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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Unions and race at a R.J. Reynolds tobacco plant

Robertson describes the racial character of unionization at the R.J. Reynolds tobacco plant, as well as her role in attempting to organize it. Black workers in need of union strength to win better wages suffered when the expanding industry brought in anti-union white workers. This divided workforce precluded agreement on unionization, but the union hoped that Robertson would be able to persuade white workers to join the union. While this colonization plan—planting pro-union workers in workplaces to convince workers to organize—seemed like a good idea, Robertson thinks it came too late to be effective.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. 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:
It was mostly a black union?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes. It's not fair to really try to condense a situation as important in the lives of North Carolina workers into a single sentence, but if I were going to that was the problem in the tobacco industry as a whole. It started out with a predominance of black employees who worked in the pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and so forth departments. As time progressed and cigarettes became more important, they eventually became the key phase of the industry. And when the cigarette departments began, they involved white workers. So you began with a situation where the majority of workers were black, working in specific departments, and they organized into a union. Then the company expanding into a white community in a different department, where the white workers had not yet been persuaded of the need for a union. So that then you look around, and suddenly your base is gone. You have a majority of people in departments that are being slowly shut down and ceasing to exist. You lose employees. The majority of your workers are workers who are not organized, and that's how Reynolds was lost.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What years would it have been that you were there?
MARY ROBERTSON:
I got out of the service in '46, so it must have been '47, '48, somewhere along the late forties. I'm very bad about dates if I don't have a point of reference.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I'm trying to remember what I know about that local. What was going on during those years when you were there?
MARY ROBERTSON:
I'll tell you what happened. To say that I went to work at Reynolds is confusing. I was asked to come to work at Reynolds. That was during the CIO's southern campaign in every industry in the South. One of the organizing techniques that was being used at that time was what they called "colonization," which was to put people who were already persuaded of the need for unions in the plants where they had an opportunity to talk to their fellow workers, because union organizers could not get to these people. They were precluded from reaching these people by various things: the whole attitude of southern management, media, and so forth. So I then was a colonizer in the Reynolds plant; I was asked to come and get a job, to apply, as though I had no connection with the union, for a job, in the hope that they wouldn't realize that I was connected with the union and I would get a job. And that's how I got into the Reynolds plant.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What was your job?
MARY ROBERTSON:
I worked in the cigarette plants as an inspector on a cigarette packing machine.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was your purpose especially to try to organize white workers?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes, especially to organize white workers. That was the whole point in getting me to go, because I was white and I could be hired into the cigarette departments. Blacks were not being hired in the cigarette departments. And persuade white cigarette workers in those departments to join the union.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did you go about trying to do that?
MARY ROBERTSON:
It wasn't difficult. Statistically, I suppose I was tremendously successful. I got five people in my department to join the union, and I don't think there was but maybe one other person in all of the cigarette factories at that time who joined during that period. If you want to call that success. It was a situation that was doomed from the outset, because of this imbalance; the base was gone. The contract was going to expire in a matter of months, and there was no possibility at that time under those circumstances of changing the base. There was just no way. There was no way that that many white workers were going to be talked into joining the union; it just couldn't be done. The issues were such that it could not be done.
JACQUELYN HALL:
There were virtually no white workers in the union at that time?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Virtually no white workers. And those white workers who did belong to the union or had belonged to the union for any appreciable amount of time were completely isolated and ostracized because they did belong and had very little persuasive power with other white workers. That's the reason the colonizing plan was ideal for that, except that it came too late and too little. It was a doomed situation.