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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ernest Seeman, February 13, 1976. Interview B-0012. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Growing awareness of the plight of workers and support for labor organization

Seeman explains his growing support of labor activism following the strike at Seeman Printery. During the early nineteenth century, Seeman was intrigued by a strike of cotton mill workers in Erwin, a mill village within Durham. He does not give a date for the strike, but it is possible that he is referring to the General Strike of 1934, which many North Carolina textile workers participated in. Seeman describes a conversation he had with the local union leader and his growing understanding of power dynamics within southern industries.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ernest Seeman, February 13, 1976. Interview B-0012. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MIMI CONWAY:
Can you tell me a little about when you were still a printer, and still in business but very dreamy? The strike at Erwin was going on; and did you tell me that you used to walk late at night after work and go over there and see the strikers, and see bonfires?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes.
MIMI CONWAY:
Can you tell me a little about that?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
It was cold, and fires all around, and these strong men hob-knobbing and talking. They were valiant.
MIMI CONWAY:
Did you go out of curiosity? Why did you go? Or did you feel sympathetic towards them? Why were you there?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
It's very clear in my mind, the fires and the reflections on the mill. That was something new for Durham; it was in all the papers, and the state papers. It was kind of like the Bolshevists' movement: it was something new for unions to be stepping out like Communists. In fact, they were tangled up a good deal, and still are. [Interruption]
MIMI CONWAY:
Did you go many nights or many times to see the strikers at Erwin?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Not so many, but several, to see what was happening. And there was action going on, and there was a clash between two ideals: the worker and the big rich.
MIMI CONWAY:
What were your views to the strikers at this point? You had told me earlier about when there was a strike in your own company.
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes, that's when I began to admire Paul Robeson. [Interruption]
MIMI CONWAY:
Can you tell me a little more about Erwin?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Well, I was told that this man was the key to the union in west Durham. And he said, "Yes. Come and have dinner with me at my factory, my little company shack where I live with my children and my wife." So I went there. He thought there would be eavesdroppers at his table. And he said, "Well, there's nothing that these people won't do to beat us down. They've bought this union out. The union has won, but they won't let them win. They're keeping them dangling by shoestrings to be sure they don't have any influence." And then he went out and stayed quite a while, and came back and said, "I wasn't sure but what you were a spy, and I went out to try out several letters to be sure you were Ernest Seeman, that you were who you say you were (because so much deceit goes on, and they'll do anything to beat us out)."
MIMI CONWAY:
Were you there to interview him for a story, or were you getting information as part of your own development?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes.
MIMI CONWAY:
Why were you there?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Then he explained that they really had no power; it was a powerless union, just in name only.
MIMI CONWAY:
Which union was it? Do you remember?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
No, I don't; I didn't pay much attention. It was the cotton mill workers; it was organized into some union.
MIMI CONWAY:
Were you there to interview him for an article, or were you there to get information for yourself? Why were you talking with him?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
I wanted to see how it was stacked up, see what progress they were making. It was satisfactory, and he did all he could do. But he followed me to the corner and said, "I've no power, and I'm afraid I never will have. They've got us sewed up in a bag, with every kind of crooked dealing. You can't expect us poor cotton mill workers that live in these shacks in poverty to have any power."