Please welcome guest author Taylor M. Polites. Polites, a Huntsville, AL native, is a writer and teacher living in Rhode Island with his small Chihuahua, Clovis. His first novel The Rebel Wife was published by Simon & Schuster in 2012. His fiction, essays and articles have appeared in anthologies, local and regional magazines, and newspapers, including Provincetown Arts, the Cape Codder, artscope Magazine, and the New York Times Disunion Blog.
At the height of the Depression and in the midst of New Deal economic experimentation, more than 4,000 textile mill workers in Huntsville, AL, walked off their jobs, beginning a strike that eventually spread from Alabama to Maine. It was one of the largest national labor demonstrations in history—and the largest ever in the South.
Contemporaries estimated the strike to involve a million millworkers, although modern historians estimate the numbers from 400,000 to 500,000. The strikers fought to improve working conditions, wages, and workers’ rights. The enormous sacrifices and questionable gains of the strike left lasting effects in the region as management remained aggressively opposed to labor organization and workers now doubted unions’ efficacy.
Situated at the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in North Alabama, Huntsville had been a pioneer in the Southern textile industry. Well before the Civil War, local entrepreneurs had built small, water-powered mills like the Bell Factory at the Three Forks of the Flint River and the Cabaniss Factory north of Hazel Green.
After the devastation of the Civil War, steam power assisted the falling water of the Cumberland Plateau to drive a burgeoning textile industry in a region looking for alternatives to cotton culture. Late 19th century industrialists believed textile mills would modernize the Southern economy. By the end of the century, there were thirty-one mills in Alabama with over four hundred thousand spindles and eight thousand looms.
In Huntsville, like elsewhere in the South, Northern money fueled the construction of large mill complexes that became cities unto themselves. Northern capitalists found Southern labor cheaper and more compliant, and labor organization was almost non-existent. First, the Dallas Mill in 1891, then the West Huntsville Mill in 1892. Later, the Lincoln Mill (originally the Abingdon Mill), Lowe Mill, and the massive Merrimack Mills complex, all began around 1900. A 1919 Chamber of Commerce brochure touted the mill industry in the city, reporting over three thousand jobs supporting over eight thousand people. Merrimack Mills included a planned mill village with hundreds of houses, a company store, school, infirmary, auditorium, gymnasium, café and barbershop.
From 1908 to 1913, Lewis Hine travelled to Huntsville and other mill towns of the South on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee to document the condition of children working in the textile mills.
His photographs critically influenced the strengthening of child labor laws—and they captured fascinating insights into life in Huntsville’s mill villages. Just like adults, young children worked long hours, tending the large machines that spun the thread (spinners) and wove the cloth (weavers), sweeping, changing spindles and bobbins (doffers), and filling batteries. Children were given boxes to stand on so they could reach the spindles and loom shuttles. They reported to work after a few hours of school in a building Hines described as “tucked away upstairs over the store” and “equipped with antique, dilapidated benches and chairs.”
A generation later, these mill families faced even greater hardship as the Great Depression devastated an industry already in decline. The mills were overwhelmed with stock. There were not enough orders to run at full capacity. Workers lost their jobs through these declines and the notorious “stretch-out,” a system that increased worker productivity without increasing wages.
Mill owners argued that technological advances enabled them to staff fewer people on the machines. A skein winder at Huntsville’s Lincoln Mill complained of her situation—two women were required to do the work formerly done by four and were threatened with termination by the floor boss if they did not comply. Workers said they were being pushed to the limit, overworked and exhausted, yet still not earning a living wage. One man said, “When you get out, you’re just trembling all over.”
The New Deal legislation of the first hundred days after Roosevelt’s inauguration, including the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), changed labor-management relations, particularly the right of workers to organize and negotiate. The power to make changes, however, remained firmly in the hands of the mill owners, who determined wages, prices, and quotas—the complaint and appeal process was burdened in a bureaucracy designed by the mill owners to be unresponsive.
In the wake of the NIRA, the United Textile Workers of America (UTW) engaged in a massive enrollment effort and grew from around 15,000 members in February 1933 to over 250,000 in June 1934. Many of these new members came from the textile mills of the southern piedmont and demonstrated the appetite for organization felt by labor in a region that was generally hostile to labor organization. The same movement swept through many industries in Alabama—mine workers, steel workers, and even sharecroppers.
