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What Do We Need A Union For? The TWUA in the South, 1945-1955.

By Timothy J. Minchin. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. 285 pps. Softbound $45.00; Paperback $16.95.

The majority of historical studies of southern textile workers have examined the inability of textile unions to organize effectively the southern textile labor force in the period before World War II. These studies argue that company control of both the public and private lives of the workforce exerted through the company-owned mill village circumscribed the unions' organizational efforts by making southern textile workers cautious, insular, and fearful of organizational efforts. According to these studies, workers developed a "distinctive worker culture" molded by an intrusive corporate paternalism. Sociological studies reinforced the notion that textile workers were unable to overcome a tradition of submission and defeat. These works stress the continuity and the static nature of the southern textile workforce between the 1930s and 1980s. Like A Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (1987), based on interviews collected by researchers at the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina, challenges these interpretations of an acquiescent workforce. The book's authors make the argument that while workers may have been unable to mount an effective public display of opposition to mill owners because of the mill village environment, they privately developed a "unique workers' culture" that used informal means to thwart domination by management.

Timothy Minchin's What Do We Need a Union For? goes further. Minchin maintains that southern textile workers did not fail the union, rather the union failed southern textile workers. Union supporters, especially women, were extremely militant, often staying out on strike for months, losing their hard won personal assets rather than give in to management. Using major labor archival sources, the oral history collections of the Southern Oral History Project, and sixty-three new oral history interviews with southern textile workers and union activists conducted between 1993 and 1995, Minchin explains the failure of the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA-CIO) primarily in the context of post-war national economic trends.

Standards of living improved for all workers in America after World War II, which led to social and cultural change. In this respect, southern textile workers were not beyond the pale; they typified the trend toward consumerism manifested primarily through home buying, automobile ownership, and increased installment purchases of consumer durable goods. Between 1941 and 1945, average hourly pay in the southern textile industry rose almost 56%; average weekly pay increased by almost 76%; and average weekly hours increased by about 13%. While automobile workers realized a 79% increase in hourly wages and steel workers saw about a 98% increase, southern textile workers hourly wages rose an astonishing 151% (p. 18-19).

This huge increase allowed textile workers to buy homes, automobiles, and consumer goods although they depended on installment credit plans to finance these purchases. The higher standard of living and increased consumer debt increased workers' reluctance to participate in strikes, an effect recognized by management who made special efforts to lend employees money, secure commercial loans, and sell workers mill-village houses. Management saw homeownership as psychologically advantageous to the company: it made workers responsible, stable, and interested in self-advancement (p. 21). Workers feared unionization and strikes as this threatened their new higher standard of living. Far from being a static and insular workforce, Minchin sees southern textile workers as fully engaged in the economic and cultural changes of the postwar period.

In an era of higher wages and better living conditions, management was able to use postwar prosperity to its advantage to undermine unionization efforts. Companies no longer fought unionization through violence; rather they undermined TWUA efforts by matching or exceeding union pay and fringe benefits in non-union factories. All workers benefited by TWUA demands, but most did not have to join the union to reap these benefits. In the postwar South, TWUA erred in continuing to focus on the economic benefits of unionization; workers saw none. Minchin argues unionization efforts needed to focus on non-economic goals, particularly union security.

Another factor in the failure of the TWUA was the structure of the textile industry. This structure worked to management's advantage while hampering TWUA's organizational efforts. The southern textile industry was composed of many small mills under chain ownership. For example, in 1949 the three largest companies, Cannon, Burlington, and J.P. Stevens, employed 64,000 workers at 86 separate mills (p. 11). This meant that even if the TWUA organized one of the mills, it gained only a small number of members. Organizing one mill did not give the union numerical strength, nor did it ensure market power for labor. With many small mills in operation, companies could simply switch production from a strike site to a non-striking mill ensuring continuation of production. Another solution for company owners was to simply shut down the striking mill. Union strike funds were never adequate to cover workers' increased consumer debt; and unless merchants supported the strikers and the union, workers would run the risk of losing their homes, automobiles, and consumer goods. A significant number of workers were unwilling to take this chance; joining a union threatened their "new pattern of living" (p. 23).

The TWUA faced outside opposition as well from the community leaders, anti-union legislation, and the rise of professional antiunion lawyers who used legal delaying tactics and injunctions to destroy organizing campaigns. Racist and anticommunist propaganda also took its toll on the TWUA, as did the intra-union rivalry between Emil Rieve and George Baldanzi. This battle for leadership of the southern campaign ultimately forced local chapters to take sides and divided the union in two, severely weakening its effectiveness.

Minchin's work brings new factors to light in explaining the decline in TWUA membership from "over 400,000 members in 1945 to 176,000 in 1957" (p. 6). Newly collected oral history evidence clearly indicates that the TWUA failed because workers rejected unionism after a "pragmatic assessment of their position with regard to organized workers and the economic climate generally, rather than their relationship with the company" (p. 200). Even while rejecting union membership, these workers understood that the union was winning them wage increases. Why join the union when non-union companies matched union pay scales and fringe benefit packages? Postwar union organizers recognized the profound changes in southern textile workers' standard of living as the primary cause of the failure of the TWUA between 1945 and 1955. Many workers believed that a union was no longer necessary, and Minchin argues that the TWUA failed to convince them otherwise.
Joyce A. Hanson
California State University, San Bernardino
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Author:Hanson, Joyce A.
Publication:The Oral History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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