George Calvin Waldrep. Southern Workers and the Search for Community: Spartanburg County, South Carolina. The Working Class in American History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. xii + 272 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-06901-7.
Reviewed by David L. Carlton (Department of History, Vanderbilt University)
Published on H-South (August, 2001)
G. C. Waldrep's Search for Community
G. C. Waldrep's Search for Community
The world G. C. Waldrep III writes about is one that vanished with astounding suddenness just after World War II-or rather, as Waldrep's extensive interviewing suggests, it went underground. I can say that because I grew up on the surface above it-specifically in the village of Saxon Mill outside Spartanburg, South Carolina, one of the communities in which the events he recounts took place. The Saxon of my youth was a far different place than the Saxon of the 1930s. John A. Law, the resident mill president and founder, had sold the mill to a chain headquartered in New York, and the houses were sold to the employees a few years later. One heard virtually no talk of unions in the 1950s and 1960s, although the News Review, the pro-union weekly newspaper begun in the neighboring community of Una, was still being issued, and I used to smuggle an occasional copy into the house despite my middle-management father's disapproval.
Apart from the churches, the dominant social force in the village was the Ku Klux Klan; South Carolina's Grand Dragon lived nearby, on my brother's paper route. Fewer and fewer villagers actually worked in the mill; upward mobility took some residents to new jobs outside its bounds, and the parking lots surrounding the plant became increasingly crowded with commuters. In the 1960s the mill was converted to synthetic-fiber production and then sold to Philips Petroleum, which dramatically expanded it. The radically different technology now employed in the plant required a different set of workers, and the mill was now largely severed from the community whose lifeblood it had once supplied.
Now that world, too, is vanishing. The old textile industry of Spartanburg County, which for the most part had long withstood the assaults that have decimated other mill communities of the southern Piedmont, is now rapidly collapsing. Mills that play prominent roles in Waldrep's story, such as Tucapau, have not only closed but have been demolished. Just this year Arcadia, Inman, and (yes) Saxon have closed, and in May Spartanburg's flagship mill, Spartan, was spectacularly shut down by foreclosure. Apart from the few workers still affected (and ruined), Spartanburg has scarcely blinked. The industry may soon employ fewer people than does BMW's auto assembly plant, while the crude fare sold to the workers in the grocery stores of my youth now competes for shelf space with delicatessen items for the managers of the swarm of mainly German firms whose presence has led Interstate 85 to be nicknamed the "autobahn." To modern Spartanburg, Waldrep's Spartanburg might as well be the Moon. While for some it may evoke some nostalgia (and a great wave of cotton-mill nostalgia has swept across the Piedmont in recent years), for far more, I suspect, it calls forth a shudder followed by a shrugging "good riddance."
Such, clearly, is not the view of G. C. Waldrep. In his aptly titled Southern Workers and the Search for Community, he argues, in effect, that beneath the tumult of labor conflict in the 1930s lay a quest for a communitarian dream of workers united by bonds of mutuality. While the immediate occasion for the conflicts he recounts might have to do with wage cuts, discriminatory firings, or, especially, the infamous "stretch-out," the union as a vehicle for the pursuit of limited goals interests him but little. Rather, he believes that the "specific goal" of union activity was "transforming mill life" (p. 178).
In his pivotal chapter, "Southern Textile Unionism and the 1930s: Meaning and Memory," he borrows from his onetime Duke graduate colleague Mary Wingerd's conception of "community unionism" to contend that the union was not simply one among other village institutions. Instead, it was the ultimate embodiment of community life--indeed the arbiter of who belonged to the community and who did not. In so doing, union locals framed conflict in communitarian terms, between those who were "in" and those who were "out." Mill corporations and managers were "out" because from the 1920s forward they were unilaterally upsetting the complex moral economy encapsulated in the phrase "a fair day's work for a fair day's pay." But "outs" also included strikebreakers (usually described as literal "outsiders," though not necessarily in fact), offenders against the dignity and morality of the worker community (such as Saxon's notorious social worker, community dictator and adulteress Marjorie Potwin), and, ultimately, even national unions placing the concerns of an abstract "working class" (and their own organizational imperatives) above the localistic concerns of actual workers.