Because of that expansion in membership, John Dean, a veteran UTW organizer, came to Alabama from the Northeast to assist in union enrollment. He, along with UTW state official Albert W. Cox and experienced organizers Mollie Dowd and Alice Berry, began a campaign to address workers’ concerns. Making Huntsville the base of operations, they proposed the list of grievances that would remain the core of the striker’s goals: eliminating the “stretch-out,” establishing a $12 per week minimum wage and a 30-hour work week, reinstating all workers fired because of union organizing, and recognition of the workers’ right to organize.
Huntsville would remain at the epicenter of the movement in Alabama. Dean and his compatriots met with the forty-two locals in the state, and forty of them voted to strike. On July 16, 1934, over four thousand Huntsville mill workers walked off their job. By the 18th of July, about half of the total Alabama textile mill labor force, some 20,000 workers, had joined the strike.
There was an air of celebration for many strikers. Workers at the Merrimack Mills sang:
We are twelve hundred strong,
And the strike is still on,
And the scabs are still standing,
But they won’t stand for long.
Hallelujah, we are union!
Hallelujah, here we rest!
Crowds of workers gathered at mill gates, blocking entrance to anyone who might want to work and preventing products from leaving the plant. Eventually, the strikers organized armed guards to patrol the mills. The effectiveness and duration of the strike surprised many, particularly national labor leaders.
The mood of celebration was short-lived. Some mill owners, struggling through the Depression, were happy to take the wage holiday and sit out the strikers. The UTW had not accumulated money to provide support to the strikers. The government relief that many strikers expected was cut off by the state relief administrator, Thad Holt. Strikers had to rely on their own limited resources. Institutional force was also brought to bear. Police brandished Gatling guns and tear gas. Mill owners begged Alabama’s Governor Miller to use state forces to suppress the strike, but Miller refused—unlike leaders in other Southern states, where violence became rampant as the strike spread.
In many respects, North Alabama remained the calm, committed core of the movement. One incidence of violence occurred in Decatur, where organizers from Huntsville were beaten and shot at. The most sensational incident was the kidnapping of John Dean himself. The strike organizer was taken from his room at Huntsville’s Russell Erskine Hotel on August 5th and deposited in Fayetteville, TN, with the warning he should not return. Within hours, he had returned with an escort of forty mill workers. Jim Conner, commander of the state’s American Legion, was indicted for the kidnapping, but the case was eventually dropped.
By mid-August, the national meeting of the UTW in New York City voted to join the Alabama strikers, and on September 1st, the demands of Dean’s strikers were recapitulated as hundreds of thousands of workers in the textile industry walked off their jobs in mills from Maine to Alabama. Francis Gorman became the leader and spokesperson for the national movement. As the strike spread, violence erupted. Strikers used “flying squadrons,” fleets of vehicles carrying armed strikers from mill to mill, shutting them down. Governors and capitalists deployed local and state forces, police, and militia to force the mills open. While violence became common in other states (Georgia, South Carolina and Rhode Island), Alabama maintained a tense calm. Some remember Huntsville being very quiet, the citizens living in a state of almost-siege with armed strikers and police facing off in the streets.
Finally, in late September, Roosevelt reorganized elements of the NIRA to create an independent review board that was not held captive by mill owners. Facing the intransigence of the bosses and the desperation of workers, Gorman declared victory on September 22nd and called off the strike. By early October, the mills in Huntsville were back in operation, and workers returned to their jobs.
But the gains declared by Gorman seemed a mirage. Yes, a new grievance structure was established that removed control from the hands of the mill owners. Yes, workers had the legal right to organize. But the stretch-out and wage system were referred to a committee to be studied, and little practical change in the daily lives of the workers was apparent. Many were turned away from their jobs as retaliation for their union efforts. New complaints piled up unredressed. Families were turned out of their homes. And the bitter taste left from the pyrrhic sacrifices of the strike lingered in the hearts of many.
The mill industry in Huntsville rebounded during World War II, but shortly after the war, another slow descent began as manufacturing moved offshore. Once employing hundreds of thousands of workers, the industry vanished. Today, many of those mill buildings and villages still exist in Huntsville, having been repurposed into a community theater (the former Merrimack Hall), artists’ studios and shops (Lowe Mill) and commercial space (Lincoln Mills). They are the last reminders of this once-critical industry in the region, and the movement it generated.
Sources: Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker 1933-1941; The Decatur Daily; The Huntsville Times; Janet Irons, Testing the New Deal; Mickey Maroney, editor, Historic Huntsville Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 1; The New York Times; Thomas McAdory Owen, History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography; Jacquelyn Proctor Reeves, editor, The Huntsville Historical Review, Vol. 33, No. 1; Patricia Ryan, Northern Dollars for Huntsville Spindles; John A. Salmond, The General Textile Strike of 1934 From Maine to Alabama.