Millworkers' Strike

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Millworkers' Strike

United States 1934


An estimated 400,000 to 500,000 southern millworkers and their northern counterparts walked off the job in a general strike in September 1934. This is now often referred to as the Great Uprising of '34. That this strike was mobilized at all is worth noting. The southern United States has been historically opposed to unionism of any stripe. The millworkers themselves were typically unfamiliar with factory life as most had been farmers. The strikes led to violence and deaths and gained little in the way of concession for workers who walked out in hopes of securing higher wages, shorter workdays, and better conditions.


  • 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1924: In the United States, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, along with oil company executives Harry Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, is charged with conspiracy and bribery in making fraudulent leases of U.S. Navy oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. The resulting Teapot Dome scandal clouds the administration of President Warren G. Harding.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1934: Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, who aligns his nation with Mussolini's Italy, establishes a fascist regime in an attempt to keep Austria out of the Nazi orbit. Austrian Nazis react by assassinating Dollfuss.
  • 1934: Dionne sisters, the first quintuplets to survive beyond infancy, are born in Canada.
  • 1937: Japan attacks China, and annexes most of that nation's coastal areas.
  • 1939: After years of loudly denouncing one another (and quietly cooperating), the Nazis and Soviets sign a non-aggression pact in August. This clears the way for the Nazi invasion of Poland, and for Soviet action against Finland. (Stalin also helps himself to a large portion of Poland.)
  • 1942: Axis conquests reach their height in the middle of this year. The Nazis control a vast region from Normandy to the suburbs of Stalingrad, and from the Arctic Circle to the edges of the Sahara. To the east, the Japanese "Co-Prosperity Sphere" encompasses territories from China to Burma to the East Indies, stretching deep into the western Pacific.
  • 1945: April sees the death of three leaders: Roosevelt passes away on 12 April; the Italians execute Mussolini and his mistress on 28 April; and Hitler (along with Eva Braun, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, and Goebbels's family) commits suicide on 30 April.
  • 1949: North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is established.

Event and Its Context

Cities throughout the southern United States began courting the New England mill owners in the 1920s with various promises, not the least of which was cheap labor. Popular stereotypes portrayed the southern worker as docile and obedient and likely to accept any wages or conditions without question. Between 1923 and 1929, the number of textile workers in the region grew to a half million.

Work stoppages and protests initiated were typically confined to the isolated mill towns. These villages or towns were, in most cases, no more than company towns dotted with shacks. Working conditions throughout the Great Depression were terrible. The working poor often worked and lived in unsanitary and unsafe places. Health problems, many induced by spending long hours in an environment in which the air was heavy with cotton lint, were common. Pellagra, a vitamin-deficiency disease resulting from the insufficiently varied diets that were often a byproduct of low wages, was common. As of 1926, working women in the mill towns typically worked 60 hours per week for about $1.81.

Textile workers were often subjected to stretch-outs, or schedule adjustments designed to increase production. During these periods, laborers were given more work to do in the same amount of time, often being asked to produce the same amount of yard goods. Mill owners typically demanded increased productivity from workers without increasing wages and attempted to undertake these increases with fewer workers. Health conditions did not improve. It was also common for workers to go an entire shift without so much as a meal break.

The United Textile Workers (UTW) and National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) had problems establishing local unions throughout the South, but the workers there had established their own independent unions. These homegrown unions, which started becoming more effective around 1929, could be more responsive to local village conditions. The NTWU, which had attempted organizing campaigns in about 1931, was weak and considered radical.

Textile workers became increasingly dissatisfied with working conditions. The depression intervened to prevent more vocal protests when the workers were fed up with stretch-outs and poor wages. Strikes took place sporadically between 1929 and 1934. Some were effective, including one supported locally in South Carolina that involved 15 different mills. Another strike occurred in 1932 in the same region without the assistance of the UTW.

Another problem endemic in the region was protecting African American millworkers. The textile industry reflected the general condition in the South in segregating its workers.

