Clifford M. Kuhn. Contesting the New South Order: The 1914-1915 Strike at Atlanta's Fulton Mills. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xii + 302 pp. $23.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-4973-6; $49.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-2644-7.
Reviewed by Stephen W. Taylor (Division of Social Sciences, Macon State College)
Published on H-South (April, 2002)
The Personal Dynamics of a Southern Labor Conflict
The Personal Dynamics of a Southern Labor Conflict
Sixty years ago, W. J. Cash dismissed attempts at organizing southern labor as "foam before passing gusts." Southern workers, according to Cash, were almost pathologically resistant to any form of collective action. Cash cited the "big strike" in Atlanta--the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills strike of 1914-1915--as an example of such futility, and for many years southern labor unrest would be dismissed as irrelevant because of the power of mill owners and the lack of concerted efforts by would-be organizers. But as recent studies like Clifford M. Kuhn's Contesting the New South Order show, the real picture is vastly more complex. While attempts to study southern strikes have been hampered by the paucity of available records, the Fulton strike which Kuhn's book studies is an exception. In the 1980s a veritable treasure-trove of records associated with this strike was unearthed and given to Georgia Tech's special collections department, allowing a uniquely full picture to be drawn.
Kuhn's book is not the first to treat the Fulton strike. That honor goes instead to Gary M. Fink, whose The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills Strike of 1914-1915: Espionage, Labor Conflict, and New South Industrial Relations (1993) is drawn from the same sources which inform Kuhn's book. But while Fink's book is a straightforward attempt to analyze the causes and results of the strike, Kuhn's goal is at once more complex and more elusive. Influenced deeply by Edward Ayers' The Promise of the New South, with its theme of individual expectations, Kuhn's book places the strike in a broader context, with greater attention paid to divisions among the strikers and more effort made to follow the connections both management and labor employed in an attempt to "win" the dispute.
Fink's 1993 study explored the motivations of factory owner Oscar Elsas, concluding that Elsas was overly fearful of the spectre of anti-Semitism. Kuhn goes further, placing Elsas's fears in the context of the Leo Frank trial and lynching and noting that "Fiddlin' John" Carson, the popular musician responsible for "The Ballad of Mary Phagan," was also one of the Fulton workers expelled from his home for sympathizing with the strike. Though Kuhn notes that Atlanta's social structure was "comparatively fluid" (p. 10) and allowed outsiders--even Jews--to become part of the commercial elite, he nonetheless hints that Elsas may have been struggling to prove himself worthy of membership in that elite group. It seems a credible explanation, given that Elsas's father Jacob (who was born in the Rhineland and settled in Cincinnati before moving to Georgia just after the Civil War) had once faced ostracism and ridicule in Atlanta for replacing white women with black women workers in the 1890s.
While Fink asserted that Oscar Elsas felt "isolated" from other mill owners because of his non-southern origins and his Jewish faith, Kuhn goes deeper, documenting extensive correspondence between Elsas and other mill owners outside the Atlanta area, as well as Elsas's connections to the vehemently anti-union National Association of Manufacturers, to illustrate that while Elsas may have been lonely in Atlanta's social circles, he was certainly not isolated from the resources he would need to challenge the strikers.
Kuhn invests tremendous time and effort into examining the various forces motivating strikers. Too often, he argues, an analysis of a strike will force the historian into dividing people neatly into "strikers," "strikebreakers," "management," and so on. Kuhn's study admirably delves into the complex nature of the personal and professional relationships involved in the Fulton strike. Here he examines both workers and managers with a sharp critical eye. The strike did not occur because of a simple and sudden loss of faith in the employer-employee relationship. Events such as the hiring of "efficiency expert" Gordon Johnstone (who later went on to institute the infamous "stretch-out" at Gastonia's Loray Mills in 1927) and the innovative introduction of a fining system for poor quality goods may have contributed to the timing of the strike. However, the roots lay deeper, in a widening of the gulf between management and labor during the 1890s and early 1900s.
