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Southern Labor Archives: Work n' Progress - Lessons and Stories: Part III: The Southern Textile Industry

Textiles Era: Overview

In the 1880s only a few textile mills existed in the South. But by the 1920s, the region had eclipsed New England in terms of yarn and cloth production. Textile mills sprang up throughout the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, an area called the Southern Piedmont, which stretches from Virginia to Alabama. Mills grew in urban settings, like Atlanta and Columbus, and rural upland areas, like Dalton. By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, more Southerners worked in textile mills than most other occupations.

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.

Farmers in the 1880s and 1890s succumbed to the allure of wages that the mill villages offered. Many farmers saw factory work as an opportunity to keep their families intact.

The South's mill owners not only benefited from cheap labor, they also entered the textile industry at a time of unprecedented technological advancement. The mill owners incorporated the most modern machines into their factories which allowed them to increase production and cut labor costs.

Initially, Southern mills depended on water power to generate the electricity to run the operations. This limited them in terms of the size of their operations, the location, and production levels. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, railroads helped open up the nearby coalfields in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, and Tennessee. As mining companies grew, they produced coal that allowed textile mill owners to use steam engines. This increased the size of the mills and their level of production.

Southern mill owners initially concentrated on producing coarse yarn and simple weaves because of the region's lack of skilled labor. Most Southerners had never seen a factory, much less worked in one. Mill owners used a family labor system that paid adults less than a living wage. So whole families -- husbands, wives and children -- labored in the mills to make ends meet.

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.

Child laborers: Wages: 32 cents a week, 50 cents a week; "Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill Strike" (L1983-38/16).

Textiles Era: Early Union Efforts

In the late 1890s, the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW) made successful attempts to organize southern mill workers. The NUTW stressed the need for workers to band together to demand a just wage for the jobs they performed. They distrusted the power of trusts and monopolies. The NUTW's ideas about industrial unionism resonated with Southern textile workers.

The union's push into the South succeeded, with the help of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its skilled craft unionists. By the late 1890s, the union had established 95 different locals in the Southeast. Particularly strong organizations sprang up at the huge urban mills in Columbus and Atlanta.

The NUTW's initial success hid several flaws. It lacked the financial strength to seriously confront the region's highly organized textile industry. When the mill owners banded together in a coordinated effort, they quickly defeated NUTW efforts to create a significant presence in the South. The NUTW's defeat at the turn-of-the-century ushered in the era of "Yellow Dog" contracts, where workers had to renounce unions.

Textiles Era: United Textile Workers of America

Despite these obstacles, organized labor continued its push to organize the Southern textile industry. The United Textile Workers of America (UTWA), another AFL textile union, pushed into the South following the NUTW's defeat. In 1913 organizers found a potential windfall at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills in Atlanta. A strike by workers at the sprawling mill in 1914 and 1915 proved an early flashpoint in the UTWA's efforts to organize Southern mill workers.

Jacob Elsas founded the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills in the 1880s. Unlike most other Southern mills, Fulton Bag existed in an urban setting, so Elsas had less control over his workers than mill owners in rural areas. The company's workforce expanded rapidly in the decades leading up to World War I, growing from under 500 in 1890 to just under 2,000 by the dawn of WWI.

Elsas required his workers to sign a contract that differed from most other companies. Managers quizzed workers about their past employment. If potential workers passed muster, they had to sign a contract. The unusual agreement freed Fulton Bag from liability for injuries workers suffered at the plant, allowed the company to fire workers at will, and fined them for damage to equipment and minor infractions. The company also withheld a week's pay, which workers forfeited if they left work without a substantial notice.

Workers chaffed under this contract and the poor working conditions at the mill. They earned between $6.94 to $10 a week for 60 hours of hard work. The mill had a high turnover rate, caused by workers leaving on their own or being fired by Fulton Bag managers. In 1911, for example, 10,000 workers passed through the operations; a turnover rate approaching 800 percent. The average turnover rate in the South was high -- about 176 percent -- but it did not approach the levels found at Fulton Bag. 

Like most other mill owners, Elsas had housing for some of the workers. The company and city called the mill village the "Factory Town." Today the neighborhood is known as "Cabbagetown." But in the early part of this century living conditions in the village were universally bad. The Atlanta Sanitary Department eventually condemned the village as a major health hazard. The area had inadequate sewage and crowded conditions. Often garbage and raw sewage littered the streets. Pellagra, tuberculosis and infantile paralysis plagued the village.

Fulton Bag managers made a major mistake in 1913, when they decided to add another day's pay to the withholding period. This proved the last straw for many workers, who walked out of the mill to protest the plan. Elsas did away with the increase, but the workers sought union representation anyway.
In October of 1913, the UTWA issued a charter to Local 886 at Fulton Bag. Managers quickly struck back. They targeted union members for dismissal. Between October of 1913 and May of 1914, 104 union members were fired. Tensions between the workers and managers grew.

Finally, on May 20, 1914, workers went on strike to protest the firings and the working conditions in the plant. They demanded higher wages, shorter hours, the elimination of the employment contract and an end to child labor. Workers formed pickets around the plant and sent union members to the city's main railroad station to explain the Fulton Bag situation to new arrivals and potential strike breakers.

The city's labor movement, particularly the Atlanta Federation of Trades, strongly supported the strikers. The AFT committed $525 a week to help with the strike and used its influence to keep local government -- and law enforcement officers -- from intervening in the strike on the side of the company. Two dynamic labor leaders, Ola Delight Smith and Charles Miles, led the strike for the UTWA.

