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Southern Labor Archives: Work n' Progress - Lessons and Stories: Part IV: Labor, the Depression, the New Deal, and WWII

Organized Labor and the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II: Overview

The end of World War I brought a brief period of upheaval and depression. The nation's economy quickly recovered and most industries experienced high production levels by the mid-1920s. Union membership declined during this time, only to rebound dramatically after the stock market crash of October of 1929. By the end of the 1930s the new militant Congress of Industrial Organizations ("CIO") and a revitalized American Federation of Labor ("AFL") brought millions of mass production workers into the union fold.

World War II posed additional challenges for American workers. Women moved in increasing numbers into jobs formerly occupied by men, who left work to fight in Europe and the Pacific. More blacks also entered the manufacturing workforce. Though the workers who stayed behind found new opportunities, they also encountered stagnant wages and increased workloads. Though labor made tremendous gains during the 1930s and early 1940s, the era also featured the beginnings of a backlash against unions that swept the country in the years following World War II.

The end of World War I left many manufacturers with huge stockpiles of goods. Industries mechanized plants, which increased their ability to produce but led to an elimination of the jobs and status that skilled workers formerly occupied. The generally prosperous economy masked many of these changes. But as production rose, the numbers of workers in mining, manufacturing, and farming began to slide.

Women found more opportunities, and their share of the workforce rose almost three percent to 10.6 million. By 1930, women made up almost 25 percent of all workers.

Mechanization drove thousands of southern farmers, many of them black sharecroppers, into the factories and service jobs of the North and West. Between 1915 and 1928, 1.2 million African-Americans migrated from the South. Along with female workers they were denied the same opportunities and wages as white men. Both blacks and women also faced harassment on the job. Also during this time, immigrant workers were frequently unable to obtain decent wages or union protection.

Workers who went on strike in the years immediately following World War I often faced the threat of intimidation and, in many cases, bloodshed. Workers fought back in increasing numbers. In 1919 the country experienced 3,600 strikes involving four million workers. Though unions faced dwindling membership rosters in the South, textile workers in Tennessee and North Carolina boldly went on strike. Even though owners managed to crush these revolts, the protests foreshadowed events to come.

Organized Labor and the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II: The Great Depression

Industrialists and their supporters in state and federal governments managed to win most of the strikes in the years following the war. Workers who lost jobs faced bleak futures. In the first years after the war, unemployment hovered around 5 percent. But by 1928 it rose to 8 percent. Many observers believed the actual unemployment rate reached 13 to 15 percent. Workers who lost their jobs because of union organizing drives or strikes did not have the opportunity for public assistance or unemployment insurance.

The 1929 stock market crash tore down the facade of a booming economy. Unemployment reached 15 percent by the fall of 1930 as businesses closed, farms failed and bankruptcies soared. Bread lines appeared in large cities. Millions of people found themselves without work or assistance. Many took to the roads and railroads in a frantic search for work. Unemployment hit 25 percent by the winter of 1932 and 1933.

Workers who protested were met with force. In Detroit, company thugs shot laid off Ford employees who marched on an auto assembly plant. In Washington, D.C., thousands of World War I veterans gathered on the city in an attempt to persuade Congress to pay them money the government had 

promised for service during the conflict. The government planned to pay the "bonuses" in 1945. The veterans, members of the so-called Bonus Army, built a ramshackle village to protest the government's inaction. Army units, led by Douglas MacArthur, descended on the village, drove veterans from their shanty town, and burned it to the ground.

Hard times swept the country. Atlanta's economic base had expanded during the 1920s and the depression hit the area especially hard. Soup lines were a common site. The city eventually went broke and had to pay municipal workers in scrip instead of cash. Many local merchants refused to take Atlanta's money.

Farmers traveling during the Depression, reminiscent of the itinerants in "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck. Stetson Kennedy Collection (L1979-37/204).

Organized Labor and the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II: New Deal

President Herbert Hoover seemed to do little to ease the catastrophe. In a widespread backlash over his feeble leadership, voters overwhelmingly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt president in 1932 over a beleaguered Hoover. Roosevelt ushered in a broad range of economic programs designed to improve conditions under the auspices of the "New Deal."

For workers, the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 proved the most important piece of legislation he signed. The act allowed employers to draft codes of fair competition. Officials hoped the law would increase profits by controlling production, wages and hours. Section 7A of the act seemed to support the idea of workers joining unions. According to the act, workers had the right to "organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing". This section resonated with workers across the country and in the South.

