarette industry as well. Virginia’s total of 9,000 organized tobacco workers resulted mainly from the Southern drive. But though the cigarette industry was essentially organized, the number of employees in tobacco was small, as these figures indicate. It was textiles and wood products upon which the fate of Operation Dixie depended.56
At the 1946 Atlantic City convention, the national CIO was forced to concede, in its internal discussions, that Operation Dixie had become unaffordable. Almost $800,000 had been spent since the campaign opened in the late spring. The figure was short of the projected budget of over one million dollars; but even at that level, the drain was too much for embattled internationals facing difficult trials in their Northern bases.57
Huge staff reductions in Operation Dixie were decided upon at Atlantic City. In November, North Carolina had counted forty-five affiliated staff organizers; Georgia, thirty-eight; Tennessee, twenty-eight; Virginia, twenty-two; Alabama, twenty-one; and South Carolina, seventeen. These organizing teams, spread over the heartland of Southern textiles, represented a majority of the CIO monthly operating investment in the Southern drive. All state budgets were cut in half. William Smith was forced to terminate twenty-three of his forty-five-member team in North Carolina in the first week of December. Reductions were comparable in other states, extending beyond textiles to the other industries in the Southern drive.58
The impact of these events on the morale of Southern industrial labor was devastating, although a brave face was put on events by Bittner. Though the ruthless staff reductions reflected a “re-examination of the whole Southern campaign” by the CIO leadership at Atlantic City, Bittner insisted that the action did not mean that the CIO campaign in the South was “being called off or discontinued.” However, the long-term political implications of these organizational readjustments were already clear by the first week in December, following as they did on the heels of the Republican landslide the month before. State directors had to summon a new resolve. “The time has come when we must forget the election and everything else except our job of organizing,” Tennessee CIO director Christopher informed his lead organizer in Knoxville. “Our union is the only stabilizing force of real consequence in America today.”59
For those no longer on the payroll, other explanations were called for. Perhaps the most poignant example of what might be called the “termination correspondence” transpired between Jesse Smith, a discharged South Carolina organizer, and George Baldanzi. It also revealed one of the hazards of organizing: the damage done to the CIO’s credibility in leaving workers behind, without a union. Wrote Smith,
Mr. Daniel informed us that the entire CIO staff in Spartanburg, S.C., was being laid off . . . which means, as the workers at the Brandon mill will phrase it, that the whole CIO campaign is a flop, and many of them express their regret that they had ever confided in the CIO.
Baldanzi groped for an explanation. As for the Atlantic City decision, “It was felt that we should encourage the international unions of the CIO to provide organizers where at all possible. . . . This naturally meant laying off some of the CIO staff throughout the South.” Turning to the immediate organizing crisis, Baldanzi added, “I think you ought to make clear to the workers at the Brandon Mill—or any other mill in Greenville—that the campaign of organization will go on, even though it may not be carried on at the same tempo it has up to this time.”60
Yet it was precisely here—on the matter of “tempo”—that the tragedy of the American labor movement became incontrovertibly visible. In the North Carolina piedmont, a twenty-eight-year-old Southerner named Dean Culver had headed an organization team of ten. For months they had confronted the sprawling Cannon mill town of Kannapolis. They had been variously ignored, responded to, harassed, and arrested. The staff had been reshuffled and Culver himself replaced. In the course of various struggles, the organizing team had been augmented beyond the ten originally assigned. However, nothing had thus far availed. The number of signed cards had not yet reached 10 percent of the 24,000 work force. In December 1946, it was clear there would never be twenty organizers mounting a concerted effort in Kannapolis; nor would ten organizers maintain a daily presence. Rather, the Cannon Mills would have assigned to it five union organizers.61
At the other end of the textile belt, the largest organizing team in Alabama had challenged the huge Comer Mills at Avondale for seven months. After all their efforts, they had fewer than 1,000 signed cards among the 7,500 workers. The issue, after the organizing team had been cut in half in December, went beyond matters of strategy: how could they achieve with four people what they had failed to achieve with eight, and sometimes with fifteen?
But the collapse of Operation Dixie had other implications, chiefly relating to the balance of forces across the region. This involved the most fundamental questions about the South, about the CIO, and about the entire American labor movement. What had happened in 1946 “down South?” What was the source of the “fear” on the part of workers that had surfaced in a thousand organizers’ reports? Where lay the essence of the catastrophic defeat in textiles? Why did workers beat up union organizers? Why were ministers so actively hostile? Where did the race issue fit in? Or ideology? In sum, what was the social reality that derailed the CIO’s “Holy Crusade” in the American South? What did the architects and the rank-and-file of Operation Dixie confront and what did their defeat mean?