Though Elsas failed to inspire local governmental officials to intervene in the dispute, he still had important weapons on his side. Atlanta, with its large labor force, provided a surplus number of potential workers willing to cross picket lines for jobs. So the strike failed to seriously damage the mill's production levels.

Elsas evicted strikers from company homes. The UTWA initially put the workers up in a hotel, but by the fall the union was forced to build a tent city in order to accomodate the evicted unionists. Elsas also hired agents to spy on the strikers. Company agents placed within the union undermined support for the UTWA and its leaders.

By August the AFT, with a debt of $6,000, had to withdraw its assistance to the Fulton Bag strikers. The UTWA called off the strike in May of 1915. The union took down its tents and paid the remaining strikers the transportation costs to new homes and jobs it had found for them. 

The UTWA continued its aggressive organizing efforts in the South despite the loss at Fulton Bag. The union added 70,000 members from 1914 to 1920. The union saw the huge cotton mills in Columbus as its next target.

In August of 1918, 400 men and women walked out at Swift Spinning Mills in Columbus. The workers wanted the UTWA to represent them in the mill. They also demanded that Swift managers eliminate the company's bonus system, which rewarded some workers and penalized others. Also known as the premium plan, the bonus system was designed by the mill owners to increase the output of workers by rewarding employees for extra production, and for consistent attendance. Each mill employed it's own idiosyncratic system, which usually had a very complex set of rules. Because the bonus of one employee could be dependent on the work of others, favoritism flourished: loom fixers would neglect the looms of weavers who did not work fast, and focus on those who were on schedule. As a result, the slower weavers had little chance of meeting even basic quotas.

The workers established Local 1124 at Swift, and workers from other mills in the area eagerly joined. By the end of the month, the workers had gone back to work after the National War Labor Board intervened in the dispute.

The government failed to successfully resolve the bonus issue, however. Columbus mill owners, protesting the UTWA presence, began shifts early and let sanitary conditions in the plants decline. They continued to use the bonus to penalize union members.

In February of 1919 the UTWA called a general strike for an eight-hour day. In Columbus, 7,500 workers -- 90 percent of the city's millhands -- walked out. The strikers faced harassment from police, who were controlled by the mill owners. Authorities often beat or arrested strikers. Sometimes the police gave their billy clubs to scabs and watched as they attacked union pickets.

These forces terrorized the UTWA into submission. The union agreed to remove the pickets if authorities assured that strikers would be protected. The action effectively ended the strike, because it allowed the mill owners to import strike breakers at will.

A militant minority of workers, however, continued to protest. In May of 1919, about a month after the eight-hour strike ended, company thugs attacked an evening rally outside the Bibb Manufacturing Company in Columbus. The company men drew pistols and rifles and fired into the union crowd. Street lights, controlled by Bibb Manufacturing, suddenly dimmed and the assailants fled. One man was killed, a 12-year-old boy crippled, and four others wounded in the assault. Though charges were brought against several of the company men, no one was ever convicted in connection with the attack.

The collapse of the UTWA in Columbus mirrored the union's defeat in the rest of the South. A textile depression in the early 1920s further eroded the union's presence. The wave of strikes ended in 1921. The union lost most of these disputes, but a handful of locals survived. These provided the nucleus of support for unionization that resurfaced in the 1930s when workers again rebelled and took up an organized struggle for their economic rights.

Where Fulton Bags are Made: "Bird's eye view" of Atlanta Plant Fulton Bag & Cotton Mills, Atlanta, Georgia. "Fulton Bag & Cotton Mill Strike" (L1983-38/11). 
Evicted strikers: A family near furniture in the street (Reinhardt St.), Mill in background. "Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill Strike" (L1983-38/15).

Textiles Era: "A robot life:" The rise of the textile industry in Georgia and the South

Merchants needed new, more stable investments and they began to set up textile mills in the South in the 1880s. Farmers, facing bleak economic conditions, moved to textile villages and went to work with their families in the mills. By the early 1900s textile mills employed more people than most other industries in the region. 

The work was hot and dangerous. Lint floated through the air and stuck to workers skin and hair. Millhands breathed in the lint and many of them suffered poor health effects. The wages were low. Mill owners built houses for their workers, where they attempted to further control the lives of their millhands. 

The National Union of Textile Workers made inroads among Southern millhands in the 1890s. The NUTW set up 95 locals in the South, but a coordinated effort by mill owners drove the union from the region by the turn of the century. 

The United Textile Workers of America succeeded in returning many millhands to the union fold in the years before World War I. A major strike at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills in Atlanta in 1914 and 1915 failed, but drew attention to the industry's poor working conditions. 

UTWA members in Columbus struck in 1918, and again in 1919. Though the union lost the 1919 strike, and several others in the region during the early 1920s, a nucleus of locals survived. 

Textiles Era: Casting her 'bread on the waters': Ola Delight Smith and Atlanta labor

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.

The Journal of Labor - News Micr. HD8055 .A512 J8

Textiles Era: Sources

Frank J. Byrne, "Wartime Agitation and Postwar Repression: Reverend John A. Callan and the Columbus Strikes of 1918-1919," The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Summer 1997.

Gary M. Fink, The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills Strike of 1914-1915: Espionage, Labor Conflict, and New South Industrial Relations.

Doug Flamming, Creating the Modern South: Millhands and Managers in Dalton, Georgia, 1894-1984.

Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, James Leloudis, Robert Korstad, Mary Murphy, Lu Ann Jones, and Christopher B. Daly, Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World.

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