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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harriet Herring, February 5, 1976. Interview G-0027. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Mill owners react violently to efforts to organize

In this excerpt, Herring describes her response to efforts at organization in Gastonia, probably in 1929. She worried about the potential for a clash between southern police unfamiliar with strikes, and gun-toting southern men. Owners reacted violently, but years later confessed they welcomed the union rules that precluded absenteeism. Herring believes that workers needed unions because owners' goodwilll—lack thereof, that isl—would not protect them and she tells a brief anecdote describing one such owner.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harriet Herring, February 5, 1976. Interview G-0027. 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

MARY FREDERICKSON:
. . . '29, did you anticipate any reaction like that from the workers, from your work?
HARRIET HERRING:
No, I was surprised, I really was. Well, you see, the first one was that one in that town up there. Maybe it was Henderson; I believe it was Henderson, that one that I wrote up in Survey. And that was isolated for a long time. And then they began down around Gastonia and up at this town west of Gastonia.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Why did you go to Gastonia? What were you looking for? Were you just interested in observing, or were you really hoping that the workers would be able to form permanent unions?
HARRIET HERRING:
Well, I was hoping if they knew enough about it and were going to make a try that they knew what they were doing, because they were going to have a hard time. And they'd have to stand up and be counted.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Did you think they did know what they were doing at the time?
HARRIET HERRING:
Well, I think they realized that they needed some help on their side, because their wages weren't. . . . Of course it was during the Depression; I guess wages had gone down. See, I wasn't in the mills then, and I didn't know what had happened exactly to wages. But I'm sure they must have gone down in the early thirties, and they hadn't been any too high to begin with, you see.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
What were you hoping would be the outcome of the strike?
HARRIET HERRING:
Well, I just hoped nobody'd get killed: that was the main thing. Nobody was disciplined enough, you see. The police weren't disciplined enough; they weren't used to dealing with union members that were marching and yelling and waving flags. And the workers weren't used to that kind of thing; we hadn't had any. See, the organized work here (railroads and that sort of thing) they weren't public; they didn't see how you behaved on them. So I felt sure that there'd be hard feelings and probably some shooting, because Southerners are right good with guns, you know.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
[laughter] Did you think any of the manufacturers, the managers, overreacted?
HARRIET HERRING:
Well yes, I think some of them did. When you come right down to it, I think the Marshall Field ones did. To get to the place that they had to have a hearing shows that they were doing everything they could to it. Once they gave over to it. . . . I went up there a year or two after; everything was peaceful and they said they were glad they had it.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Had the union?
HARRIET HERRING:
Yes. Said they didn't have to discipline them anymore: if people were absent too much they'd just tell the union they had to get their folks in [laughter] .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
I know that in a lot of your writings you spoke of, for instance, the positive side of workers owning their own houses. Did you sort of view unionization in the same sort of way, sort of the positive side of self-government?
HARRIET HERRING:
Well, I felt that they were so helpless in a not-too-skilled industry and naturally not a high wage industry that they had to have some protection besides just good will, because every mill management didn't have good will, you see. I had one young man that made me so mad I didn't know what to do. It was a small mill. I tried to get a lot of little mills as well, because everybody knew that the big mills carried on all these things, so I stopped to a lot of little ones. I went to this one, and I don't think he had more than a hundred and fifty workers; it was a small mill down a little bit to the east of the main part of the industry. And he was very affable when I said that I would like to ask about some of their working community and so on, and the housing and everything. He sat down and he answered every question I asked. Then he said, "Is that all?" I said, "Yes, I believe it is. Can you think of anything else I should ask, that I haven't covered, that I wouldn't know about?" No, he thought not, he said. "Now just give me those papers." You see, what I usually did was not start to write until they gave a figure or something. And I'd say, "Well now, I've got to put that down; do you mind if I write this down?" And after that I could keep on making enough of a note so that by the time I'd get back to the office I could remember to fill it in. And I said, "What?" And he said, "I just wanted you to know that I didn't mind giving you the information, but I didn't want to include it in the study." I said, "Why didn't you say so to begin with? You'd have saved my time and yours too." I was so mad with him I didn't know what to do, because it had taken quite a little while and it was boring—it was just like any other little one, you know. I said, "I had a lot of little ones just like yours."