Anti-Labor Day

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned here before the profound effect of spending my most formative childhood years in a place that was sort of a monument to capital’s war on labor. LaGrange, Georgia, in the early 1960s was a textile company town ruled economically, politically and socially by the Callaway family, proprietors of Callaway Mills. People there still talked–whispered, really–about the anti-union violence that occurred there a generation earlier:

On September 1, 1934, The General Textile Strike of 1934, also known as the Uprising of ’34, began. 170,000 southern workers and 44,000 Georgia workers joined in the strike. Textile workers walked off their jobs at the mills and joined caravans of cars that traveled to nearby manufacturing facilities encouraging everyone to join the strike. Mill owners hired armed guards to protect their properties while picketers angrily marched in front of them demanding fair treatment and pay. Violence broke between the guards and picketers in Cedartown, Columbus, Macon, Augusta, Trion, and Porterdale textile plants. As the news of violence against the workers spread across the south, Georgia workers joined the United Textile Workers (UTW) union for protection.Concerned that the ensuing violence and unrest would cost him the upcoming election, Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge declared martial law. Although he promised during his campaign that no force would be used against the strikers, as soon as he had secured a second term as governor he sent in the Armed National Guard to put down the unrest. Strikers were bullied, beaten, and arrested, and some strikers lost their lives when the Guard used force. One worker at Callaway Mills in LaGrange was beaten to death in front of fellow strikers by National Guard officers when he did not vacate mill property quick enough. Female strikers who worked in Sargent and East Newnan Cotton Mills in Coweta County (just south of Carroll County), were the first to be arrested and taken to holding cells on a military base in Atlanta until the strike ended. Dwindling resources and the fear of arrest – or even death – caused the the strike to end after only three weeks. The government assured the strikers that textile mills in the south would be investigated for unfair treatment and violations of law. Textile workers returned to work but were afraid their employers would seek retribution. Many of the strikers were fired from their jobs, evicted from the mill villages, and placed on a “blacklist” that circulated among textile mills in the area. The strikers who were allowed to return to work turned their backs on labor unions because they were afraid they too would be fired and blacklisted.

To be clear, the National Guard in LaGrange and other textile towns wasn’t just breaking strikes: it was evicting workers from their (company-owned) homes for any hint of union activity. It was state-sponsored class terror, and it succeeded.

Things didn’t changed much in LaGrange in the generation after the Uprising of ’34 was crushed. As a particularly clear sign of anti-union animus, the public schools in LaGrange began class on Labor Day each year. While I was living there, Callaway family scion “Bo” was elected to Congress in the Goldwater landslide of ’64 as an segregationist Republican. Two years later his views on civil rights almost certainly cost him the governorship of Georgia as a write-in campaign denied Callaway a popular majority against arch-segregationist Lester Maddox, who was subsequently elected by the legislature on a party-line vote. Two years after that Callaway patriarch Fuller stunned LaGrange by selling out his mills to the South Carolina-based Milliken empire.

By then my family had moved away and I lost touch with my LaGrange friends, but the Milliken takeover of the town must have felt inevitable. Roger Milliken was far and away the industry’s most notable executive, a union buster of the old school who also shared the Callaways’ decision to invest heavily in a southern Republican Party that would be the boon companion of “job creators.” By the late 1960s and for Lord only knows how much longer, the South Carolina Republican Party was regarded as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Milliken firm.

While Milliken and the textile industry have both lost their dominant position in the South, the Callaway/Milliken tradition of anti-union patriarchy lives on. It tells you everything you need to know about the supposed New South that one of its symbols, the Indian-American governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, is as faithful a labor-hater as one could ever hope for, as noted most recently in comments she made this last February:

South Carolina loves its manufacturing jobs from BMW, Michelin and Boeing and wants more.

But Gov. Nikki Haley says they’re not welcome if they’re bringing a unionized workforce….

“It’s not something we want to see happen,” she said after an appearance at an automotive conference in downtown. “We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water.”

Haley promised to keep fighting against union penetration.

“You’ve heard me say many times I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement,” she said. “It’s because we’re kicking them every day, and we’ll continue to kick them.”

It probably hasn’t occurred to Haley to insist on public schools holding classes on Labor Day, but I wouldn’t put it–or the use of the National Guard to break a strike, if anyone dared initiate one–past her if she gets another term as governor. The 1930s and 1960s live on, and the worship of the Golden Calf of capital has a grip on the Bible Belt as strong as sin.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.