Organizing the Southern Textile Industry, 1930–1934
“Tangled explores an era in southern labor history that has been noted in previous studies but rarely studied in depth—the period between the violent strikes in North Carolina and Tennessee at the end of the 1920s and the ‘Uprising of ’34.’ The author delves deeply into the textile mill villages of the piedmont south that served as bridges for grassroots mobilization and militancy between the larger waves of labor protest. Richly detailed and researched, Tangled presents a fine-grained, regionally focused study of the textile belt and its unremitting labor struggles.”—David A. Zonderman, Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor in history at North Carolina State University
Labor strife in piedmont mills had left eight dead in the summer of 1929, prompting the AFL–affiliated United Textile Workers of America (UTW) to strike an uneasy deal with the North Carolina governor. Their mutual goal was to root out and destroy the efforts of a rival communist organization, the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU), and thus erase Bolshevism in Dixie. The stage was set for a new round of conflict that would unfold over the next half-decade, not only in North Carolina but in several surrounding states.
In this follow-up to Unraveled, his account of the 1929 events, Travis Sutton Byrd deftly explores a complex story of labor relations, political transitions, and emergent class consciousness in the industrial South. He seeks to answer why, with the coming of the Depression and New Deal initiatives to combat it, the region proved to be such a vexing battleground for labor organizers, whether mainstream or radical. This book examines the initiation and failure of the AFL/UTW’s “Organize the South Campaign” and the attendant rise and demise of “Coalitionism”—a fusion between organized labor, progressive Republicans, and disaffected Democrats. It also documents the evolution of contradictory impulses—trade unionism and collective bargaining versus individualism and “right-to-work” doctrine—and pays special attention to the now-forgotten High Point, North Carolina, hosiery strike of 1932, which achieved its goals in remarkable fashion even though it never regularized under either the UTW or the NTWU. The story culminates in 1934, when a general strike swept the country in a desperate effort to force the reform promised by the National Recovery Act.
Drawing especially on regional newspaper accounts to show how the key actors— millhands, owners, organizers, and politicians—understood the events, Tangled is a thoroughly engrossing chronicle that carries vital lessons for today’s labor leaders and policymakers.
TRAVIS SUTTON BYRD, a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has been a historical consultant for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers