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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Alester G. Furman Jr., January 6, 1976. Interview B-0019. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Failed efforts at unionization and mill owners' efforts to thwart strikes

Furman discusses the lack of effective labor agitation in Greenville, South Carolina, during the early 1930s. During this era, various industries throughout the South were met with unionization, strikes, and labor agitation; however, Furman argues that efforts to organize textile workers in Greenville largely failed. During these years, Furman continued to buy and sell stock in various textile mills and he sat on the board of several mills. He describes several efforts at labor organization, but explains how mill owners worked to dissuade unionization and thwarted efforts to organize strikes.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Alester G. Furman Jr., January 6, 1976. Interview B-0019. 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

I guess that brings up a question that I was thinking about, among many others. One was, did Greenville experience some of the labor troubles that Gastonia or Marion did during that time, and if not, why not? ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: Well, I can tell you exactly why not, because by that time, that Parker School District had been running and those people were intelligent and they knew this, nobody could ever debate or argue that a group of people can't form an association . . . you can call it a union or you can call it anything else, for their own benefit. But the trouble was, and it's the trouble with the union situation today, the top men in the union are the ones that get all the money and they have to pull a strike every now and then to make it go. If everything went along smooth, you wouldn't have any members, because "what's the use of me paying dues, I'm not having any trouble." Now, that's the whole secret of that thing and very frankly, . . . I try not to say that I did this and I did that in this whole situation, I just . . . of course, we sold a great many mills in toto from one group of stockholders to another. Brandon Mill was one that I did right after I came out of the First World War. And I sold that to the Woodward Baldwin Company, and we started doing a great deal of that type of work. Sold a good many mills. I told you that I sold Harry Kendal of Kendal Mills. Well, his company has gone out of business now, but he was the man who started the gauze business in the First World War . . . Harry Kendall, Kendall Mills and I sold him two mills in Newbury and I went fishing with him up in Maine and I've got the pictures right there now when I went there with him. That's where I got around a lot, you know. If you get around and meet people, you get a lot of other things coming on with it.
Did these mills have trouble with labor organizations? ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: No, we never had any trouble with labor.
The ones around here, in Greenville? ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: As a matter of fact, even today, we don't have a labor union in any one of these mills around here today.
And you feel that it's basically because of the feeling . . . ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: Basically, it was just this: be sure and tell those people exactly the facts about what they are doing, not try to hide anything and not try to cover up something, but the relationship between the stockholders, the representatives being the officers and the mills was always a cordial thing. I don't mean that they didn't have some problem, I don't mean that there wasn't a dissident in there that wanted to change this or that and of course, unions would come by and they would pay somebody and they would send in an organizer or they would pay some people in the mill to try to get other people to sign up, but we never lost an election. We had quite a few elections, but never lost an election around here. You take the Stevens Mill . . . of course, we've got several Stevens Mills around here, they've had three or four elections here, but the union's never won. They won up yonder in North Carolina last year, but it never has . . . I never will forget one time that down at Greenwood, with the Self Mills down there. Mr. J.C. Self, father of the present Jim Self, was a good friend of mine and we sold all those beautiful houses of his down there and he had beautiful brick houses. He just went all out to take care of his people. One time, there was a fellow . . . he had a gateman down there on a gate and he and Mr. Self had been boyhood friends down about fifteen miles below Greenwood and the unions were trying to organize Mr. Self, trying to organize the mills. They came in and they said to this fellow, "Why don't you sign up?" The fellow say, "I'll tell you. If you'll get Mr. Self to sign up, I'll sign up." (laughter) They didn't know that that fellow was sitting out there all that time getting information for Mr. Self. It wasn't covert information, the fellow was just out there listening to whatever was going on. Well, they always worked right around the gate, you could always tell that. That was the time they finally . . . in '34, we had what they called the flying squadrons that came through.
Did they come through Greenville. ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: Oh yes. They came through here and they had to call out the militia all over the state. I know that I was at that time on the board of Woodside Mill and I was on the board at the time that they went into Dan River as a matter of fact, but anyway, the man who was the treasurer of Woodside Mills . . . of course, Woodside had gotten into financial difficulties and they had to be worked out and they sent a man down, Ellis M. Johnston, who was a brother of Percy Johnston, who was chairman of the Chemical Bank. Now, Percy Johnston had nothing to do with sending his brother down here, because he was in India at that time and Ellis had been up at Bridgeport Brass as a kind of a . . . not a legal receiver but he was doing the same kind of thing down here. He was coming down to straighten out the finances, you know, of a mill. Anyway, he was a great friend of mine and I went out when they . . . they had a little group of mill boys, mostly, in the militia. This was the Chester Company, came over here from Chester and a boy named Cork was the captain of it and he had them deployed around that mill out there. It was a great big mill, that Woodside Mill was and it is now. They were meeting down in a park across the street and they were haranguing them and they got the American flag out and they started up there. The mill officials had made all the people in the mill put down the picket sticks and guns and knives and everything else and deposit them inside the door before they went to work. They didn't want them to have any trouble. I was out there in the office of the mill at the time, in fact, I was down there in the midst of those people listening to those fellows harangue them. So, they put the women up in the front and they took the American flag and they started up to go in and pull those switches to stop that mill, the mill was running. Here you would hear them, clap, clap, clap, running just as hard as they could run. Well, they got up there and one of these little militiamen was standing outside the door and some fellow inside the door, he ran down and got his gun and as he picked it up off that table inside the door, the thing went off. The little militiaman standing outside jerked and his gun went off up in the air. And one of these old women . . . I can hear her right now . . . she said, "My God, they are shooting at us." They all just turned and ran and Cork threw a couple of cannisters of tear gas out there and they disappeared and they never had any more trouble with them. Over at Duneen Mill, Harry Arthur from Union, he's over there now, he was a general in the Second World War . . .
Arthur? ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: Harry Arthur. That Arthur family is a great family for Union. He has a bank in Union now. They drove a truck up over at Duneen Mill, I was not there, this is what was told to me . . . they drove a big truck up there and Harry had a little company of mill boys from all around Union and they were around the Duneen Mill and the textile workers union came up there in a flatboard truck and a fellow was standing up on it just cursing and telling them what a terrible bunch of people they were, and finally . . . Bob Henry was running it and they all loved him and old Harry Arthur was a little bitty short fellow and he carried a forty-five on him that was as big as he was nearly. He got a rope and put it around there and he said . . . around the doors of that mill. They were going in to pull those switches, that was what they were always trying to do. They couldn't shut the mill down and they wanted to shut it down. They never could get enough people out of the mill to shut it down. Of course, you know that if you can get all your doffers out of there, you can shut any mill down if your doffers are gone. That is a very key place to do it. But anyhow, Harry ordered the rope up and he said, "Now, any man that crosses that line, shoot him, don't ask any questions. The only thing that I ask you to do is to leave that big son-of-a-bitch up there on that truck to me. I'll take care of him." They faded out and were gone and never came back. (laughter) In other words, that's the only time that we ever had any real concerted effort to do anything. We've never had any union situation that was any trouble here.