The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 gave workers the right to strike. The Cotton Textile Institute, in an effort to circumvent the law, cajoled the NIRA into allowing it to chart its own independent board and thus established the Cotton Textile Code Authority. Mill owners had adopted a uniform code, the Cotton Textile Code, that dictated working conditions. The first industry codes were enacted on 9 July 1933. These codes were designed to provide equitable conditions throughout the industry. They stipulated a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour, a workweek of 40 hours, abolition of child labor, wage differentials, and wages equivalent to 48 hours' earnings for 40 hours' work. The code increased the average wage to about $12 per week.

Complaints of code violations were to be brought before the Cotton Textile Industrial Relations Board—often referred to as the Bruere Board after its chairman, Robert Breure—but that rarely brought satisfaction. In fact, much of the time, the board closed its eyes to stretch-outs or supported management decisions not to rehire strikers who sought to return to their jobs.

With the creation of the NIRA, southern textile workers had hoped for some reprieve. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom they supported, gave them hope with his talk of keeping the country working and productive through the economic hard times. The codes, however, failed to give the workers any relief. Mill owners decreased wages and cut hours. With the codes enacted, mill owners reduced the maximum possible wages back to the minimum required under the codes. The codes did not even address stretch-outs as workers had anticipated.

The depression brought soaring unemployment rates, and those who had work suffered dreadful conditions. In Georgia, for example, women workers had their pay cut capriciously for various infractions. Employees often had more work heaped upon them. They were also concerned with the mill owners circumventing the NIRA or "chiseling the code."

Throughout the United States, major strikes occurred in many industries. These prompted, if not encouraged, workers nationwide to consider strikes within their own plants. Some strikes occurred in the textile industry in the spring of 1934. These were nominal and had little lasting effect on conditions.

By May 1934 the manufacturers gained permission to cut production by 25 percent and so reduced workers' hours to 30 a week. There was no offsetting increase in wages. Women were hit hard by these reductions. According to Simon Bryant, some were subjected to sexual harassment by male supervisors: "Some male supervisors let female employees know that they could keep their jobs only in exchange for sexual favors or tolerance of lewd gestures and vulgar talk."

The union threatened to call a general strike. The government asked the union not to strike, and the union withdrew its threat. The code authority also discussed a move to shut down all textile manufacturers on 14 May. This would affect northern woolen and silk mills as well as the southern mills. Northern workers demanded a 30-hour week with 40 hours' pay. The UTW also gained representation within the NRA.

Workers in Alabama were not convinced that this would help them at all. On 17 July, 25,000 workers staged a walkout. Half of the strikers were women. This gained the action the support of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL). It also enabled that union to establish a local in Birmingham, Alabama. This strike was pivotal in that the demands made by these workers were adopted by the UTW for its planned national strike.

The Strike Begins

The UTW convened an emergency national convention in August 1934. The vote was 571 to 10 in favor of a general strike. The action was called for 1 September. Although this strike is commonly associated with the southern United States, the general textile strike occurred throughout New England as well. The decision as to whether the cotton and woolen workers would be joined by the rayon and silk workers was left to the discretion of these other industries. As mentioned, demands of striking mill workers in Alabama were adopted for the national strike. These conditions included a maximum 30-hour work-week with a pay scale of $12 per week for unskilled laborers, $18 for semiskilled laborers, and $30 for the highly skilled mill workers. Workers also asked to be represented by the UTW in any bargaining and asked for an arbitration board to be appointed.

According to Janet Irons, "The day before it began the New York Times called it 'the gravest strike threat that has confronted the Roosevelt Administration.'" Roosevelt did not like strikes. On 6 September he appointed the Textile Board of Inquiry, with John G. Winant as its leader to mediate between the union and the mills.

The strike began in earnest on 3 September 1934. Because many of the striking mills were isolated and decentralized, the workers developed a tactic known as "flying squadrons." Groups of 200 to 1,000 workers jumped in cars and trucks and traveled to the remote mills to shut down the plants.

