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Laboring Against Racism: The Textile Workers Union of America in the South during the 1960s

Textile workers

[An old student paper.] The conventional understanding of labor unions and their membership in the 1960s is of a conservative and bureaucratic set of entrenched interests that played either a negligible or a reactionary role in the progressive upsurges of that decade. The AFL-CIO’s support for the Vietnam War and the U.S.’s imperialist agenda can be seen as a symbol of organized labor’s supposed integration into established power-structures. Among the rank and file, too, conservatism is said to have held sway, white unionized workers being a key component in the backlash against civil rights that elected Richard Nixon and would eventually sweep the Reagan regime into power. The popular image is of construction workers beating up “unpatriotic” students and hippies protesting the Vietnam War.

There is much truth to this caricature, but it oversimplifies. The labor movement in the 1960s was not some granite obstruction to progress or some monument to racial injustice. It is well known, first, that a number of progressive unions funded and participated in civil rights struggles, among them the UAW, the UPWA, and the Hospital Workers’ Union, Local 1199.[1] Less known is that even rank-and-file Appalachian coal miners, for example, by violently protesting in the early 1960s against the potential loss of their health and pension benefits, pressed the U.S. government toward progressive solutions such as an expanded welfare state.[2] The majority of white workers and their unions were not unequivocally on the wrong side of history, even if they did tend to have certain racial prejudices.

Historians have intensively studied unions with a progressive membership in the 1960s, such as the UPWA, but have arguably paid less attention to unions that had to navigate that decade with a relatively conservative membership. That is, the ambivalent relationship of such unions to the civil rights movement, to African American rights in the workplace and society, has not been exhaustively studied. Many unions had a progressive national leadership but a socially conservative rank and file. Did these unions alienate their base by taking liberal stances on civil rights? Were they very successful in unionizing new black workers? How did white workers in the South react to the desegregation of their unions and workplaces? What were things like for newly unionized blacks?

In this paper I consider such questions in relation to a union with a relatively conservative white membership, the CIO-affiliated Textile Workers Union of America. When blacks in the 1960s, under the protection of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, started entering production jobs in the industry and then participating in the union, did the behavior of their white coworkers and the union hierarchy exemplify the narrative of organized labor’s conservatism? As I will argue, the answer, unsurprisingly, is not a clear-cut “yes” or “no.” On matters of civil rights there were indeed tensions between the TWUA’s more progressive national leadership and its rank and file -- especially in the South -- just as there were tensions between blacks and whites in the workplace. However, white textile workers did not usually let their segregationist sympathies prevent them from joining blacks in struggles against employers (at least if they thought they had something to gain); in fact, many whites were radicalized by blacks’ unionization, and they came to respect the latters’ militancy. On the whole, the TWUA’s record in the tumultuous 1960s does not reflect badly on organized labor.


Until the late 1960s the TWUA was overwhelmingly white, because most jobs in the textile industry, especially higher-paid “production jobs,” were held by whites. Blacks did have a long tradition of working in the mills, but mainly as laborers. They “performed tasks which ranged from cleaning floors to installing electrical wiring to repairing looms to constructing mill buildings and mill housing.”[3] Many of them, even in the South, were nevertheless unionized, but in separate locals from whites. Segregated locals stretched back even to before the TWUA was founded in 1939. For example, during the 1934 General Textile Strike black locals were organized in most major southern textile centers.[4]