Industry, however, essentially controlled the enforcement and provisions of the codes. The Cotton Textile Institute, a company organization, developed the code for the textile industry. It established a minimum weekly wage of $12 for workers in the South ($13 in the North), a 40-hour week, a limit on the number of hours a machine could run each week, and the eradication of child labor.

Mill owners merely instituted a stretch out to comply with the requirements. Older workers, who had no pension and retirement, often lost their jobs because they could not keep up with production rates. Those that remained suffered physical and mental exhaustion and found that the $12 minimum wage essentially became a "maximum" wage. Few of them actually earned that much money. Those who did discovered it was not a "living wage," and they still scrambled to make ends meet. The textile industry also failed to control production, and it again out paced demand. As a result, thousands of workers found themselves unemployed in the fall of 1933.

Southern millhands turned to the Code Authority with their complaints. Between August of 1933 and August of 1934, the industry-controlled body received 4,000 complaints. It investigated only 96 of them and resolved only one. The organization found no evidence of stretch outs or harassment of employees in any of these cases.

Organized Labor and the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II: Uprising of '34

Under increasingly difficult working conditions, mill workers quickly organized unions. In September of 1933 the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA) counted 40,000 members. Less than a year later the union had 270,000 members. Managers harassed and threatened southern millhands who attempted to organize unions. Strikes swept the industry in the summer of 1934. In Alabama, 20,000 mill workers walked out. Workers in Columbus walked out in August against Georgia Webbing and Tape Company. In an ominous event, a union member was killed in a fight with several strikebreakers.

The UTWA leadership, spurred by the militance displayed by its southern members, called a special convention for August. The union demanded a $12 minimum wage for a 30 hour week, an end to the stretch out, the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity, and recognition of the union. It called for a general strike in September if its goals were not met.

The textile mill owners ignored these demands and set the stage for a showdown. Mill operatives began to walk out in early September. They took to the roads of the southern Piedmont in cars organized as "flying squadrons." They formed picket lines outside other mills and tried to pull workers out on strike or shut the operations down. By September 15 an estimated 400,000 mill workers had walked out, idling about 70 percent of the industry. Southern governors, alarmed by the walkouts, called out the National Guard. An estimated 14,000 guardsmen were on duty in North and South Carolina by September 7.

Georgia proved the scene of some of the most dramatic and violent moments of the walkout, as mill owners and state officials worked hand in hand to defeat the workers. On September 4, 14 people were arrested in Macon as fights broke out at several mills. Seventeen people were arrested at Porterdale Mill when strikers attempted to shut down the plant. Violence also broke out at a plant in Cedartown. A striker and a deputy sheriff died and more than a score received serious injuries in a two hour gun battle at Trion Cotton Mills started by "special" deputies guarding the operation. Another striker was killed in front of Enterprise Mill in Augusta. Rioting broke out in Macon and Columbus. By September 14, 44,480 of the state's 60,000 textile workers had left their jobs.

Gov. Eugene Talmadge, in the middle of a primary campaign, declined to call out the troops until the election ended. After he won, Talmadge declared martial law and mobilized 4,000 National Guardsmen in the largest peacetime military action in state history. The governor took the action shortly after Cason Calloway, a textile baron and supporter, urged Talmadge to intervene in strike.

Troops swept through the state, arresting thousands of people suspected of aiding the walkout. UTWA organizers were seized in Macon, Augusta and Columbus. Talmadge declared that military authorities could suspend civil courts and due process laws. He ordered troops to build an internment camp at Fort McPherson in Atlanta. Eventually 126 people, 16 of them women, were held at the facility. Near the end of the strike, militiamen brutally beat a worker to death in front of his family at Calloway Mills, when he moved too slowly when ordered off mill property.

The force displayed by southern authorities took its toll. So did hunger, as workers missed much-need paychecks. The UTWA could offer little help. As people grew more desperate they began to cross picket lines. By the third week of the walkout, many mills had resumed production. 

Roosevelt avoided direct intervention in the walkout and appointed a board to resolve the major issues of the strike. The union called off the strike after the president urged the companies to take back strikers. Unionists, however, found that they were blacklisted. Companies refused to give them their jobs back and listen to workers' complaints. The failure of the strike resounded throughout the South, and it would be decades before many of the southern millhands would even discuss the strike again.

Tennessee Valley Authority: 1930's, Douglas Dam, Tennessee. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (L1984-26/18).