Early on the Associated Press reported that more than half of the 699,800 textile workers were on strike, but some estimates went as high as 65 percent. About 40 percent of the strikers were women. By 19 September 1934 there were 421,000 workers on strike. Although the mill strike is often called the largest single-industry strike in U.S. history, the some historians disagree and hold that the largest was the 1922 mine strike in which 612,000 workers were on strike.

In addition to flying squadrons, workers employed other tactics to call attention to their issues. In Macon, Georgia, for example, workers blockaded a train with their bodies. Squadrons often carried the American flag, believing that this would give them carte blanche to get past militia into the plants. Still, violence was common.

During the strike, mill owners leveraged law enforcement and public sentiment to attempt to break the strike. In cases in which the mill owners did not have the help of local or state law enforcement to quell worker unrest, vigilantes filled that role. Strikers were beaten, subjected to tear gas, kidnapped, or jailed. Even the Ku Klux Klan participated in the unrest. In some communities Klan members included supervisors who took their concerns about union organizing to their Klan meetings. The Klan harassed union members well after the strike, going so far as to leave their signature burning crosses on the lawns of some local leaders. Authorities in Atlanta imposed martial law and had strikers arrested and kept in internment camps. The National Guard was dispatched to mill towns in Connecticut and Rhode Island. These tactics generated confrontations.

Violence in Honea Path

Perhaps no incident blemished the strike more than that which occurred at Honea Path, South Carolina, site of the most overt antilabor violence of the strike. Located in Anderson County, the Chiquola Manufacturing Company mill was the area's largest employer and ran the community. The mayor of Honea Path was the mill superintendent.

Management recruited strikebreakers from neighboring areas. Some loyal workers crossed the picket lines. This continued for three days. Word reached the local sheriff that flying squadrons were en route to shut down the plant. The sheriff decided to deputize several people, mostly those still working in the mill.

The rumors had been correct. A flying squadron departed from Belton, 20 miles away, to Honea Path. On the morning of 6 September 1934, the crowd waiting to support the squadron was "singing gospel hymns and waving a gigantic American flag" outside the plant. Inside the mill building, law enforcement and mill employees were lying in wait. The mill whistle that called workers to the looms started the battle. Strikers and the flying squadron blocked the plant gate. Strikebreakers attempted to enter the mill. Soon, fist fights broke out. Gunfire started and reportedly lasted three minutes. The final tally was seven dead and 75 injured. Most of the injured had been shot in the back as they had tried to leave the scene.

The Chiquola Manufacturing Company refused to allow any churches in the community to have funeral services for the strikers. The 9 September services, held on the outskirts of town, attracted more than 10,000 people. A letter from Francis Gorman, union vice president, was read aloud at the services. He wrote, "Americanism does not mean shooting workers in the back and that is what has been done by the hirelings of the employers." Mill owners and middle-class residents feared what they saw as anarchy on the part of the strikers.

In addition to the seven deaths in South Carolina, two people were killed in Rhode Island and six in Georgia. Two of those six were killed in a gun battle in Trion, Georgia, that also injured another 15 people. Of all the deaths in the course of the strike, none was ever prosecuted.

Strike Ends in Disillusionment

In addition to the deaths and injuries, the mills fired other union leaders and evicted some from their company-owned houses. Those who had participated in the strike were blacklisted and never worked in the textile industry again.

Management also replaced some strikers. Some were forced to sign so-called yellow-dog contracts—an agreement in which a worker agrees never to join a union—if they were hired back at all. Eric Foner wrote, "Furious over the needless capitulation, the workers were even further alienated when they discovered that, despite the fact that both Roosevelt and Gorman had promised that all strikers would be rehired without discrimination, thousands of them were unable to get their jobs back." Some of the mills did not reopen immediately.