It is worth noting that blacks themselves often considered segregated unionism preferable to integration, because it gave them a unified voice that whites could be forced to recognize. In Danville, Virginia, for instance, in the late 1940s, the TWUA had two large white locals and a black local, each of which elected representatives to a joint board. As a result, in cases of disagreement between whites, the black local had power disproportionate to its numbers. Danville also showed the potential of unionism to break down barriers of prejudice, in that blacks were elected to positions of responsibility based on their abilities, which were recognized by whites. As one worker testified, “in many cases, when the white workers within the shop steward area would find that the black shop steward was much more able than the white shop steward within the same area, they would take their grievances to the black shop steward.”[5] Or, on interracial trips to national union conventions, white delegates would sometimes refuse to eat in diners that insisted blacks eat separately. “If we couldn’t eat together,” said one member recalling the TWUA’s 1946 convention, “we didn’t eat separate.” Timothy Minchin says that these types of incidents were remarkable, “given the intense hostility that had marked black participation in the union during [a] 1944 strike.” In the 1950s, too, union members would travel together only if buses were integrated. At one convention a white worker stated, in support of a resolution endorsing civil rights, “We have better relations with the colored people since we organized. They carry a lot of the responsibility.”[6]

Despite the accomplishments of segregated unions in the South, conditions in the industry remained deplorable. Discrimination was rampant, blacks remained a tiny minority and were rarely promoted to higher-paying jobs, and divisions persisted, of course, between white and black employees. Only with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the creation of the EEOC did things really start to improve. “Within five years of the act’s passage, a rash of major lawsuits had been brought against many of the South’s largest textile companies.”[7] Civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, the American Friends Service Committee, and TEAM (Textiles: Employment and Advancement for Minorities) played important roles in the racial integration of the industry, pushing recalcitrant employers to improve their hiring records by means either of legal action or of personal persuasion, in the latter case by visiting mills and talking to employers.[8]

Firms were in fact not always opposed to hiring blacks to production jobs, because a booming economy in the 1960s, as well as the departure of many white employees to more enticing positions in other industries, had led to a labor shortage. One newspaper reported in 1963 that “Negroes are quietly moving over to the heretofore all-white production line in Southern textile mills.... Throughout the South these days, they are talking labor shortage. Practically every textile plant -- cotton, synthetic, woolen, worsted, glass fiber -- is searching for willing and trainable help.” The article goes on to suggest that “Within the individual mills, there has been peaceful integration. Whites and Negroes realize they must work in harmony.”[9] We will see shortly that this was by no means always the case, but it does indicate that even in the early 1960s white employees were not so hopelessly bigoted they refused to work alongside blacks.

As the federal government and civil rights groups were forcing the integration of the textile industry, the TWUA was cautiously supporting desegregation and actively unionizing new black workers. Internal records make it clear that the union leadership strongly supported civil rights but was reluctant to proclaim its support too vociferously. At a staff meeting in 1966 to discuss the issue, the union decided to continue making public statements in support of integration but not to “spearhead the civil rights fight” because that would hurt it with its “present Southern membership.”[10] The union had only a minority position in the industry, after all; successful organization was a higher priority than “the development of favorable membership attitudes on civil rights.”[11]

Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that the national union did try to influence its white members on the matter of civil rights -- cautiously tried to educate them, nudge them towards liberal attitudes. This is evident from national conventions in the 1960s, which were attended by hundreds of delegates from locals around the country. These delegates in fact generally seem to have supported civil rights. For example, a resolution that was passed without vocal objections at the 1966 national convention recommended, among other things, “the passage of effective legislation making it a federal crime to commit acts of physical violence against and harassment of civil rights workers and organizers.” It concluded with the declaration that “We pledge to continue our close cooperation with men, women and organizations of goodwill within the labor movement, as well as outside of it, to make our country a better place in which to work and live and to rid ourselves of prejudice, hate and discrimination whenever, wherever and against whomever we find it.”[12]

Even more tellingly, the 1968 convention was visited by Alexander Barkan, former director of the TWUA’s Political Action Committee and, in 1968, director of the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education. He gave an impassioned speech on the necessity of not letting members get “sidetracked by phony issues,” in particular racial prejudices, in the 1968 presidential election. “In 1966,” he said, “we permitted our enemies to sidetrack us all over the country. We were sidetracked.” He proceeded to give many examples of how white and black workers in Maryland, California, Illinois, New Jersey, and other states let politicians race-bait them into voting against their economic interests. For instance, the previous New Jersey legislature had given workers a higher minimum wage, better workmen’s compensation, and unemployment compensation for strikers. To unseat the Democratic majority and repeal unemployment compensation for strikers, “the Manufacturers Association got up a million-dollar slush fund” to spread the lie that “the Superintendent of Schools of New Jersey was going to push through a program of bussing ghetto school children into the white suburbs. There was not any such plan. The Governor denied it. The Superintendent of Schools denied it....” Nevertheless, such racial propaganda swayed white workers in the suburbs, who helped elect a large Republican majority in 1966. The first act of this majority was to repeal unemployment compensation for strikers.[13]

