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Labor Studies Journal 27.2 (2002) 100-101



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Book Review

Testing the New Deal:
The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South


Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South. By Janet Irons. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000. 262 pp. $16.95 paperback.

When I worked as Education Director of the Textile Workers Union of America in the 1960s, there was an unspoken pessimistic sense of history that weighed heavy on its aggressive but unsuccessful organizing efforts. The event that was the source of that pessimism was the General Textile Strike of 1934.

In recent years there has been a spate of research studies on this strike. Irons' book is a unique combination of detail, analysis and riveting storytelling, woven into a readable, insightful and well-documented social history.

The importance of the strike, which involved over 170,000 workers —over two thirds of the textile industry, is highlighted by Irons: "The workers' sheer audacity symbolized that this was no narrow economic contest between employee and employer." This was a social revolution described by a textile manufacturer as "... perhaps the gravest emergency which has confronted our people since reconstruction days."

The book describes four key aspects to understanding the strike. First, Irons reviews the long term efforts of the workers to resist exploitation and social discrimination, including the heroic strikes before the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act. Second, she examines the role of the United Textile Workers Union (UTW) and its schizophrenia regarding on one hand the desire to organize the workers and on the other the inability to give full support for the strike of these militant workers. She exposes the conflicted role of the Roosevelt New Deal, which both raised worker expectations and at the same time thwarted worker rights and efforts to achieve collective bargaining. And finally, she assesses the long term impact of the finality of the workers defeat after three weeks. It is only in recent years that the painful wounds of this defeat are not an obstacle to union textile organizing.

Like all retrospective histories, the failures of the leadership of the UTW and the New Deal seem self-evident. But the complex issues are similar to those we face today. There is much to be learned by the close reading of this study.

The UTW and its response to the southern workers were shaped by different cultural and economic objectives that worked against worker unity. This was shaped by a fear of rank and file militancy. The UTW strategy was to seek "cooperative" solutions with management through the government, [End Page 100] while the southern workers wanted a militant union on the ground.

The unique contribution of this book is to describe the gap between the rhetoric of the New Deal and the domination of actual policies and practices by the southern textile capitalists, who were necessary political allies for the non-labor aspects of the New Deal. This was played out in the conflict between a policy of achieving efficiency and creating employment, with efficiency winning out.

The details of this story are instructive and applicable today. The sacrifice of worker rights to political expediency by "political allies" of labor is brought into sharp relief. Sound familiar?

 



Stanley Rosebud Rosen
Professor Emeritus
University of Illinois

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9758
Print ISSN
0160-449X
Pages
pp. 100-101
Launched on MUSE
2002-06-01
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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