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United Textile Workers of America

United Textile Workers of America

United States 1901

Synopsis

The founding of the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA) in 1901 came about for several reasons. At the turn of the century, the progress of textile unionism remained extremely slow. This was worsened by the radical manufacturing shift from the North, specifically New England, to the southern states, such as Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia. The poor reaction to unionism in the South further hindered the movement in the textile industry. It was not until the Knights of Labor began their attempts to organize workers in the mid-1880s that progress was truly made. Slowly, craft and textile unions began to form, mostly in New England and the Middle States. Even so, the Knights failed to make real headway with regard to the textile industry and eventually disbanded. In 1891 the American Federation of Labor (AFL) attempted to amalgamate many of these craft and textile unions by founding the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW). The NUTW, however, remained ineffectual because of its poor financial and membership strength. After pressure began to mount on the AFL, the federation held conferences and a convention to develop a new amalgamated confederation of textile unions. In November 1901 the parties reached a compromise and founded the UTWA. Although it would face many of the same difficulties experienced by its predecessor, the UTWA became a strong union whose influence would be felt in the textile industry for decades to come.

Timeline

  • 1881: U.S. President James A. Garfield is assassinated in a Washington, D.C., railway station by Charles J. Guiteau.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1891: French troops open fire on workers during a 1 May demonstration at Fourmies, where employees of the Sans Pareille factory are striking for an eight-hour workday. Nine people are killed—two of them children—and 60 more are injured.
  • 1894: Thousands of unemployed American workers—a group named "Coxey's Army" for their leader, Jacob S. Coxey—march on Washington, D.C. A number of such marches on the capital occurred during this period of economic challenges, but Coxey's march was the only one to actually reach its destination.
  • 1897: In the midst of a nationwide depression, Mrs. Bradley Martin, daughter of Carnegie Steel magnate Henry Phipps, throws a lavish party at New York's recently opened Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where she has a suite decorated to look like Versailles. Her 900 guests, dressed in Louis XV period costumes, consume 60 cases of champagne.
  • 1899: Polish-born German socialist Rosa Luxemburg rejects the argument that working conditions in Europe have improved and that change must come by reforming the existing system. Rather, she calls for an overthrow of the existing power structure by means of violent international revolution.
  • 1901: U.S. President William McKinley is assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becomes president.
  • 1901: Austrian-American immunologist Karl Landsteiner discovers A, B, and O blood.
  • 1901: Guglielmo Marconi makes the first successful transmission and reception of a radio signal.
  • 1903: Russia's Social Democratic Party splits into two factions: the moderate Mensheviks and the hard-line Bolsheviks. Despite their names, which in Russian mean "minority" and "majority," respectively, Mensheviks actually outnumber Bolsheviks.
  • 1907: At the Second Hague Peace Conference, 46 nations adopt 10 conventions governing the rules of war.
  • 1911: Turkish-Italian War sees the first use of aircraft as an offensive weapon. Italian victory results in the annexation of Libya.

Event and Its Context

A Time for Change

In 1793 British mechanic Samuel Slater completely changed the American textile industry with the introduction of the first successful water-powered textile mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He also introduced organizational methods that would spawn the American Industrial Revolution. Corporal punishment, child labor, and company housing and stores were common practices in the Slater Mill. These methods quickly became so commonplace in the industry they were named the Rhode Island System. Therefore, it is ironic that another dramatic change in the textile industry also took place in Pawtucket: the first labor strike in an American textile mill. In 1824 the workers of Pawtucket mills walked out to protest the simultaneous reduction of wages and increase in work hours. This strike also saw female employees joining their male coworkers in protest, which was unprecedented. What began in Pawtucket would in many ways lead to the founding of the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA) almost 80 years later.