Barkan also noted in his speech that the AFL-CIO’s “Virginia organization” had taken a poll of its members in 1968 and found that, while Hubert Humphrey was the overwhelming choice, George Wallace got 21% of the vote. Barkan concluded with the fervent exhortation that delegates educate their members on the issues. “Over and over and over again, you have to talk about these issues” -- “the real issues” -- “from now until next November 5.”

White textile workers tended to be among the more socially conservative members of the AFL-CIO, so Barkan’s speech, while testifying to the progressive character of the national TWUA and the AFL-CIO, also showed what the union was up against. Its conventions were very progressive affairs -- in 1970 Bayard Rustin spoke, to standing ovations and prolonged applause, on the importance of civil rights and racial integration, after which the union unanimously adopted a civil rights resolution “amid applause and cheers”[14] -- but the reality in the mills and their communities was not quite so uplifting. Timothy Minchin notes that the passage of a resolution condemning the White Citizens’ Council at the union’s 1956 convention “caused damaging fallout in local unions,” leading to the resignations of many members across the South.[15] Eleven years later, in 1967, TEAM observed that “A check of union plants indicates that the racial mix is no better” in unionized than un-unionized plants.[16] The priorities of southern locals during these years are reflected in the fact that the enormous archives of Scott Hoyman, Southern Regional Director for the TWUA in the 1960s and ’70s, contain very few references to African Americans or civil rights.[17]

In the 1950s and early 1960s, when the TWUA was taking tentative steps toward integrating plants and locals in the North and, to an extent, even the South, its organizers encountered predictable opposition among many whites. Integration nonetheless took place in a number of formerly segregated plants, even before the creation of the EEOC. Paul Swaity, an organizer in the 1950s and ’60s, remarks that integration was easier in the Midwest than the South partly because employers in the former region exploited not racial divisions but ethnic divisions among their employees. Even so, in order to integrate plants in St. Louis, for example, organizers had to do extensive preparatory work among white workers. They would ask shop stewards what they thought would happen if blacks were brought into the plant -- how whites would react, what the steward himself would do, and so forth. They would canvass rank-and-file workers too. Only after deciding whether any departments, and which departments, had a minimum of hostility to the idea of bringing in blacks would organizers coordinate with the employer the hiring of a few black workers.[18]

Even after passage of the Civil Rights Act and substantive or nominal integration of plants and local unions, combating discrimination was, for a long time, not a priority of most locals. In December 1966, only 2.6 percent of all southern TWUA contracts had a nondiscrimination clause, and very few had black stewards or officers. Locals also were reluctant to file grievances on behalf of black members.[19] The union did provide protection against unfair discharge and disciplinary issues, and its enforcement of seniority was invaluable to black workers, but in the 1960s and early ’70s locals often ignored blacks’ complaints about unequal pay. One worker, for instance, testified in a court case in 1972 that “the Union represents you for being fired or something like that, but as far as coming to get more money, they don’t do very much representing towards the blacks.” In many cases locals also tried to keep blacks out of leadership positions, even after the black membership had become a majority. Sometimes “whites resigned from the union en masse when the first African Americans were elected to positions of responsibility. ....The union found it very difficult to run mixed locals, finding its locals becoming either heavily black or staying all-white.” According to one black woman, racism in her local union was greater than in the plant as a whole. In fact, her union president was “a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan.”[20]

