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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Perkel, May 27, 1986. Interview H-0281. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Some reasons for the lack of a successful union movement in the South

Perkel explains the difficulties of organizing southern workers. Southern mill towns were isolated places dominated by paternalistic mill owners who reinforced a belief in authority. On the job, mill workers performed repetitive tasks under close supervision. These and other factors meant that southern mill workers had no foundation for collective action. When their frustrations peaked, they expressed them through spasms of violence but were unable to sustain a successful protest.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Perkel, May 27, 1986. Interview H-0281. 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

The other broad area is organization of workers. The Union, throughout its history, was in an organizing stage, because, unlike most of the other major unions, we did not succeed, in an early period, in organizing the bulk of the industry. We never organized more than—well, in the North, we organized the bulk of the industry, fifty, sixty, seventy percent. But, during the period from the '20s to the '50s, there was a mass movement, from North to South, of the industry. And, so, by the 1950s, ninety percent of the industry was located in the South. So, while we were substantially organized in the North, that represented less than ten percent of the industry. And our efforts in the South were generally not successful. We organized, at best, between fifteen and twenty percent of the Southern textile workers, and usually a good deal less than that.
PATRICIA RAUB:
Why do you attribute such a low percentage?
GEORGE PERKEL:
Well, that's a long answer, and, if you like, I can spend several minutes discussing that.
PATRICIA RAUB:
I don't mind, if you don't mind.
GEORGE PERKEL:
OK. In order to appreciate our difficulties in organizing Southern textile workers, I think you have to concern yourself with the characteristics of the various people who played a part in that process. And, we'll start with the workers. First, in talking about worker characteristics, you have to understand something about the culture of mill towns. Most of the textile workers historically have lived in very small communities or rural areas, generally in mill villages, where the employer—until the '40s, at least—the employer owned the homes, he owned the utilities, he dominated the churches and schools and all the other local institutions. The predominant cultural milieu was one of strong paternalism on the part of the employer being the powerful, dominant interest, and the employees having a strong sense of inferiority, both to the employer and to the community at large. The people who lived in the mill villages were regarded as the bottom social stratum in the environment. The people in the towns nearby looked down on them and wouldn't socialize with them.
PATRICIA RAUB:
We've interviewed some people that really, I think, express that—
GEORGE PERKEL:
So you're familiar with that. I won't elaborate on it. By the way, Dale Newman wrote a good piece in Labor History in '78, which you may have seen.
PATRICIA RAUB:
No, I haven't.
GEORGE PERKEL:
Well, I recommend you look at it.
PATRICIA RAUB:
N-E-W-M-A-N?
GEORGE PERKEL:
N-E-W-M-A-N. Labor History in 1978.
PATRICIA RAUB:
OK, I'll take a look at it.
GEORGE PERKEL:
Which is a field study, including much interviewing, which I think you'll find interesting. It emphasizes the parochial nature of the communities, the attitudes that workers had, living in the rural isolation that they did. The traditional nature of their attitudes, their acceptance of the hierarchy above them, the importance of religion in developing attitudes toward acceptance of life as it is, rather than doing something about it. And, in general, creating a strongly dependant type of personality among the employees of textile mills. The relatively few people who were able to overcome all of these strong tendencies driving them into dependancy tended to leave rather than try to improve things where they were.
PATRICIA RAUB:
Well, certainly, there's lots of cases of times when workers did try to organize and just didn't get anywhere. So I guess some of that was kind of realistic on their part.
GEORGE PERKEL:
That's true, but the type of activities that historically textile workers engaged in tended to be the kind of explosion of hostility at their terrible plight rather than a sustained activity to establish a continuing organization.
PATRICIA RAUB:
That's an interesting distinction.
GEORGE PERKEL:
Yes, well, if you look at the various strikes that took place in the South in the '20s, you see that there tends to be strong protest feeling, strong and violent activity, that gets dissipated after a short time because the people lacked a sustained base or basis for sustained organization. They could get angry and explode, but that didn't generally lead to a sustained organization. Now another series of factors that affected worker characteristics, more or less in the same direction, of producing downtrodden, inactive people, was the nature of the work itself in the textile mill. Have you seen Blauner's Alienation and Freedom? [Robert Blauner, Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry (Chicago: 1964)]
PATRICIA RAUB:
I've taken a look at it, yes.
GEORGE PERKEL:
Well, the chapter on the textile industry is very good, and it will give you details on how the work is organized and what effect it has on the psychology of the people who were engaged in it. The control of their lives by the machine, and the close supervision by the foremen, or what they called overseers, the routine nature of the work and its repetitive character, the lack of autonomy that people have on the job, where everything is controlled for them and they're told what to do, the insecurity that they felt because of the frequent layoffs, the ups and downs in the textile cycle, causing frequent layoffs of people and low wages, which resulted in a very low standard of living, an insecure standard of living. The occupational structure being very compressed—there are very few opportunities for advancement to more skilled jobs; there are very few skilled jobs in the textile mill. So, all of these conditions tended to reinforce the conditions in the cultural and social environment, to push people down, to give them no sense of their own capabilities. They were real cogs in a machine. So, all of these tended to create people who, while they did protest and revolt, on occasion, as I say, they lacked the feeling of their own power or potential power. They were so downbeaten, beaten down by their circumstances that they tended not to be able to sustain, or generate, leadership to lift themselves out of their terrible conditions. Still another factor that has to be given consideration in dealing with workers in the textile industry is the unusually large proportion of the work force that is female. The type of work and the type of situation that prevails in textile communities is to take advantage of the availability of young women and employ them in routine, nonskilled tasks. And more than forty percent of the work force in textiles has historically been female. Females, for a number of historical reasons, have been harder to organize and have tended not to be as active in their own behalf as men, in the industrial situation. They tend to feel, or have tended to feel, that work was not their dominant concern, they were housekeepers, housewives, and mothers as well as workers and rather than devote themselves, as men might, who are concerned with their job as their main source of livelihood, women have tended not to be active in labor organizations. Now, of course, all of these considerations that I've just been discussing have been changing over time. Particularly in the more recent period. Yet, still today, the dominant cultural and work-related characteristics in textiles are the ones that I've mentioned. There isn't quite the degree of social isolation that existed when the mills owned the homes. Now they've been sold to people. But, still, there is the strong sense of inferiority, compared to the people who live outside the towns, outside the mill towns. And the type of work, even with all the technological change that has occurred, the type of work still is predominantly semi-automatic, unskilled, where there's very little autonomy of the worker and the worker tends to be a slave of the machine.