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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Eula McGill, September 5, 1976. Interview G-0040-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Women participate in a conflict between unions in La Follette, Tennessee, in 1943

In this excerpt, McGill describes a confrontation that occurred between the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union and the United Mine Workers during a labor campaign in La Follette, Tennessee, in 1943. According to McGill, the ACWU had more success in organizing workers than had the mine workers and, as a result, the mine workers were disgruntled because of their inability to form a majority. When this particular confrontation occurred, McGill had warned the male union members to stay away so they would not become victims of violence. The female union members, however, faced the mob bravely, and as McGill remembers, "beat the tar out of them." The anecdote demonstrates gendered complexities in union organization and illuminates tensions that brewed between unions of different affiliation.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Eula McGill, September 5, 1976. Interview G-0040-2. 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

JACQUELYN HALL:
What happened when the mob broke in the union office?
EULA MCGILL:
People told me that there was no miners involved. There were taxi drivers and just anybody they could pick up. I know there was some taxi drivers; they had organized the taxi drivers into the United Construction Workers in that area. They only owned the cabs. In fact, I was afraid to even ride a cab during that time; I didn't know who anybody was. I walked, because I didn't have an automobile. My car had torn up, and I was unable during the war years to get cars. And I didn't have an automobile, so I'd walk anywhere in the town I wanted to go, unless somebody (one of the workers) had a car.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Tell me about this incident when they broke into the union hall. What happened?
EULA MCGILL:
Well, they kept trying to get the people to join their union, and they didn't have any success. A few people would join. They had four or five of the women who worked in the old Reade shop (which was called the Imperial Shirt) that was involved, I know. One of them had been a forelady, and she was afraid of losing her job as a forelady. And I think she was afraid that the union wasn't going to accept her back into union membership because of her activities previously. And at that time we had a union shop, and you had to be a member of the union. And the firm had talked with me about accepting her back in the union. And I told the firm that I didn't have anything to do with it, that when the time came for her to go back off of supervision into a bargaining unit job that I would do what I could. But I did not know how the people felt about her, and what had happened in the past I had no knowledge of it, and that I could not give them any assurance that she would be accepted in the union because I didn't have a vote (I only had a voice). And I had been talking to the people more or less about it, the officers of the union, and discussing it with them that she was going to come back. But they used her and a few others that were disgruntled for some reason. But they couldn't get the majority, because we did service the people; we had a good contract, as good as anybody had in those days in the shirt plants. The people were very happy with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. We had, of course, people who (as every union is not perfect). . . . But we had very good meetings, good support from our members. We had a good union, and they just couldn't get anywhere.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Were most of these workers women in the shirt mill?
EULA MCGILL:
Yes, yes. I didn't involve any of the men. I told the men to stay out of it altogether, the few men we had in the plant, because they would be victims of violence. And I told them to stay clear.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did the women respond to the threats of violence?
EULA MCGILL:
They held their heads up and went on, until they started shooting in their houses and beating up their husbands and threatening. The pressure got a little bad after they finally put a picket line out and wouldn't let the people into work. They put a picket line up and wouldn't let the people in to work, and that's how they finally got one of the shops; they never did get the other. But they came. We was having a meeting over at the hall, and they came up. We had the door locked. There were seventy-five or a hundred guys and one or two women, and the people who knew them said they worked in Jellico. They were not workers from our plants; none of the workers from our plant was involved in this. And they were trying to get the door open, and they couldn't get it open. They kept trying. Frankly, we had clubs inside the hall to protect ourselves. And every time they'd stick their finger through the crack one of the girls would hit their fingers, and they yelled. A cop was standing outside, the policeman, watching all this. And they yelled back to him and said "They've got clubs in there." And he came up and asked me to open the door. We opened the door, and he stepped back and let them in. Then them women beat the tar out of them [laughter].
JACQUELYN HALL:
Really?
EULA MCGILL:
Yes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did they beat them?
EULA MCGILL:
They sent seven of them to the hospital. They used their scissors on them; a lot of them had their scissors, and they'd cut.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did any of the women get hurt?
EULA MCGILL:
No.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did the men not fight back?
EULA MCGILL:
Yes. They tried to fight, but they couldn't fight. Them women was terrors. They were trying to get to me. Some of the women took me back in the back of the hall and made me stay back there. They knew that they were after me. And I didn't like it [laughter]; I wanted to stay out there and fight too. But a bunch of the women took me in the back of the hall.