Kuhn is at his best when dealing with the lives of workers, as he is unwilling to fall into the twin traps of lionizing or dismissing them. He finds ample evidence that many non-strikers sympathized with the desire for better working conditions but felt too financially insecure or too mistrustful of strike leaders to join the walkout. He also documents that, as factory owner Oscar Elsas had asserted and as many strikers acknowledged privately, many were indeed looking for a free lunch, or a "vacation," from the drudgery of Johnstone's quotas and the fining system. Indeed, the tendency of the strike commissary to feed non-workers may have tapped union resources to the breaking point. Kuhn's descriptions of community life among the strikers are among the strongest features of the book.
One feature that truly stands out in Kuhn's book is the sophistication of both the strike leaders and company management in the battle for public opinion. Such a contest would not have been necessary if not for Atlanta's distinctive character. Unlike mill towns that depended on textiles alone for their growth, Atlanta was a diverse community in which skilled workers were often union members. Kuhn credits the lack of police-led violence to the presence of a unionized police force sympathetic to the strikers, though the presence of a mayor who was also a union member may have helped as well. Fulton workers were less likely to be totally dependent on the mills than in other areas--many lived in non-company housing, and many families had at least one non-mill income.
In such an environment, then, both sides had to compete for public support. The strikers enlisted the help of the Men and Religion Forward Movement (MRFM), a council led by local ministers which called publicly for mediation. While MRFM leaders sometimes addressed the question of Elsas' Jewish faith in public (displaying what Kuhn calls "insensitivity," though Elsas called it anti-Semitism), union members wrote songs and limericks with plentiful and unmistakable anti-Jewish images. With financial help from the United Textile Workers and the American Federation of Labor, strikers hired camera crews, printed postcards depicting child labor abuses, and otherwise showed an understanding of public relations savvy that Elsas could only attribute to the influence of "outside agitators." Particularly useful images were those which depicted white workers evicted from company-owned housing by hired black movers -- an image which brought back memories of Elsas' father's attempt to hire black workers to replace white women in the 1890s.
Elsas, meanwhile, wrote frantically to mill owners in other cities asking for experienced weavers, fixers, and other mill hands to help break the strike, even as he publicly insisted that the strikers represented an insignificant proportion of the total work force. When such help did arrive, Elsas found he could not control those workers, as many of them ended up joining the pickets instead. Elsas then turned to national organizations, notably the National Association of Manufacturers, for assistance not only in breaking the strike, but also in undermining an attempted investigation by the Committee on Industrial Relations and ultimately preventing the passage of strict labor laws--all, again, while publicly insisting that the strike had made little difference in the profitability of his own business.
Kuhn's presentation helps to refine Fink's earlier analysis. Fink found that "the similarities between [urban and rural mills] overwhelmed their differences [in that] the economics of the industry conditioned employer attitudes and employer-employee relations in the same way regardless of location" (Fink, p. 7). Refusing to paint with such a broad brush, Kuhn finds that while attempts to organize Atlanta's workers may have been no more successful than attempts in rural areas, the reasons were different. Kuhn finds the causes for the strike's ultimate failure in the personalities involved rather than in the "economics of the industry" alone. In exploring the personal lives and motives of strike leaders O. Delight Smith and Charles Miles, grocer and strike sympathizer Harris Gober, mill owner Oscar Elsas and several managers, Kuhn proffers a more detailed picture of a complex strike, one in which individuals are free agents rather than simply members of a socioeconomic class.
Kuhn's book might have benefited from a firmer editorial hand. The organizational structure is difficult to follow at times, leading the author into what seem to be repetitive statements. The book's narrative climax, Kuhn's description of the hearings held by the Commission on Industrial Relations, would have been more effective had the author explained the origins and mandate of that body in more depth at some point.
In the end, Kuhn maintains Fink's central conclusion that the strike failed because of Elsas' use of sophisticated industrial espionage tactics to infiltrate the union, gathering "dirt" on both union leaders and MRFM members who spoke publicly against the company. Kuhn's major contribution, then, is not his analysis of the failure of the strike itself, but instead his effort to reach beyond the stereotypes of both mill workers and management in order to better understand the individuals involved--their hopes, their fears, and the context in which they lived their lives. In that respect the book is a rousing success.
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Stephen W. Taylor. Review of Kuhn, Clifford M., Contesting the New South Order: The 1914-1915 Strike at Atlanta's Fulton Mills.
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