In 1934, a year after the start of the New Deal and the creation of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), textile workers across the Southern United States went on strike. Though they had many grievances, including long hours and low wages, the lack of labor representation in the NRA’s textile regulatory authority likely triggered the strike.
The U.S. textile industry had begun to suffer in 1929. Wages fell, and to reduce costs, mill managers implemented a “stretch-out,” increasing individual workers’ responsibilities while banning restroom trips and other breaks. The origins of the 1934 strike, however, lay not in the U.S. textile industry’s dire economic situation, but in the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933. The passage of this bill led to the creation of the NRA, which within weeks set up a committee to regulate the entire U.S. textile industry.
The supporters of the NRA claimed that its industrial regulatory committees would represent the interests of consumers, workers, and business owners alike. But the individual appointed to chair the Textile Industry Committee, lawyer George Sloan, was also the spokesperson of the Cotton Textile Institute, the industry’s trade organization. Consequently, consumer and worker were not represented in the Textile Industry Committee’s deliberations.
Workers suffered under the code established by the Textile Industry Committee. Though wages initially rose under the committee, a reduction from a 40-hour to a 30-hour workweek allowed the committee to reduce weekly wages by 25 percent. Textile workers began joining the the United Textile Workers (UTW), the largest labor union in the textile industry, in huge numbers. The union’s membership increased from 27,500 in 1932 to 270,000 in 1934.
The workweek reduction was the immediate cause of the strike. Despite the massive increase in its membership, the UTW was unable to bargain effectively with mill owners. In June 1934, the UTW threatened a strike to avert another threatened workweek reduction, and in mid-August, the UTW began to plan a general strike aimed at securing official recognition from textile manufacturers. On September 1, 1934 textile workers in the United States went on strike.
During September 1934, 65,000 North Carolina textile workers stayed home, shutting down the state’s textile industry. The center of the strike in North Carolina was Gastonia, where on September 3, 1934 – Labor Day – thousands of textile workers held a downtown parade. The strike commenced with exultation, but as September drew on, the celebratory tone of the strike cooled. Heeding the advice of textile manufacturers, North Carolina Governor John C.B. Ehringhaus mustered the National Guard to protect the mills from rowdy strikers.
By mid-September, the absence of progress toward an outcome satisfactory to the UTW made clear that the union lacked the resources needed to support the strike. Excess textile supply further harmed the strikers’ cause. A mediation panel appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt concluded that the grievances of textile workers called for further study, but no concrete government action was taken in behalf of the workers. The most significant effect of the medation panel was to pressure workers to return to the mills.
On September 23, after President Roosevelt himself implored the striking workers to return to the mills, the strike ended. The UTW made no gains through the strike, which left the union with only nugatory influence for the rest of the Depression.
Anthony Badger, North Carolina and the New Deal (Raleigh, 1981); Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1997); Anita Price Davis, North Carolina During the Great Depression (Jefferson, North Carolina; 2003); Brent Glass, The Textile Industry in North Carolina: A History (Raleigh, 1992); Janet Christine Irons, Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South (Champaign, 2000); T.H. Watkins, The Hungry Years (New York, 2000).
Lew Powell, On This Day in North Carolina, (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1996), 162-163.
B.J. Davis, "Walking Out: The Great Textile Strike of 1934," North Carolina Junior Historian (Spring 2010).