The General Textile Strike in South Carolina sprang out of old grievances and fresh hopes. For years mill people worked long hours for low wages in lint-filled factories. Beginning in the 1920s, mill owners, pinched by increased competition, raised workers’ machine loads without increasing their pay. Workers called this the “stretch-out,” and fought back.
(September 1934). On September 1, 1934–Labor Day–the United Textile Workers (UTW) launched a nationwide strike. By the end of the first week, almost 500,000 textile workers from Massachusetts to Mississippi had walked off the job. In South Carolina, 43,000 women and men joined the protest, shutting down two-thirds of the state’s two hundred textile mills.
The General Textile Strike in South Carolina sprang out of old grievances and fresh hopes. For years mill people worked long hours for low wages in lint-filled factories. Beginning in the 1920s, mill owners, pinched by increased competition, raised workers’ machine loads without increasing their pay. Workers called this the “stretch-out,” and fought back. Some sabotaged machines. Others moved from mill to mill, hoping to find better conditions. When these individual and family strategies failed, workers joined unions and strikes. In 1929 twelve thousand South Carolina textile workers walked off their jobs in protest against the stretch-out. But hard times continued, and then got worse with the onset of the Great Depression.
Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932, however, generated hope. Roosevelt promised workers a “new deal” and many believed that better days were just around the corner. On the next to last day of a traditional milestone, the first one hundred days in office, Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Workers marked the event with street dances and parades. As far as they could tell, the NIRA guaranteed higher wages, shorter hours, and the right to join a union. Mill managers read the law differently. Tensions simmered and boiled over with the General Strike, as much a political protest as an industrial rebellion. Workers struck to make their New Deal vision the letter of the law on the shop floor.
During the strike’s first few days, factories in South Carolina closed “so rapidly that tabulators almost lost count.” Carrying signs that read “Roosevelt Our Greatest Leader” and “We Are Backing Roosevelt 100 Percent,” flying squadrons of militant workers fanned the protest’s fires. These roving bands of UTW stalwarts vowed to shut down every factory in the state. Sometimes they stood outside of the mills still operating and sang until the workers inside joined the picket line. In a few upcountry towns, the flying squadrons, armed with clubs and bats, invaded the plants, trampling over foremen on their way to cut off the electricity. No one, they said, was to work as long as the strike was on.
South Carolina governor Ibra C. Blackwood declared that the state was being invaded by a wave of “mob rule.” Vowing to keep the factories running, Blackwood called out the National Guard and the State Highway Patrol. In Greenville the captain of a “hardboiled company” armed with tear gas and machine guns, instructed his men “to shoot to kill” if necessary. In other places, the troops arrested members of the flying squadrons and harassed union leaders.
Politics further aggravated the situation. The strike took place during the race for Blackwood’s successor. By the time thousands of workers had walked off the job, the field of candidates had been narrowed to two: Olin Johnston and Cole Blease. Both men had strong ties to mill workers. Seeing neither candidate as what the state needed in a moment of crisis, plantation owners, manufacturers, and professionals worried about having to choose either “a communist on the one hand or a man without moral sense on the other.”
Everybody’s worst fears were realized at the Chiquola Manufacturing Company in Honea Path on September 6, 1934. The General Textile Strike split this Anderson County town down the middle. After three days of fistfights and shouting matches, Honea Path was said to be “near the breaking point.” Before the sun came up on the fatal day, a flying squadron rode to town to meet local strike supporters in front of the mill. Inside, lawmen and newly deputized officers readied their defenses. The screech of the morning whistle signaled the battle’s start. Striker supporters lurched forward to block the mill gate. Strikebreakers surged to the entrance. One man was smashed over the head with a club and another was jabbed with a picker stick. Suddenly a pistol shot sounded, followed by a flash of furious fire. When the guns fell silent three minutes later, six strikers lay dead and a dozen wounded. Most had been shot in the back, apparently cut down as they fled.
Some predicted that the Honea Path deaths would stifle the strike. But during the next two weeks, picket lines held steady in South Carolina. Still, a crisis loomed for the UTW. From the beginning, relief represented the union’s biggest challenge. The UTW had almost no strike funds. Local charities pitched in, but they were not eager to underwrite an industrial rebellion. That left workers dependent on themselves. Throughout the strike, families survived on fatback and corn meal. By the beginning of the strike’s third week, even these meager resources started to run low. Desperate for something to eat, a few workers started to trickle back into the mills. Remarkably, however, strike lines bent but didn’t break.
Back in Washington, D.C., UTW leaders nonetheless grew hesitant. Unable to provide relief, they feared that hunger would push more strikers back to work. By the middle of September the union men were looking for a face-saving way out of the conflict. On September 20 they got their chance when a Roosevelt-appointed mediation board recommended as a resolution to the strike the establishment of a permanent textile labor mediation board and federal studies to examine the industry’s capacity to raise wages and lower workloads. The proposal offered striking workers virtually nothing: no pay hike or union recognition or guarantees that they would have jobs when the strike ended. Still, Roosevelt urged the UTW to accept the agreement, and on September 22 union leader Francis Gorman, concerned that “force and hunger” were driving millhands across the picket lines, told his members to go back to work, reassuring them that they had won an “overwhelming victory.”
“On foot, in truck, and automobiles,” a newsman reported on Sunday, September 24, “strikers paraded all night through mill towns and villages singing hymns of joy and celebrating the news that tomorrow the whistles will blow again.” But when the mills reopened, many refused to rehire strikers and others took back only UTW members who agreed to sign yellow dog contracts, which forbid union membership. This certainly was not the “overwhelming victory” that Gorman had advertised. For years afterward, some have argued, the defeat hindered the growth of unions in the South. Having been down the path of unionization once and lost, textile workers were weary of the promises of organizers. Eventually official memory of the strike was all but erased from the record. In the 1990s, however, a memorial was erected in Honea Path to honor the men killed in front of the Chiquola plant.
Applebome, Peter. Dixie Rising. New York: Times Books, 1996. Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd, et. al. Like A Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. Irons, Janet. Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Simon, Bryant. A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910–1948. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.