Of course, like everyone else who has covered this ground, Waldrep in the end tells a story of defeat. Indeed, he recounts that tale in impressive depth; the story of village after village is laid out in overwhelming detail, backed not only by some ninety interviews with former workers but by extensive research in union records and the files of the Cotton Textile Labor Relations Board, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. At its best, his account is richly attentive to the grass roots, full of unsung village heroes leading resourceful and heroic charges against overwhelming odds.
Yet, the defeat over which he grieves is in the end not that of the union but of an ideal. The last of his case studies-the strike at the Clifton Manufacturing Company in 1949-1950-is described as a "last stand"-not of the union, which remained the bargaining unit at the firm until its shutdown at the end of the 1960s, but of the cohesive worker community, fractured by internal dissension. Indeed, Waldrep sees the strike as a trauma exceeding in its effect that of the shutdown itself. In the end, the union as an institution matters less to Waldrep than the union as a metaphor for communitarian solidarity-a dream whose material basis, the village system, would in the postwar years be demolished by village sales, the increasing use of commuting workers, and the dramatically shifting industrial base of the county.
Thus, in many ways Waldrep's approach epitomizes the agenda that has underlain so much of the attention paid to working-class culture in the generation since the pioneering work of Herbert Gutman. Yet in its execution, Southern Workers also reveals some of the major weaknesses in that approach. All too often, Waldrep's overriding concern with the ideal of "worker community" is coupled with only partial attention to the threads making up the warp and weft of the communities in which his workers lived. One learns only in passing of the rural population of Spartanburg County, even though they were not only an increasingly important alternative source of labor for the mills, but were also a critical part of the electorate and thus helped shape the political environment within which workers had to operate. Skilled workers, including the hands in Spartanburg's extensive rail yards and repair shops, are likewise virtually absent from Waldrep's account, even though such railroad settlements as Una and Hayne afforded unionists, including the publisher of the News Review, important independent bases of operations.
More critically, the middle-class population of the city of Spartanburg scarcely appears at all. While it is conventional to dismiss such "town people" as reflexively anti-union (as they certainly were after World War II), their relationship to the mill villagers clustered around them was not nearly as simple as that; workers had ties of sympathy and interest to townspeople, who in turn had priorities that often conflicted with those of mill management. A full explanation of the failure of worker organization needs to examine the failure of unionists to broaden their support beyond the villages.
Furthermore, except in Waldrep's account of the Clifton strike, one learns very little about that large segment of workers who apparently lacked interest in joining strikes, or who actively opposed them. His discussion of the General Textile Strike of 1934 fails to address the argument of James A. Hodges that many workers went out, not of their own volition, but because they were locked out by managements happy to use the storm as an excuse to work off excess inventory.
Nor-again with the exception of Clifton-does he pay serious attention to the theme that has always most struck me in my conversations with survivors of that era-the intense divisions within the villages over the efficacy of organized labor action. One need not return to the discredited myth of the "contented worker" to recognize that workers in their actual communities faced serious dilemmas in the 1930s, and responded to them in different, and sometimes conflicting, ways. Discrimination in work assignments, hirings, and firings often reflected community divisions as well as straight labor-management disputes; scarcity of work, and pressures on management in a stagnant and highly competitive industry to keep their firms afloat by cutting labor costs, could easily pit worker against worker. Claims by unionists to represent the "community"-claims Waldrep usually accepts on their face-may have been in many cases efforts by unionists to wrest community's definition from their adversaries, including managers deeply embedded in village life.
At its root, the workers' dilemma lay in the obvious point, hammered home time and again by events, that, "solidarity" notwithstanding, cotton-textile workers had little real power to impose their priorities on the industry. If the National Labor Relations Act "failed" southern unionists, it was because it was not designed to achieve utopian goals, but to provide a legal framework within which labor relations could be conducted free of the violence that had previously been endemic to American labor history. It was up to the workers to make use of that framework, and here Spartanburg's workers failed. Mostly, to be sure, their failure had to do with fundamental structural problems with the industry. Textile mills were numerous and highly competitive, with mature products and markets and machinery that increasingly substituted technology for skill. Even multiplant firms ran their units independently of each other, keeping disruptions from strikes at any one plant to a minimum and allowing them to shift production to compensate for work stoppages. The strategic advantages that made the sit-down strike such a potent tool for organizing a complex, vertically integrated firm like General Motors were absent.
Excessive inventories were chronic problems in the 1930s, exacerbated by the need of village-dependent firms to "hold their force" together by continuing to run; in such circumstances, strikes could actually be beneficial to the mills, allowing them to live off inventory while handing the union the task of maintaining their work forces. Textile unions were chronically weak, and the propensity of southern workers to demand quick results made them weaker. The industrial geography of the Piedmont, with scattered enterprises and a narrow range of industries, left it without the huge industrial centers and concentrations of skilled workers that facilitated organization in the Manufacturing Belt. Facing such daunting obstacles, the greatest skill, discipline, solidarity, and persistence would have been necessary to prevail-more than could reasonably have been expected of the real human beings involved.
But the workers' failure to prevail may also have owed much to precisely that quality that Waldrep tends most to celebrate-the intricate ties between labor conflict and community issues. For the conflicts he recounts were fundamentally conservative, designed to preserve a moral economy specific to a world on the verge of dissolution. The most striking example he offers is that of the Saxon strike of 1935-36, which he argues had an objective flying beneath the radar of national union and federal government agents: the expulsion from the village of Marjorie Potwin, John A. Law's brazen and overbearing mistress. Interestingly, he notes that the strike lost most of its steam once Law agreed to exile her to the North Carolina mountains.
To be sure, his unionist informants regarded it as a great victory; but this former Saxonite personally has doubts. If her departure was a victory of "the community," that community spread beyond the workers; hatred of Potwin pervaded top management as well, and Law's open adultery had compromised his own standing with the southern industrial elite (his wronged wife was from a prominent Augusta mill-owning family). The sacrifice of an offensive New Englander "with the Devil in her eye" (as someone told my father years later) was for them a small (and not unwelcome) price to pay for continued undisputed authority over the workplace. "The community" may have won; the stretch-out continued unabated.
In any case, the conservative-utopian ideal of a worker community united by moral consensus and habits of mutuality became increasingly irrelevant in the Spartanburg of the post-World War II era. The worker commuting to work from mill house, ranch house, farm house, or trailer had options unavailable to the villager for whom work and community were tangled together: higher-wage jobs, the opportunity to obtain new skills, even higher education and the chance to break out of the working class altogether.
Not that unions were unneeded; southern workers have remained notoriously unprotected from management power, and the failure of the region to develop strong worker organizations has been a tragedy both for them and for the New Deal socio-political order that the nonunion South has done so much to undercut. But workers needed unions, not to preserve a community that many in the end would see as a trap, but to handle the humdrum tasks that can provide industrial labor with fair remuneration and personal dignity. That, to answer Timothy Minchin's question, is what workers "need[ed] a union for"; not to "transform mill life," but to give workers a measure of control over the terms of modern work.
But as for the dream of "community"-
I periodically return to Saxon, but I don't stay but a short time; I have no remaining ties, and the village now is so much more depressing a sight than I can recall it being in my increasingly suspect memory. I quickly return to Nashville, to my books and my university campus, to the coffee house where I'll celebrate the completion of this essay, and muse on how far I, and the South, have traveled in the half century since Waldrep's story ended, and my own began. I may, like Waldrep, mourn lost possibilities for a better way of life. But I also may shudder a little, and then shrug and mutter, "good riddance."
. For a decidedly chirpy description of the new, globalized Spartanburg, see Rosabeth Moss Kantor, World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995, pp. 242-283.
. Mary Lethert Wingerd, "Rethinking Paternalism: Power and Parochialism in a Southern Mill Village." Journal of American History 83 (December 1996): 872-902.
. James A. Hodges, New Deal Labor Policy and the Southern Textile Industry, 1933-1941. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986, pp. 104-118.
. On this point see especially Douglas Flamming, Creating the Modern South: Millhands and Managers in Dalton, Georgia, 1884-1984. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984; and David L. Carlton, "Paternalism and Southern Textile Labor: A Historiographical View," in Gary M. Fink and Merle E. Reed, eds. Race, Class, and Community in Southern Labor History. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994, pp. 17-26.
. On some of these points, see David L. Carlton, "The State and the Worker in the South: A Lesson From South Carolina," in David R. Chesnutt and Clyde N. Wilson, eds., The Meaning of South Carolina History: Essays in Honor of George C. Rogers, Jr.. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991, pp. 186-201.
. Timothy Minchin, What Do We Need a Union For? The TWUA in the South, 1945-1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
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David L. Carlton. Review of Waldrep, George Calvin, Southern Workers and the Search for Community: Spartanburg County, South Carolina.
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