Despite all this institutionalized racism, black workers understood that it was far better to have a union than not to have one. Indeed, they were among the most militant and organizable workers in the country, and they pushed their fellow employees toward greater militancy. This is evident from a memo that Paul Swaity filed in 1970 (when he was the director of southern organizing), in which he argued that “The climate for organizing textile workers in the south is better today than it’s been since the early ’40s. There is a general discontent that is growing in the textile mills of the south, particularly in the states of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.” He continues with the following observations:

A new generation of workers is entering the industry. They are much more independent.... Black workers, receptive to organizing efforts, are entering the industry in growing numbers. Most textile plants employ more than 15% black and in those textile mill areas where labor is extremely short, black employment is reaching the 50% mark. The black workers pride themselves on what they’ve achieved through unity and confrontation in the civil rights field. They know these same techniques are applicable to economic progress. Their attitude to a union is, therefore, generally favorable. ....Even among older textile workers, there is a pronounced change taking place. The confrontations and civil rights progress of the black people has had an impact on white textile workers. The entry of blacks into textile plants and the manner in which blacks stand up for their rights has made the docile textile workers sit up and take notice.[21]

Organizers therefore anticipated great gains from black unionization. Their optimism was largely justified, for many union elections were won because of black support. In Allendale, South Carolina, for example, organizers reported that a representation election in 1970 had been won because the “majority of workers were black and were self-organized and the company could not crack their solidarity.”[22] In many campaigns, records show that the union had 100 percent support from black employees -- far more support than among whites. “Major victories at Oneita Knitting Mills in Andrews, South Carolina, in 1973 and at J. P. Stevens in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, in 1974 were due in large part to black militancy.”[23]

David Griffin, white president of Local 250 in Erwin, North Carolina -- “the heart of Klan country,” as a billboard on an interstate highway near the town announced -- believed in 1969 that black employment would be advantageous for his union. “I think within the next few years we’ll have many more Negroes,” he said in an interview. “Whites hate to organize. They want to ‘get along’ with management. But Negroes know it’s not on their side. They’ve known that kind of thing all the way back to slavery times.” Interestingly, in this deep Klan country white and black employees seem to have got along fairly well. As a spokesman for Burlington Industries, the textile employer in Erwin, said, “I think the greatest surprise some of our managers had at first [after integration] was the acceptance by whites of Negroes.” The reporter who interviewed him concluded that the Klan’s “violent spirit has not been evidenced in the attitudes of Erwin’s mill workers as integration has proceeded. What is found among the ‘hands’ is a perhaps surprising amount of tolerance, with some genuine friendships across racial lines, but also a large measure of unsophisticated prejudice.”[24]

It would be naive to think that “unsophisticated prejudice” could be overcome in just a few years in a society that had known it for centuries, but whites did soon learn to value the contributions of black unionists. A typical attitude was that expressed by a white worker in Roanoke Rapids in 1977: “I really admire the black folk. They stand up for their rights. I think the whites have a lot to learn about that.”[25] Doubtless this particular worker was able to act in prejudiced ways toward blacks, due to decades of social conditioning, but he was also able to rise above his prejudice and join together with fellow workers to achieve a common good. Whites in an un-unionized plant were perfectly happy to follow blacks into a union, to let them take the lead in organizing it. In many cases they were even willing, at least after the initial shock of integration in the mid-1960s, to have a black president or vice-president of the local. In the 1970s it was common to have a white president and a black vice-president; in fact, whites would sometimes encourage black leaders to run as a way of strengthening the union.[26] In Fitzgerald, Georgia, a black woman who was elected president of her local union in 1970 apparently encountered no resentment among whites, who accepted her leadership even though she had recently been active in the local NAACP.[27]

In short, while examples can be multiplied indefinitely of local-union discrimination against blacks in the 1960s and 1970s, other examples can be multiplied indefinitely of successful cooperation between whites and blacks. The point is that the conventional narrative of labor’s conservatism in this era is simplistic. Society is too complex to permit of such simple generalizations. The reality is that the TWUA’s national union was at least as racially progressive as mainstream America -- a fact indicated by its progressive national conventions, the attitudes of its leaders, and its organizing efforts -- even if it did not try to influence its rank and file as strongly as it could have on the issue of civil rights. This was a strategic decision, a response to the perceived attitudes of most white members of the TWUA in the South.

