In the aftermath of World War I, with pressure to maintain profit margins in the face of increasing competition and falling demand for southern textiles, mill owners began looking for ways to cut operating costs and improve efficiency. The resulting strategies, collectively known as the “stretch-out,” not only changed the way the workplace functioned, but also undermined the employer-employee relationship and led to a series of bitter strikes, culminating in the massive General Strike of 1934.
The techniques employed in the stretch-out originated with the time-and-motion studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor in the 1880s. The efficiency expert Gordon Johnstone is credited with introducing the study of time management to the southern textile industry. South Carolina mill owners quickly followed suit. World War I had forced wages to unprecedented highs. With the postwar recession, managers sought to cut back production costs and preserve profits, but workers understandably resisted wage cuts. Weavers were particularly targeted by the new reformers because they were among the highest-paid workers and because new technology was available to automate much of the weaving process. Managers turned to the “multiple-loom” system, which spread the duties of a weaver over an entire room of machines in a “standard patrol” fashion while delegating some of the simpler weaving tasks to lower-paid doffers and cleaners. When the efficiency experts arrived at Saxon Mills outside Spartanburg in 1927, the veteran weaver Charles Putnam found himself responsible for three times his previous workload of twenty-six looms. The new system also docked workers for quality defects, despite workers’ insistence that the defects were due to machinery operating too fast. Putnam recalled that by 1930, despite the increasing workload, his wages had dropped substantially due to fines for defects.
Another approach to cost cutting came from eliminating “wasted time,” and the techniques used in this approach created the greatest resentment among workers. Consulting firms such as Greenville’s J. E. Sirrine Company offered their services to identify such wasted time and propose ways of eliminating it, with the goal of standardizing tasks and thus making individual workers interchangeable. Workers at Saxon Mills recalled that the efficiency experts—dubbed “minute men” by the workers for their obsession with stopwatches—timed every move, from knotting a broken thread to eating lunch, from going to the bathroom to drinking a glass of water. Workdays were extended, many types of breaks were banned, workers were forced to tend a larger number of machines, and they were fired if they could not keep up the pace. The workday was extended without additional pay. Scheduled meal breaks were eliminated, and “dope wagons” sold sandwiches and caffeinated colas to keep workers on the job and productive even while they ate. Pay scales were based on production quotas. While managers regarded the new system as scientifically justified, workers referred to it as the “pick pocket system” and compared it to slavery. Whatever trust the paternalistic management style of the earlier period had engendered between workers and owners the new system undermined.
By 1929 South Carolina workers began organizing to protest the effects of the stretch-out. Beginning at Ware Shoals in March 1929—led mostly by lifelong mill hands who appealed to the supposed paternalism of the mill owners—a wave of strikes swept South Carolina textile mills. The strikes often achieved a reduction of the workload and some alterations to the pay scale, but some of those who protested were punished for doing so. The General Assembly appointed a special committee to investigate textile workers’ grievances. The committee concluded that the strikes were due to “deplorable living conditions in the villages” and “so-called efficiency measures” that put “more work on the employees than they can do.” It also absolved unions of any complicity in the strikes. However, the legislature took no further action and the efficiency experts became a permanent factor of mill life.
Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd, et al. Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Mitchell, Broadus, and George Sinclair Mitchell. The Industrial Revolution in the South. 1930. Reprint, New York: Greenwood, 1968.
Simon, Bryant. A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910–1948. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Tullos, Allen. Habits of Industry: White Culture and the Transformation of the Carolina Piedmont. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.