Organized Labor and the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II: CIO

Despite the losses suffered during the textile strike, overall union membership tripled between 1932 and 1939. Mass production workers in the automobile, steel and rubber industries joined unions by the thousands. "The president wants you to join the union," many organizers told workers. They eagerly signed up. John L. Lewis led a reinvigorated United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which unionized thousands of miners from Pennsylvania to Alabama. Lewis transformed the labor movement by forming the Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO) within the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Lewis and other union leaders pushed the AFL to organize new workers by industry, instead of along craft lines. The UMWA and other CIO unions eventually broke with the AFL in 1936. CIO organizers fanned out across the country. The organization met with spectacular victories at rubber plants in Akron, Ohio, auto plants in Detroit, and steel operations in Pittsburgh, Ohio, and Alabama.

An important moment in the CIO's efforts to organize the country's automobile plants occurred in Atlanta in 1936. In November of that year workers at the Lakewood General Motors and Fisher Body plants went on strike. The action started as a "sit-down" strike when the workers, members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 34, refused to vacate the plants. They eventually agreed to leave after management assured them that it would not try to reopen the operations.

Union sentiment proved especially strong at the General Motors and Fisher Body plants. The workers had fought for union recognition since the late 1920s. They initially affiliated with the AFL, which attempted to organize the plants along craft lines. When that proved inefficient, the workers eagerly joined the CIO. "The thing kept getting hotter and hotter in the plant," remembered organizer Joe Jacobs. "People were all signed up. People wanted the union."

During the strike workers received help from the surrounding community in their struggle against the auto companies. They formed a "food" squad, which traveled every day to the city market. Farmers gave them any food they could not sell. Miners from Birmingham sent coal to keep the strikers warm. Creditors worked with the union members, so few of them had serious financial trouble.

They even received covert support from Atlanta mayoral candidate William Hartsfield and positive coverage in the city's newspapers. Eventually the sit-downs spread to other General Motors plants, most notably an operation in Flint, Michigan. The workers held out for three months in the winter of 1936 and 1937 before the UAW reached its historic national agreement with General Motors.

Organized Labor and the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II: World War II

Overall, workers in South and the rest of the country entered the World War II years in a strong state. As Congress and Roosevelt began a program of aiding Germany's enemies, workers labored long hours to keep up with demand. Both the CIO and AFL grew more aggressive, organizing workers and pushing for more demands. On the eve of World War II, 2.3 million workers engaged in 4,200 strikes, more strikes than in any other era in United States history.

The war brought tremendous changes to Georgia and the rest of the South. Plants and military bases sprang up overnight across the country. In February of 1942 Bell Aircraft started construction in Marietta on a huge plant designed to build the famous B-29 bombers. About 800 construction workers labored to build the plant, which covered 2 million square feet. At peak wartime production an estimated 40,000 people, 6,000 of them women, worked in the "Bell Bomber" factory. "I worked over there for two years, [building] the B-29," remembered Catherine Cohen. "I used to work with electricity, I used to solder. I used to solder plugs. The money was better." 

Women and African-Americans entered the workforce in the highest numbers ever. In 1940, women made up 25 percent 

of the workforce. Five years later they made up 36 percent. They were paid less and kept from many skilled jobs. Often unions failed to offer them the same job protections they offered their male members.

In 1941 A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, convinced Roosevelt to set up the Fair Employment Practices Committee. The respected labor leader won the concession from the president after he threatened to call a march of 100,000 African-Americans on Washington, D.C. Black employment grew by 150 percent by the end of the war. In 1945, 1.25 million African Americans worked in manufacturing. Unions like the UMWA and the UAW fought for the rights of their black members. These unions reflected the heritage of the CIO, which sought to organize workers regardless of color.

Other unions, however, were not so committed to the rights of minorities. Thirty-one AFL affiliates barred black members, as did the railroad brotherhoods. Many unions, including CIO organizations, had segregated locals. The International Association of Machinists barred blacks from becoming members. The heritage of discrimination against blacks and women in many unions and the missed opportunities for broadening the appeal of the labor movement would come back to haunt it in the decades that followed World War II.

Though production levels spurred by the war increased labor's numbers, the seeds for a backlash against unions also were planted during this time. Workers found themselves hard pressed to meet the war's demands for goods. They worked long hours and sacrificed safety restrictions to help soldiers on the battlefield. Their wages often remained stagnant while prices increased.

A series of strikes swept American industries during the early years of the war. Workers went on strike 2,970 times in walkouts that idled 840,000 workers in 1942. The country's coalfields became hotbeds of discontent as miners, who watched conditions in already-dangerous mines decline in favor of high production levels, engaged in a wave of strikes. Congress responded with the Smith-Connally Act in 1943, a law that made it harder to strike and restricted the activities of labor unions.