The seeds of unionism were undoubtedly sown by the poor work conditions prevalent in the textile industry. Of all their complaints, low pay and long hours were the usual cause for most worker protests. As late as 1899, the average pay remained $5 per week for textile workers (if they were lucky). This does not take into account the many wage cuts caused by fluctuations in the economy at the time. Management also expected employees to work between 12 and 14 hours a day, five days a week. Sometimes there was an additional 10-hour shift expected on Saturdays. These long hours only increased the dangers of an already perilous work environment. Exhausted workers commonly lost fingers or pieces of scalp to the machinery. Because the textile mills owned the workers' homes and controlled their access to food and goods, employees could be thrown into the street or starved at the first sign of complaint. In many cases, strikers were simply replaced with immigrant workers.

Even against overwhelming odds, textile workers continued to fight for a better life. Although there were far more failures than successes, victories still occurred. These victories, no matter how small, sparked the flame of unionism in America's textile industry. This flame, however, would remain dim in the turbulent times before the founding of the UTWA in 1901.

The Trials of Textile Unionism

The growth of union memberships in the textile industry remained stunted for several reasons. Among the obstacles were low wages, low skill requirements, the predominance of immigrant workers, and even the unions themselves. Unions tended to ignore the lower-paid workers in favor of the highly skilled and thus higher paid workers. Because most textile workers earned low wages, the unions abandoned a large pool of potential members. This large population of low-skilled workers also limited the source of effective leadership, which furthered the union's preference for the highly skilled. Conservative union leadership also ignored female workers, despite their active role in unionism. The large numbers of immigrant workers further hampered membership growth because of prejudice and poor communication, which kept the workers unorganized and divided. Because of the different crafts and the industries' geographical extent, numerous unions formed. These scattered unions were constantly at odds, often for ideological or political reasons, thus hindering unionism even further.

This general disorganization would continue to hamper the textile industry until the latter part of the nineteenth century. It became obvious from the continuing struggles and reemergence of unions, however, that there was momentum for the movement. Something needed to be done to foster and maintain the existence of unionism. The Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, would help push the textile industry down this road in the mid-1880s.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The Knights of Labor wished to unify all laborers, skilled and unskilled, into a single labor organization. The ranks of the Knights of Labor swelled quickly and local assemblies for textile workers formed. By 1886 more than 25,000 textile workers were members of the Knights. Despite this, the Knights had little success in improving labor conditions and preventing craft partisanship. The Knights' slow dissolution after 1886 left several textile and trade assemblies struggling in its wake, as well as southern textile workers with little unification. The concept of unionism still remained, albeit unattended.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) realized that to inspire comprehensive unionism in the textile industry they needed to find a middle ground between the Knights of Labor and the separatist craft unions. A single organization of skilled workers might be able to accomplish that goal. With that belief in mind, the AFL chartered the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW) in 1891. This first attempt at amalgamation brought together several textile unions from New England and the Middle States. However, the membership numbers remained low and most organizations refused to join. Despite its strong start, the NUTW would also suffer several setbacks, as had the Knights before it. In 1895 a socialist victory drove off most of NUTW's New England membership. Individualism remained rampant and craft unions continued to break off through the NUTW's history. Defeats, such as the action at Cone Mills of Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1900, continued to weaken the union further. By 1901 the NUTW was foundering.

In spite of its failures, the NUTW brought about positive change for the future. In many ways, it laid the groundwork for the founding of the UTWA and became a blueprint from which to build. More important, the NUTW launched a very successful campaign in the South. Strikes in the South, including the key 1898 strike in Augusta, Georgia, revived workers' interest in unionism. Led by Prince W. Greene, several new textile organizations began to form. Greene went to the AFL to apply for affiliation. In turn, the AFL incorporated these fledgling unions with the NUTW. The campaign that ensued resulted in the southern workers suddenly having the majority vote in the weakened NUTW. This foothold in the South would serve the AFL well during the formation of the UTWA.

Getting It Right: The Founding of the United Textile Workers of America

Although the NUTW remained weak at the turn of the century, an economic shift in the textile industry from the North to the South was taking place. Newer technology along with lower manufacturing costs and taxes would soon lead to the South's domination of the textile industry. Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, quickly recognized the new opportunity for the amalgamation of textile unions. Because of the economic shift, New England textile workers found themselves facing serious wage reductions. F. Ray Marshall's book, Labor in the South, quotes Gompers as saying that the wage cuts "may well prove a blessing in disguise." He believed the result was "to arouse the inactive spirit of the [New England] textile workers" and to revive the need for "the organization of the textile workers in the South." Because Prince W. Greene of the NUTW had already launched a successful campaign in the South, the opportunity to accomplish the latter remained strong. The next logical step was to bring together all of the parties.

