- “The Only Salvation People Had Was to Organize” Or Quiescence on the Installment Plan?
As he contemplated the trumpeted embourgeoisement of the postwar American working class, radical Harvey Swados remarked in his 1957 essay, “The Myth of the Happy Worker,” that “there is one thing that the worker still doesn’t do like the middle-class; he works like a worker.” 1 Examining the history of textile unionism in the south after 1945, the pair of studies under review offer sharply contrasting perspectives on the postwar class conundrum once so ably captured by Swados. Daniel Clark’s Like Night and Day offers a highly detailed and well-reasoned defense of the enormous shop-floor rights unionized textile workers derived from workplace proceduralism in a single mill community. Timothy Minchin’s What Do We Need a Union For?, while far wider in scope and demonstrating a much greater depth of research, develops a less compelling explanatory model for the diffidence with which many textile workers greeted the CIO’s Textile Workers’ Union of America’s (TWUA) postwar drive to organize the South in the midst of a newfound material prosperity.
In Like Night and Day, Clark takes issue with labor historians Nelson Lichtenstein and Christopher Tomlins, who have bemoaned the proceduralism that they claim eviscerated shop floor contestation in postwar CIO unions. Instead, Clark argues for the enduring value of what David Brody has called “workplace contracturalism.” Building his argument around oral histories and a rich collection of grievance and arbitration documentation from TWUA locals 578 and 584 in the Harriet and Henderson mills in North Carolina, Clark shows “how workers could use grievance procedures to gain a [End Page 653] relatively enormous amount of control over their lives at work and at home” (p. 4).
Unionized mill “hands” at Harriet and Henderson used the grievance procedure to defend their job security, assignments, and pay; to protect their right to absenteeism; and to prevent management from arbitrarily increasing workloads. Clark is able to use personal anecdotes to illustrate how a union contract dramatically altered the conditions under which people made a living in these mills, and “offered protection from the arbitrary power that foremen once held” (p. 56). For example, when a worker chose to attend his father’s birthday rather than pull a double shift when asked, the superintendent tried to fire him. Under the previous, nonunion regime this would go unchallenged; but with the union, a worker could refuse to work an extra shift, and “did not require an excuse” at all (p. 56). Indeed, these TWUA locals developed—and largely enforced—their own moral economy of absenteeism which differed considerably from management’s view of justified absences. This proved especially important for the mills’ many women workers, who could rely on union protection to maintain the delicate balance between wage work and domestic labor.
Workloads, historically a key point of contention in southern textile mills, “were the primary focus of labor conflict after unionization” (p. 100) at Harriet and Henderson mills, Clark concludes from his reading of the arbitration files. Like Night and Day offers simply one of the best available accounts of workplace conflict over the hated “stretch-out,” the persistent efforts of millowners to increase the amount of daily labor done by each worker. Indeed, this issue had stimulated unionization in the first place. Between 1939 and 1942, as the Harriet and Henderson mills embarked upon a reluctant modernization, output per man-hour increased by over 80 percent in both mills. Because of wartime demand modernization proved a resounding success; but for workers, Clark notes, this meant the infamous “stretch-out.” Moreover, new supervisory personnel no longer adhered to the organic, if exploitative, relations of shop floor and...