The board Roosevelt had assembled to discover what had been happening in the textile industry issued its report on 20 September. The document, which was not responsive to the strikers' demands, recommended leaving negotiations up to each individual mill. The board report did not require that striking workers be rehired, nor did it suggest that the mill owners recognize the UTW or any other union.

Gorman, at the insistence of Roosevelt, reluctantly asked striking workers to return to their jobs on 22 September 1934.He had no alternative, having seen "force and hunger" compel workers to cross the picket lines. The union had few resources to assist the strikers. Strikers had apparently understood that they would get strike wages of $6 per week, but those payments never materialized. The promised relief of the New Deal also never arrived. Gorman had thought that the massive action would strengthen the union and improve conditions.

Strikers were disappointed and disillusioned in the aftermath of the strike. "Many of us did not understand fully the role of the Government in the struggle between labor and industry," wrote Gorman after the strike.

African American workers continued to fare poorly after the general strike. The UTW paid little heed to their needs, and its continuing discrimination against African American workers resulted in the establishment of separate unions by race. This defeated any solidarity the union had tried to cultivate.

The general strike of 1934 yielded little if anything in the way of improvement of conditions for the strikers and is generally regarded as unsuccessful. As Philip Taft noted, this labor action was "one of the least excusable in history. … The strike was called without adequate preparations and without a vote of the hundreds of thousands of workers who were called to join in the walkout." He stated that the union was squarely responsible for the defeat and that boasts of victory were hollow.

The Great Uprising of '34 remains the second largest worker walkout in U.S. history. Union membership in the UTW alone was 80,000 in 1935—significantly fewer than in 1934. The UTW remained one of the smallest AFL member unions. Following the strike, Roosevelt discarded the Cotton Textile Industrial Relations Board and replaced it with the Textile Labor Relations Board with Walter P. Stacy, a judge from North Carolina, as its chair. The new board had little impact on conditions. Despite the relative inaction of the Roosevelt government, the southern mill workers continued to be loyal to Roosevelt.

A legacy of the strike was an increase in already strong antiunion sentiment throughout the South. The violence against millworkers, the blacklists, and intimidation made any subsequent organization very difficult.

Key Players

Bruere, Robert W.: Bruere was chairman of the Cotton Textile Industrial Relations Board at the time of the 1934 general strike.

Gorman, Francis J. (1890-?): Born in a mill town in northern England, Gorman immigrated with his family to the United States to the mill town of Providence, Rhode Island. He went to work in the mills and was a United Textile Workers organizer. At the time of the strike, he was union vice president. He is known as a leader of the general strike for the UTW.

Love, J. Spencer (1893-1962): Founder of Burlington Mills, one of the many companies affected by the general strike, Love was born in New England and founded Burlington Mills upon his return from service in World War I. The company was named for his first mill.

McMahon, Thomas: President of the United Textile Workers at the time of the general strike and an advocate of industrial unionism, McMahon was one of the founding members of the Congress of Industrial Organizations the year after the strike.

Nord, Elizabeth (1902-1986): Born in Lancashire, England, Nord was the daughter of a coal miner and a weaver. The family moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island when she was 10. She got her first job when she was 14 and attended night school. Nord was a weaver in the silk industry when she joined the union in 1928. She was a member of the Textile National Industrial Board and had been a leading organizer during the general strike, specifically in Blackstone Valley, Rhode Island. At the time of the strike she was the highest ranking woman in the UTW.

Sloan, George A. (1893-1955): Sloan was chairman of the Cotton Textile Code Authority at the time of the strike.

Winant, John G. (1889-1947): Born in New York, Winant eventually became governor of New Hampshire. He was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to head the Textile Board of Inquiry. He committed suicide in 1947.

See also: Mass Strikes; National Industrial Recovery Act; National Women's Trade Union League; Stock Market Crash.



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"The Uprising of '34 Collection, 1987-1995." Georgia State University Special Collections Department [cited 21 September 2002]. <>.

—Linda Dailey Paulson