Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Eula McGill, February 3, 1976. Interview G-0040-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A labor activist's first experience with unionization and labor politics

In this excerpt, McGill says that she first grew aware of labor unions at the early age of seven years. During World War I, she explains, union activism began to percolate in Gadsen, Alabama, where her father worked in a steel mill. McGill recalls that at this time, her entire family was supportive of unionization: she regularly attended union rallies and events with her mother; her sister, who worked in the hosiery mill, joined the hosiery union and dated an active union leader; and her father, though unable to overtly participate because of the threat of job loss, extolled the purposes of unionization and indoctrinated McGill to support the cause of workers.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Eula McGill, February 3, 1976. Interview G-0040-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
So when did you first become aware of unions and union activity?
EULA MCGILL:
Oh, when I was about seven years old, when the activity started around Gadsden during World War I. There was quite a bit of union activity. My mother went to all the union rallies when she heard of them; we'd get on the street car and go.
JACQUELYN HALL:
You mean not even whether your father was involved or not?
EULA MCGILL:
My father had to work; he never was off during the times we'd have these little rallies, unless it was on Saturday or Sunday. He didn't dare go; if he was seen there, you know, he was likely to get fired, because most of the people who went were people who were already in the unions. There were no laws in those days, no protective laws whatsoever; you had no chance. And if you valued your job, why, you were very careful. It had to be done very quietly. But some of the men who had, you know, already obtained recognition, they attended.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What kind of organizing was going on around Gadsden during the war?
EULA MCGILL:
The Textile Workers were organizing the Dwight Mills; the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers were trying to organize the Gulf State Steel; and the Iron Molders and the Founders; and I don't know what union it was (I assume it was the Car Repairmen) in what we called the car works. There was a plant in Gadsden that made railroad freight cars (boxcars, they were called), and it was called the car works. There were two stove foundaries, one in Attalla and one in Gadsden. NowAlabama City and Gadsden is all Gadsden now, but at that time they were separate. Where we lived was considered Alabama City, and when we say Gadsden today we really speak of Gadsden. But at that time Gadsden and Alabama City and Attalla were different; had their own municipalities. But Alabama City and Gadsden have been consolidated now for years.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was your sister involved in the hosiery union?
EULA MCGILL:
Yes, she joined at the hosiery mill. Then she later worked in an overall plant there for a while that was unionized. But she was a knitter; they made socks, not full-fashion hosiery. There's a lot of difference in full-fashion knitting and seamless knitting. Back then all the fashionable hose had seams. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
EULA MCGILL:
She was active mainly because the man that she was going with was very active in organizing in the car works. Mainly, I think, it was because of his interest that she had interest, because later she seemed to lose all interest in unions-in fact, tried to discourage me when I first joined. It was actually a fear of me losing my job, I guess. She was the only one in the whole family that tried to discourage me from it.
JACQUELYN HALL:
But her boyfriend was very. . . ?
EULA MCGILL:
At that time, yes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What about your father?
EULA MCGILL:
Well, he was active to an extent, but they never got going as good in the steel mills at that time as they did some other places. For some reason or other they just couldn't get enough interest. My father joined, because I remember the first time that we had a discussion in the house. As I remember, we came in; my mother had been to a Labor Day rally (had a big barbacue and a parade and speaking, and we had been there). I guess it was the first time I'd really paid attention to the speaking.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What were the Labor Day parades like? Could you tell me a little bit more about the parades?
EULA MCGILL:
Oh yes, they were very elaborate, as I remember it-might not be considered elaborate today. But they'd have flat-bed trucks, and like if a man was a blacksmith he'd be up there doing his job on this truck. And if somebody'd have a sewing machine or a knitting machine. . . . The bricklayers would be laying brick, and the carpenters hammering-on each float.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Were there women on the floats?
EULA MCGILL:
Oh, there were a few women, because the textile, as I said. . . . The mill came out on strike during that, because they lost the strike and lost out entirely in the Dwight Mill. We had a neighbor that was very active in that strike. There were some women in the overall factory, which had a union contract. And I can't remember, it didn't last very long; that overall plant closed down and went out of business right after the boom. And most of the unions that were organized in the foundaries and in the mills (well, they never got a contract in Dwight Mill, but in the hosiery mill and in the overall factory) right after the war was over and, I guess, the labor supply got a little more plentiful, the companies were able to defeat the unions, and they lost out. And they didn't revive up until in the thirties.
JACQUELYN HALL:
But you came back from a Labor Day parade?
EULA MCGILL:
Yes, we came back in the afternoon and were eating supper, and I remember very distinctly saying, "Well Poppa, what is a union?" And he said, "Well, I'll tell you: a union is an organization of people getting together to try to better their working conditions. Now," he said, "I carry a union card, but don't tell anybody, because the union's not recognized where I work and I'd lose my job." And I never told anyone. He told me, I remember very distinctly, "All a person has to sell is their labor, and you ought to try to get the most for it." And he said, "As long as anybody in this world's got more than you've got, try to get some of it." At this particular time I remember it (and it impressed me, and I repeat it over and over), he said, "If a person lives in this world without trying to make it a better place to live in he's not living, he's just taking up space." [laughter] It stuck to me all through the years. And I agree with him.