United Textile Workers

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UNITED TEXTILE WORKERS. Created in 1901 when several independent textile unions met in Washington, D.C., the United Textile Workers of America (UTW) was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). However, the demographics of the textile industry hampered the first two decades of the UTW. The majority of textile workers were foreign-born, but foreign-born membership in the UTW never exceeded 10 percent. The executive council of the UTW reflected the suspicion, held by the governing board of the AFL, that foreign workers brought "foreign" ideologies with them. Indeed, a sizeable number of textile workers openly expressed their political allegiance to socialism, syndicalism, and communism. Some workers in New England, for example, opened their meetings with the singing of the "International." For thirty years the UTW focused its organizing efforts on New England, ignoring the growing number of textile workers in the South.

Southern textile mills proved, however, to be the most important chapter in the history of the UTW. In 1934 the National Industrial Recovery Act established the right of non-farm workers to organize and bargain collectively. This federal protection acted as a catalyst for the UTW to renew its organizing efforts and concentrate its energies in the South. Within a few months membership increased from 40,000 to just over 270,000. Much of this number resided in the Southern Piedmont area. By 1934 the depression exacerbated the problems for mill workers. In particular, the use of the stretch-out (requiring workers to do more work with no increase in pay) by mill owners alienated the already overworked, underpaid worker. The UTW called for a nationwide strike against the mill owners. Beginning on Labor Day 1934, Francis Gorman of the UTW led the strike effort. Among the demands of the UTW was an end to the stretch-out, a thirty-hour workweek, and recognition of the union. The strike closed mills from Maine to Alabama as 400,000 workers walked out. However, mill owners used strikebreakers, state police, evictions from company housing, and violence to end the walkout. Within a month the strike was over, and many workers found themselves blacklisted. But the strike did lead to the passage of the Farm Labors Standard Act of 1938. However, the blacklist and evictions dramatically reduced UTW membership, which dropped to 37,000 in 1936. That year the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) made overtures to the humbled UTW. Union president Thomas McMahon, a member since the group's beginnings in 1901, supported the creation of the Textile Workers Organizing Committee. That group supervised the union's shift in 1939 from the AFL to the CIO under a new name, the Textile Workers Union of America (TWU). However, beginning in 1948 the CIO became the target of the federal government's anticommunism campaign. As a result, in 1953 the leaders of the TWU successfully campaigned to return to the AFL. The last major organizing effort of the TWU began in the early 1960s when the union targeted the mills of J. P. Stevens in the Southeast. The difficulty of this project resulted in the merging of the TWU with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in 1976, taking the name Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. Although the merged union failed to achieve its ambitious goals, its work did result in the intervention of the National Labor Relations Board and federal action against J. P. Stevens.


Daniel, Cletus E. The Culture of Misfortune: An Interpretive History of Textile Unionism in the United States. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 2001.

Hodges, James A. "J. P. Stevens and the Union Struggle for the South." In Race, Class, and Community in Southern Labor History. Edited by Gary M. Fink and Merl E. Reed. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.

Marshall, F. Ray. Labor in the South. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

David O'DonaldCullen

See alsoAmalgamated Clothing Workers of America, American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, Labor ; Trade Unions .

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United Textile Workers