Organized labor in South Carolina has antebellum, perhaps colonial, roots. As early as 1742 white shipwrights in Charleston officially protested allegedly unfair competition from slave labor. Charleston workingmen (1768), mechanics (1794), clerks (1825), and carpenters (1826) organized for patriotic, charitable, or social purposes but apparently not for economic purposes. Charleston typographers formed the first union in South Carolina in 1834 and affiliated with the National Typographical Workers Union, the first national union in the United States. The typographers also introduced South Carolina to union-initiated strikes, in 1852 against the Charleston Evening News and the Charleston Courier and again in 1860 and 1861, probably over wages. Interestingly, the typographical local was initially reluctant to secede from its national union in 1861. Three years later workers at the Graniteville Manufacturing Company in Edgefield District staged the first known protest by industrial workers in the state.
Emancipation and Reconstruction opened new opportunities for organized labor. Black longshoremen unionized in 1867, beginning the longest living union in the state. The longshoremen aggressively defended their interests during Reconstruction. In 1873 workers in area lumber mills and phosphate mines joined a strike that the longshoremen initiated. The long depression of the 1870s and the fall of Republican state government undermined such strike threats. The depression did not, however, preclude a short, violent strike at Graniteville in 1874.
The economic revival of the 1880s provided a more congenial atmosphere for unionizing. As was true elsewhere in the United States, organized labor was generally more successful in urban areas and among skilled workers. Craft unions expanded their numbers, and a more inclusive unionism found expression in the Knights of Labor, whose growth surged in 1886 into a nation-wide phenomenon. The Knights had a transitory following in Charleston, Columbia, Darlington, Fishing Creek, and the Horse Creek Valley. The Knights took the unusual step of attempting to unionize blacks and whites, usually in segregated locals in the white supremacist South. These attempts involved considerable risk: a Knight organizer who worked in South Carolina and Georgia was lynched in Georgia. One spin-off of the Knights was the short-lived United Labor Party, which ran a candidate in the 1887 mayoral race in Charleston. Columbia’s first Labor Day parade, a large, two-day celebration in 1891, indicated that craft unions had greater staying powers than the Knights did.
When the devastating 1890s depression ended, unionization efforts resumed among craft workers and even among some industrial workers. South Carolina’s rapidly expanding cotton-manufacturing industry briefly (1900–1902) attracted organizing efforts by the National Union of Textile Workers and its successor, the United Textile Workers. That union had locals in Abbeville, Anderson, Bath, Greenville, the Horse Creek Valley, Rock Hill, Westminster, and Columbia. The last local, which had one thousand members, was at one time the largest textile local in the world. The local led Columbia’s Labor Day Parade in 1900. A year later the local wilted after it was defeated in a major strike against the Granby and Olympia mills in Columbia. The radical Industrial Workers of the World (or “Wobblies”) even made an ephemeral if showy appearance in the state. The Wobblies had a local at Fishing Creek in 1914. They probably startled Greenville residents when more than seven hundred of them marched under the Red Flag in the upcountry town, a center of the emerging New South.
Craft unions had deeper roots in the state. The official program of the 1908 Labor Day celebration in Columbia listed twenty-one different craft unions, from barbers, bookbinders, and carpenters, to glassblowers, loom fixers, machinists, painters, tailors, typographers, and weavers. Several merchants placed special advertisements for union members in the program. One boasted that all of his clerks were union members. In 1917 craft unions in the state created the South Carolina Federation of Labor, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor.
The booming economy of World War I provided unprecedented opportunities for unionization. The ranks of organized labor soared among craft and industrial workers. As elsewhere, this growth declined when the economy slumped drastically after the war ended. The United Textile Workers were particularly damaged by production and wage cuts in textiles in the immediate postwar years. To make matters worse, textiles, the state’s largest industry, generally experienced a long-term slump during most of the 1920s, which deepened with the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Cotton manufacturers responded by reducing their workforces and by the “stretch-out”—steep increases in workloads without increases in pay. Desperate and angry, mill hands struck back. In 1929 they engaged in a series of strikes, most notably at Ware Shoals, the site of the only union-led of these strikes. These actions led to a legislative hearing and a report from the South Carolina General Assembly that criticized management. Some in the legislature even proposed legal limits on the number of machines assigned to a worker.
President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal offered a very different approach to labor relations than what had prevailed before. Encouraged by the collective bargaining provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) and a sympathetic president in the White House, mill hands eagerly joined the United Textile Workers in 1933 and 1934. Greenville textile workers conducted a major, largely unsuccessful strike in 1933, almost a year before the great General Textile Strike. In early September 1934 tens of thousands of South Carolina’s textile workers left their looms, some eagerly joining “flying squadrons” of strikers who traveled from mill to mill to call out workers and close plants. Violence and intimidation took place, for which both the strikers and their opponents were to blame. Deaths also occurred, the worst at Honea Path in Anderson County where seven striking workers died. Management, supported by local and state authorities, crushed the strike. Governor Ibra Blackwood weighed in heavily on the side of management and against the strike.
