By the mid 1920s Appalachia, land of farms and farmers, had been crisscrossed by railroad tracks and dotted with mill villages, and the Piedmont had eclipsed New England as the world’s leading producer of yarn and cloth. But along with the promise of new jobs came intense competition in the decentralized textile industry, depressing wages, and faster mill machines, which with each new technological advance threatened to further exhaust their operators.
These developments inevitably put labor and management on a collision course. Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times (1936) captured perfectly the panic of the average millhand caught in the cross-fire of the “stretch-out”: sped up machinery and ever expanding work quotas.
In October 1926 American Bemberg began the manufacture of “artificial silk,” or rayon, at its new plant in Elizabethton, TN. The parent company, J. P. Bemberg, was the German affiliate of Vereinigte Glanzstoff Fabriken (VGF), one of the international giants in the production of rayon. Two years later, in August 1928, VGF opened another rayon plant in the small East Tennessee town. Visions of economic growth encouraged government officials in Elizabethton to make concessions to VGF concerning property taxes and charges for the huge volumes of water needed to make rayon. They also promised the German industrialists that they would have an abundant supply of docile and cheap–that is, nonunion– labor.
John Fred Holly, who grew up in Elizabethton and worked at the plant during the 1930s, reported that local banker E. Crawford (E.C.) Alexander showed him a copy of an agreement between the company and the Elizabethton Chamber of Commerce assuring the rayon concerns that they would never have to pay weekly wages in excess of ten dollars and that no labor unions would be allowed to operate in the town.
The stage was set for one of the first, if not THE first, strikes in the Southern textile field. On March 12, 1929, 800 employees of American Bemberg walked out in a fumbling strike, poorly organized and not under union leadership. They demanded wage increases; the company ordered the plant closed the following day. On March 19 the adjoining plant, under the same management, was also closed and its 3,000 employees joined the ranks of the strikers, all native Americans. The courts quickly granted injunctions against the strikers and two companies of National Guardsmen were rushed to Elizabethton by Governor Henry Horton.
“The employers utilize various devices to put the militia under obligations to them. During the Elizabethton, Tennessee, rayon strike, the Glanzstoff-Bemberg Corporation not only provided barracks but served free refreshments, provided music and furnished dancing partners to the men on duty,” noted the New International magazine.
On March 22, after the strikers had joined the A. F. of L., a settlement was reached and the mills reopened.
Sources: New International, New York City, Vol.IV No.6, June 1938, pp. 189-190