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United Textile Workers of America

1901–1934

It aimed to bring all textile workers in the country into one union instead of being separated into different unions by trade. The UTWA first appeared in South Carolina during a wave of labor unrest between 1898 and 1902.

The United Textile Workers of America (UTWA) formed as an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1901. It aimed to bring all textile workers in the country into one union instead of being separated into different unions by trade. The UTWA first appeared in South Carolina during a wave of labor unrest between 1898 and 1902. After losing a strike in Augusta, Georgia, in 1902, the UTWA virtually disappeared from South Carolina for the next ten years, except for a few local chapters that existed briefly in the Horse Creek Valley and Columbia. Taking advantage of the expansion of production during World War I, the UTWA became active again in 1915, with strikes in Greenville, Anderson, Westminster, and Columbia. In 1919 the UTWA demanded a forty-eight-hour week for textile workers, which led to a series of strikes starting in February and continuing sporadically through 1920. Despite limited success in reducing hours, these strikes were generally failures and ground to a halt with the onset of the depression of the textile industry in 1921.

In the 1920s, as southern textile mills faced tight competition with New England manufacturers, scientific management spread and individual operatives found themselves tending more machines for the same pay, a system that became known as the “stretch-out.” In March 1929 workers in Ware Shoals and Pelzer struck briefly against the stretch-out, and at the end of the month a more serious strike occurred in Greenville. Central, Anderson, and Union also saw strikes. The UTWA had minimal involvement in these spontaneous strikes of 1929, but they did show that textile workers were ready to organize.

When the National Industrial Recovery Act was enacted in summer 1933, section 7(a) specifically provided workers the right to organize their own unions. Other sections established a board to oversee industry practices. South Carolina mill hands responded with a flurry of organizing, and by spring 1934 three-quarters of mill villages had a UTWA local. The oversight board did not live up to workers’ expectations, however, and during the summer of 1934 it approved a reduction in work hours and a corresponding cut in wages in many mills across the South. South Carolina mill workers mounted wildcat strikes in July, pushing the UTWA into action that resulted in the General Textile Strike of September 1934, which involved tens of thousands of South Carolinians and shut down more than 120 mills. This massive disruption led to violence, including a shooting at Chiquola Mills in Honea Path that left seven union members dead. The UTWA was not prepared to support a strike of this magnitude, and by October the general strike–the largest in South Carolina and the South, and the second largest in the United States–ended with an agreement that gave workers little. The UTWA collapsed in the wake of the strike’s failure. Locals fell apart, and union members were blacklisted for years. The entire strike and its aftermath influenced generations of South Carolina workers, souring them on the idea of unions and leaving them suspicious of government promises of protection.

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.

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

Simon, Bryant. A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910–1948. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Waldrep, George Calvin. Southern Workers and the Search for Community: Spartanburg County, South Carolina. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title United Textile Workers of America
  • Coverage 1901–1934
  • Author
  • Keywords formed as an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1901, National Industrial Recovery Act, UTWA
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date May 23, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 21, 2016
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