The industry naturally attracted the interest of unionists, who quickly realized that any labor movement in the South would have to focus on textiles. But the industry presented serious challenges to organized labor. Though southern workers often joined union efforts in the textile industry, labor had made few lasting inroads among the region's mill communities by the early 1920s.
Throughout the 1880s, as railroads spread and transportation improved, entrepreneurs began to look to ways to diversify their holdings. Merchants had grown wealthy during the farming crisis after the Civil War. Dramatic fluctuations in agricultural markets, however, made them search for more stable investments. The South's emerging industrialists began to look toward railroads, financial institutions and textile mills as more stable investments.
Merchants also saw the mills as a way to take advantage of the economic stress on the upland farms. Textile mills could easily exploit the abundant supply of relatively low-wage labor as workers shifted from agriculture to industry. The merchants tightened credit in the 1880s and 1890s, and the economic distress on small farmers increased. Businessmen couched their ideas in philanthropic terms, but they clearly benefited from the economic problems they created.
Mill work was a wrenching change from farm life. In agriculture the family worked cooperatively to achieve a common goal. They worked hard, but they had more control over the pace of work. In the mills, families labored for bosses who drove them hard for 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. The factories were noisy, hot and dangerous. Lint floated in the air and collected on the hair and skin of the mill workers. After years of working in the mills many found that the lint had also settled in their lungs. The health problems that resulted could cripple or kill them. Workers who were injured on the job lost pay and sometimes they even lost their jobs.
One early mill worker remembered the job as "nothing but a robot life. Roboting is my word for it -- in the mill you do the same thing over and over again -- just like on a treadmill. There's no challenge to it -- just drudgery. The more you do, the more they want done. But in farming you do work real close to nature. There's always something exciting and changing in nature."
The Southern textile industry relied in large part on the labor of children. Between 1880 and 1910, roughly a quarter of all textile workers were under the age of 16. Reformers eventually began to chip away at the use of child labor. But early efforts to curb the practice failed. Children did not disappear from the mills in the South until economic conditions and technological advancements made their labor more expensive than that of adults.
The Southern textile industry became a "white domain." Laws in some states prevented blacks and whites from working in the same factory rooms. Black men, however, did perform some of the most important jobs in the textile factories. They worked in the mill yards, moving bales of cotton and loading finished goods on to boxcars. They also worked in the opening and picking rooms of mills. Black women were almost completely shut out of the industry in the South.
There was also a division of labor between white men and women. Women were given semiskilled or unskilled, repetitive tasks that required nimble fingers, patience, and attention to detail. Men were trained to undertake the skilled and heavy work.
At the turn of the century, more than 90 percent of mill workers lived in company towns, where textile owners controlled everything from homes to churches and schools. Many had their own police forces. Though the textile owners initially built the mill villages to attract workers to the plants, many workers suffered from poor living conditions. Millhands also found that their lives were regulated through a series of rules that regulated their time outside of the mills. Some mill owners penalized workers for drinking in public -- even when they were off the job. Talk of unions was expressly forbidden.
Still, mill workers often turned to unions to improve working conditions in the factories where they worked. As mentioned, the Knights of Labor made inroads among southern millhands in the 1880s, particularly in Augusta. These initial attempts at collective action, however, failed.
A strike by workers at Atlanta's sprawling Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills in 1914 and 1915 drew the attention of the nation. So did the dynamic leader of the walkout, a woman named Ola Delight Smith.
Smith joined the union movement early in her life, as a Western Union worker in Birmingham. By 1907, Smith and her husband had relocated to Atlanta. She signed on with Local 60 of the Commercial Telegraphers Union of America (CTUA). The CTUA lost a major national strike against Western Union soon after.
Smith continued her involvement with labor. She used a column in a Journal of Labor to crusade for child labor laws, state health initiatives, education reform, and legislation forcing "deadbeat dads" to support their families.
Smith became a paid organizer for the United Textile Workers of America during its strike against Fulton Bag, which began in May of 1914.
Smith used photographs, an innovative tactic for the times, to publicize the plight of the workers. She hired professional photographers to take pictures of the millhands on strike, children workers and a tent city the union set up in the summer of 1914. Smith also used pictures of company thugs evicting strikers from their homes and harassing union pickets to generate support for the walkout.
Smith took her own pictures when professional photographers were not available
Fulton Bag officials, worried by these tactics, worked to undermine support for Smith. They spied on her and spread rumors about her personal life. Eventually a Fulton Bag lawyer represented Smith's husband in divorce proceedings against her.
UTWA leaders, fearing publicity from the divorce, removed Smith as leader of the strike in November. Strikers rallied to her defense, but to no avail. Without Smith's leadership the millhands held out for six more months before ending their strike in the spring of 1915.
Smith later surfaced in the union movement in Portland, Oregon. She died in the 1950s.
"I have 'cast my bread on the waters' all through my half-century in the LABOR MOVEMENT," she later said. "[I]t has 'returned to me ten fold'."
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, "O. Delight Smith's Progressive Era", in Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism.
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