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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 >>

Predictions for the future of unions in the South

Perkel ties up some loose ends, predicting that the influx of African Americans into the textile industry will increase the strength of unions; musing on unions' organizing process, which seems to be somewhat self-defeating; and offering some concluding thoughts on mill owners' responses to union organizers.

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

GEORGE PERKEL:
Well, we touched briefly in the fact that the changing composition of the textile workforce, particularly the big increase in the black population, has had an important effect on the ability to organize textile workers, and I think that probably will continue to be a factor, and so that, over time, the probability is that a larger proportion of the textile workforce will be organized. So much for that point. Another point is I've always had in the back of my mind a feeling that something is wrong about the way in which the whole process of workers' getting organized operates in the United States. The structure of organizing was pretty well set by the Wagner Act, which set forth certain rules as to how workers get recognized or unions get recognized and how they bargain. This is really largely a matter of happenstance, in that, nobody tried to figure out what would be the best system. It was really, how can be respond to the exigencies of the day, how can we solve this immediate problem. As a result, it was decided that majority rule should be the dominant principle. If a majority of the workers votes for a union, in a free election, then the workers in that plant would be represented by a union. That has a lot of sense going for it. It sounds very good—democratic and all that sort of thing. But, in actual practice, it turns out to be a lot less than ideal, especially in the textile industry where, in any given plant, you have a certain number of workers who have a strong feeling that they want to be represented by a union, you have another group of workers who say they want to be represented by the union when a union representative comes over to them and asks them, and they might even sign a card. And this is a point I should have mentioned earlier, it's important, I think, that in any textile plant, even with the nature of the workforce, the nature of the environment, the employer, there's a substantial portion of the workers who are pro-union, who want a union. That may vary from twenty to forty percent. And there is another substantial body, probably of similar size, who, while not strongly pro-union, are very ready to sign up. And they will respond favorably when asked. So you have substantial groups of workers in any textile plant—anywhere from fifty to seventy percent, say—who say they are willing to join a union and want the union to represent them for collective bargaining. And yet, because of the processes, under the law, the union generally gets less than fifty percent of the votes. There's something obviously wrong here. The first thing that's wrong is that the swing voters tend to be dissuaded from voting yes largly through employer coercion.
PATRICIA RAUB:
Does the employer know who's voting for and who's voting against?
GEORGE PERKEL:
No, it's a secret ballot, but the employer and his agents try to find out—and generally do find out—how the workers feel, how each worker feels. So, even though it's supposed to be a secret ballot, in a democratic process, the will of the majority is effectively frustrated by employer coercion, even though the law prohibits employer coercion. The fact is, that that's the prevailing practice. So that, obviously, is something drastically wrong. But the second thing that's drastically wrong is, even if you assume that the people who voted in response to coercion, even if you assume they don't want a union, therefore, there is a majority that doesn't want a union, what about the minority, what about the rights of the minority? It seems to me if thirty, forty, whatever percent of the workforce wants a union to represent them, it would make much more sense to have the union represent them, than to follow the Wagner Act's requirements. But this of course is impossible under the Wagner Act. So that's another problem that needs to be corrected now. I don't have the solution, but it would have to be in terms eventually of legislation altering our system of labor-management relations. There have been proposals, that never got anywhere, that employees could designate representatives, whether they represented a majority or not, and that these representatives would bargain on their behalf. In fact, this is the procedure in many European countries, in fact, I think, most, where you have multiple representation of workers in a plant. Those who want one union, have that union; another who want other unions, have that union; those who don't want any, don't have any. To me, that makes a lot more sense than our system and would be much more democratic. I think that exhausts my thoughts for today.
PATRICIA RAUB:
I thought of one other question, if you don't mind. What kind of reception have union organizers got? I know it probably varies, and it's been fairly hostile from place to place, but could you be any more specific on that?
GEORGE PERKEL:
From whom?
PATRICIA RAUB:
From the textile companies.
GEORGE PERKEL:
Oh, the textile companies? I would say textile companies have been over on the extreme end of the antiunion, hostile companies. As I said earlier, managers, and people generally, feel that unions are something they don't want right now, but textile employers feel much more rabidly about it. They not only don't want it but they are willing to fight to their last dollar to keep it out. And they're willing to close plants more readily than most other industries. It's a matter of pride, it's a matter of personal dignity, almost, to keep the union out. So there is a variety of approaches that employers have taken. Some, of course, have used naked violence. Many have. But others have developed very sophisticated techniques for keeping the union out. Do you want me to dwell on that further?