And yet, to repeat, even these rank-and-file whites were not monolithically reactionary on civil rights. Especially by the early 1970s, many admired what African Americans had achieved in civil rights struggles; they admired the practice of “sticking together” to achieve collective gains, and were themselves willing to stick together with blacks if they thought it would help them economically. For their own part, blacks observed that the opening of production jobs to them in the 1960s and their subsequent participation in integrated unions often changed the way whites perceived them. As one African American said, “The atmosphere changed [after integration]. They [i.e. whites] changed and I changed. We got closer together in every way.”[28]

Lest this paper end on too sanguine a note, we should acknowledge that employers in the South continued to exploit racial divisions among their workforce even into the 1990s. Bruce Raynor, former southern director of the ACTWU (successor to the TWUA), observed in 1995 that “to this day every campaign we run the company makes race an issue, every single one. The company will tell the whites, ‘The union’s going to force us to give the good jobs to blacks.’....It’s still a big weapon against us.”[29] Racial fears are extraordinarily tenacious, and the record of integration in the southern textile industry is by no means one long success. It is a story of victories and defeats, and it should be recognized as such -- a complicated human story, not the caricature of reactionary whites and bureaucracies vs. heroic individuals that we encounter in popular history. Reality, after all, is always more interesting than myth.

[1] See, e.g., Roger Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!” A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930-90 (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997) and Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg, Upheaval in the Quiet Zone: 1199/SEIU and the Politics of Health Care Unionism (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009).

[2] Robyn Muncy, “Coal-Fired Reforms: Social Citizenship, Dissident Miners, and the Great Society,” Journal of American History, Vol. 96, Issue 1 (June 2009): 72-98.

[3] Mary Frederickson, “Four Decades of Change: Black Workers in Southern Textiles, 1941-1981,” Radical America, Vol. 16., No. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1982): 27-43, at p. 29.

[4] Timothy Minchin, What Do We Need a Union For? The TWUA in the South, 1945-1955 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997), p. 135.

[5] Quoted in ibid., p. 137.

[6] Ibid., p. 138.

[7] Timothy Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960-1980 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999), p. 42.

[8] Ibid., pp. 229-231.

[9] “The New South: Negroes in the Textile Industry,” Daily News Record (New York, NY), December 1, 1963.

[10] “Staff Meeting in President Pollock’s Office,” December 21, 1966, Box 90, TWUA Papers in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

[11] Quoted in Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker, p. 235.

[12] Reel 58, Microfilm Collection, AFL-CIO Convention Archives, UIC Library, Chicago.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker, p. 238.

[16] Ibid., p. 240.

[17] Scott Hoyman’s archives are in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

[18] Interview with Paul Swaity in 1979, Tape 725A in the TWUA Oral History Project interviews, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[19] “Summary of Southern TWUA Staff Survey,” December 12, 1966, Box 316, TWUA Papers.

[20] Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker, pp. 243, 241.

[21] “Improved Southern Organizing Opportunities,” June 29, 1970, Box 652, TWUA Papers.

[22] General President’s Representation Election Questionnaire, September 17, 1970, ibid.

[23] Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker, pp. 248, 249.

[24] Reese Cleghorn, “The Mill: A Giant Step for the Southern Negro,” New York Times Magazine, November 9, 1969, p. 142.

[25] Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker, p. 250.

[26] Ibid., p. 252.

[27] Letter from Patricia Eames to William Pollock, August 18, 1970, Box 90, TWUA Papers.

[28] Quoted in Mary Frederickson, “Four Decades of Change,” p. 38.

[29] Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker, p. 257.


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