Workers returned to mills where the stretch-out continued and where employers, who abided by the National Industrial Recovery Act only when it suited them, refused to recognize the union or to bargain collectively. However, some employers may have modified some of the labor practices that workers grieved. Many workers were not allowed to return to the mills: companies blacklisted them for life, often colluding with each other in industrywide blackballing. The defeat of the 1934 strike, one of the largest in American history, may have harmed subsequent efforts to unionize the state’s textile workers. Some locals struggled on after the strike and served as the seeds for modest successes at unionizing textiles in the late 1930s and during World War II. On the eve of that war, textiles in South Carolina, as in the rest of the South, remained far less unionized than other major American industries. Thus, unions in South Carolina had a small foundation to build on when World War II presented an extraordinary opportunity for expanding the ranks of unions. Despite the modest foundation of organized labor, the number of unionized workers in South Carolina rose from approximately five thousand in 1938 to almost forty thousand in 1948. Although organized labor’s ranks had grown by eight hundred percent in one decade, only a little over nine percent of nonfarm workers in the state were in unions.
Unionized workers in Charleston created a lasting legacy in modern American history. The fourteen hundred black and white employees at an American Tobacco Company plant that produced cigars unionized during World War II. Angered by their poor pay, miserable working conditions, and arbitrary supervisors, workers staged two sit-down strikes at the plant in 1945, then launched a six-month strike from October 1945 to March 1946. Black women were the prime force in the strike, but white workers readily joined in as the rigid racial barriers that prevailed in the plant collapsed on the picket line. Black women on the line sang “We Shall Overcome,” which later became an anthem of the civil rights movement.
After the war, organized labor mounted “Operation Dixie” to expand its weak base in the South, especially in the textile South. This major but inept organizing effort ended quietly in 1951 with few successes. More than ineptitude accounted for the defeat of “Operation Dixie.” Employers and business groups mounted a broad offensive against organized labor in order to slow its expansion and to reverse its growth. Textile manufacturers were prominent figures in this broad attack, which had considerable success. Business had substantial political support for its anti-union efforts, support that had been growing since the late 1930s.
The voting record of South Carolina’s congressional delegation reflected that growth. In 1935 the delegation had voted solidly for the National Labor Relations Act (or Wagner Act). Three years later the delegation split over the Fair Labor Standards Act (maximum hours, minimum wages), even though it did not cover farm or domestic labor. Opponents alleged, among other things, that the legislation was an attempt by northern employers and unions to use government power to force wages up in the South. They feared that higher wages would make the South less desirable for investors that the South wanted and needed urgently to attract. Most of the delegation thereafter joined efforts to limit the Wagner Act. Most, for instance, voted for the National Labor Relations Act of 1947 (or Taft-Hartley Act). Senator Olin D. Johnston was a notable exception on this vote. Taft-Hartley provided that states could pass “right to work” laws that said that employees had the right to work, even in unionized work places, without joining a union. Non-unionized employees may, however, enjoy the wages and benefits a union has obtained from an employer without paying union dues. South Carolina passed a “right to work” law in 1954. South Carolina officials and business leaders stressed that South Carolina is a “right to work state,” a state where unions are not welcome. The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce has been particularly vocal and active in opposing unions and unionization.
Organized labor reached its peak numerically in the mid-1950s. An element of this was the 1955 organizing victory of the Communications Workers of America at Southern Bell. Generally, however, organized labor has been on the defensive. One of its most memorable, or notorious, defeats occurred in 1956 at Darlington, where Deering, Milliken and Company (now Milliken Company) closed a plant rather than negotiate with workers who had elected to have union representation. The legality of the company’s actions was a matter of heated controversy. But the company prevailed in what was part of a statewide trend: marginalizing organized labor in South Carolina in the workplace and in public life. A major theme of the state’s economic development efforts since World War II has been to emphasize South Carolina’s lower labor costs, a result in part of its largely non-union workforce.
Organized labor had a prominent place in the headlines in 1968. Charleston hospital workers struck to protest their low wages and poor working conditions. The strike developed a coalition of support that combined the civil rights movement and unions. Eventually the hospitals addressed worker grievances but refused to negotiate a contract with a hospital workers union. The hospital strike was also credited with igniting significant growth of participation by blacks in the life and politics of Charleston.
Unionization, however, suffered another defeat in the state when, subsequent to the Charleston strike, the state officially adopted a policy of prohibiting public employees from unionizing and of prohibiting public officials from negotiating with public employee unions. However, some associations of public employees, such as the South Carolina Education Association, have been considered to be quasi-unions. By the early years of the twenty-first century, several local governments had breached the barriers against unions and have, at least informally, negotiated with unionized public employees. Unionized public employees have also engaged in lobbying and in pressure group activities on behalf of their interests. Firefighters are the most unionized local public employees in the state. Local 61, founded in 1918, is the oldest firefighter local in the state. The local was reorganized in 1996. South Carolina policy about unions and public employees does not apply to federal employees in the state, some of whom are unionized, such as postal workers.
Organized labor has attracted much less attention since the Charleston hospital strike, a reflection of the small numbers of organized workers in the state. In 1982 there were almost 68,000 unionized employees in the state, or about 5.8 percent of South Carolina non-farm workers. Twenty years later the number of unionized employees in the state remained about the same, 73,000; the percentage of unionized salaried and workers was 4.9 percent. South Carolina and North Carolina have the lowest unionization rates in the United States.
Still the South Carolina AFL-CIO remains a presence in the state. The United Auto Workers successfully fought state efforts to break the union’s contract with Mack Truck when the company opened a new production facility in Winnsboro in 1987. Unionizing efforts continue, and the AFL-CIO actively lobbies for the interests of its members and often for the interests of all employees in the state. The South Carolina AFL-CIO also has the distinction of being one of the few state AFL-CIOs that has a female president.
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