The AFL led the way in accomplishing this goal. Middle State independents were beginning to strengthen; many of these had previously broken off from the NUTW. In 1900 the National Federation of Textile Operatives established a loose alliance of craft unions in New England and eventually brought about the founding of the American Federation of Textile Operatives (AFTO). Although a diverse amalgamation of craft unions, the AFTO believed their federation did not yet have the strength to accomplish all of their goals. In addition, their desire to draw southern unions into their ranks so as to gain dominance over the industry immediately brought them into conflict with the NUTW. Both sides appealed to the AFL, which stepped in as a mediator.

Still holding to the principle of amalgamation, the AFL convinced the AFTO and the NUTW to begin negotiations to merge their organizations into one entity. Several conferences between the two unions followed as they began to work out the details of unification. On 19 November 1901, the AFL held a convention in Washington, D.C., and brought together the AFTO and the NUTW. During that time, the obstacles of craft unionism began to fall. The differences that had once prevented other attempts at amalgamation were, for the most part, settled. Finally, an entity that represented all crafts and textile workers, both skilled and unskilled, came into being. The AFTO and NUTW disbanded and reformed into a single union that was officially named the United Textile Workers of America.

Under the presidency of John Golden, the UTWA survived through the years, regardless of the troubles it faced. Unlike its predecessors, the UTWA maintained solidarity by adapting to the rapidly changing textile industry. In 1902 its membership was 10,600 among 185 local unions. By 1920 its ranks would increase to around 100,000 (serving approximately 3 percent of the industry's workforce). Over the next 20 years, the organization would undergo several changes in membership and even name, but the UTWA remained a bastion of unionism for textile workers in the United States. In 1995 the UTWA merged with the United Food and Commercial Workers Textile and Garment Council, thus continuing its proud heritage of unionism and amalgamation.

Key Players

Golden, John: A Lancashire spinner, Golden became the president of the United Textile Workers and a member of the board of directors for the Militia of Christ, a Catholic organization against radial unionism. He was a strong proponent of southern unionism and was criticized harshly for his role as conciliator during the Lawrence, Massachusetts, strike of 1912.

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): Born in London, Gompers's harsh life motivated him to help improve working conditions. He became the first president of the American Federation of Labor in 1886 and played a vital role in the formation of the International Labor Organization. During that time, Gompers worked to correct the disparities between the northern and southern textile industries.

Greene, Prince W.: Born in Columbus, Georgia, Greene brought several southern craft unions into the National Union of Textile Workers in 1898. He became the president of the National Union of Textile Workers between 1898 and 1900, then served as secretary-treasurer until the merger with the United Textile Workers of America in 1901.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Knights of Labor; Pawtucket Textile Strike.

Bibliography

Books

Daniel, Clete. Culture of Misfortune. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Foner, Eric, and John A. Garraty, eds. The Reader's Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Hutchins, Grace. Labor and Silk. New York: International Publishers, 1929.

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

Mitchell, George S. Textile Unionism and the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1931.

Simon, Bryant. "Choosing Between the Ham and the Union:Paternalism in the Cone Mills of Greensboro, 1925-1930." In Hanging by a Thread: Social Change in Southern Textiles, edited by J. Leiter, M. Schulman, and R. Zingraff. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1991.

Zieger, Robert H. Organized Labor in the Twentieth-Century South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

Other

Eckilson, Erik. "Samuel Slater: Father of the Industrial Revolution." 2002 [cited 20 September 2002]. http:// www.geocities.com/~woon_heritage/slaterhist.htm

Tucker, Barbara M. "My History Is American History."American History Files: Textile Industry. 2000 [cited 20 September 2002]. http://www.myhistory.org/historytopics/articles/textile_industry.html .

—Lee Ann Paradise

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