With the passage of the Smith-Connally Act, the backlash against labor had begun. John L. Lewis, who had helped create the CIO, and militant coal miners became the focus of anger over their committment to the war effort. This anger and additional problems affected the UMWA and other unions. As World War II drew to a close and millions of workers faced unemployment a demand dropped, labor unions faced a hostile public and political leaders anxious to roll back the rights they had won under the New Deal.

Bell Bomber Plant: 1940's, Marietta, Georgia. Courtesy of the Atlanta Historical Society (L1984-34/8).

Organized Labor and the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II: In Brief

Union members went on strike in unprecedented numbers in the years following World War I. Workers who lost jobs because of union activity had no unemployment insurance or public assistance. Though the unemployment rate seemed low, many believed it hovered at 13 to 15 percent during the 1920s.

The stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression. Unemployment surged to 25 percent in the early 1930s. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in 1932 with the support of organized labor, instituted "New Deal" programs that helped restore the economy. 

United Textile Workers of America members walked out in a general strike to protest working conditions in the mills in the fall of 1934. By mid-September, an estimated 400,000 millhands were on strike. Mill owners and state officials across the South joined to crush the strike. 

Atlanta auto workers began a sit down strike at local plants in 1936. The strikes spread to operations in Detroit and resulted in the first major industry agreement for the new United Auto Workers union in early 1937. 

Workers made gains during this era. The Congress of Industrial Organizations and the American Federation of Labor grew dramatically. A series of strikes during World War II planted the seeds of an anti-union backlash. 

Organized Labor and the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II: Albert W. Gossett's Union Career

When Atlanta labor leader Albert W. Gossett died suddenly in 1951, newspapers hailed him as one of "Georgia's outstanding labor union figures."

Born in Atlanta in 1901, Gossett headed the Atlanta Federation of Trades from 1940 to 1945. He led the body during the difficult World War II years, and symbolized many of the divisions that swept the labor movement in the 1930s and 1940s.

Gossett also served on public boards during and after the war, as did numerous labor officials. His fiery personality often led to public disputes when his views clashed with others. Once, Gossett even tussled with an opponent during a meeting with Georgia Gov. E.D. Rivers.

Gossett began his career in organized labor after he returned from World War I. He became an apprentice bricklayer in 1923. A year later workers elected him recording secretary of Atlanta Bricklayers Local 8.

He served as vice president of the AFT in the 1930s. Members elected him president in 1940. Gossett put an emphasis on bringing new workers into the union fold, and American Federation of Labor unions grew in the Atlanta area under his tenure as AFT president.

During World War II, Gossett helped set up a committee composed of Atlanta's "outstanding citizens" to help negotiate labor-management agreements that could avoid strikes that would hurt the war effort.

Gossett, as the leading AFL official in Atlanta, often criticized his counterparts in the new, militant Congress of Industrial Organizations.

During a particularly heated organizing effort in Tennessee, Gossett resorted to "red baiting" CIO unions, accusing them of communist connections. "The CIO is receiving money from the communist party," he told Knoxville unionists. "Most of its leaders are communists."

The charges, though largely baseless, reflected the intensity of the bitter rivalry between the two labor organizations.

After the war Gossett served as an international representative with the Retail Clerks International Union.

The Albert W. Gossett Papers, Southern Labor Archives, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia.

Organized labor and the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II: Overview of Sources

John E. Allen, "Eugene Talmadge and the Great Textile Strike in Georgia, September 1934," in Essays in Southern Labor History: Selected Papers, Southern Labor History Conference, 1976.

Virginia Causey, John Lee and George Mills, Work 'n Progress: Lessons in the History of American Labor for Middle and Secondary School Students.

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.

Neil Herring and Sue Thrasher, "UAW Sit-Down Strike: Atlanta, 1936," Southern Exposure, Winter 1974.

Cliff Kuhn, "'We Lived That Way': An Oral History Interview with Joe Jacobs," Atlanta History, Winter 1993.

Cliff Kuhn, Harlon E. Joye and E. Bernard West, Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-1948.

Robert H. Zieger, American Workers, American Unions, 1920-1985.

Title Image ("Depression, New Deal, and WWII"): Textile strike, workers overturning car, policeman using a billy club (image from a book -- ?); "Georgia Textile Worker Project" (L1982-10/389).

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