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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Carlee Drye, April 2, 1980. Interview H-0005. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Importance of collective action in labor activism

Drye reflects on the relationship between Alcoa management and the local Steel Workers union in Badin, North Carolina, from the late 1930s into the 1970s. According to Drye, the Alcoa management, though not aggressive in implementing change, had always been responsive to the demands of the union and he describes the relationship between the two as relatively amicable. From Drye's perspective as a leader in the union, the people of Badin are what made this relationship possible and he lauds their tenacious efforts to support the union and demand progress. Here the importance of collective action to successful labor activism is clearly emphasized.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Carlee Drye, April 2, 1980. Interview H-0005. 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

Let me just try this theory out on you and see how you think of it. What impresses me is how much Alcoa seems a part of the natural setting, an institution almost as permanent as the river there. Of course, the river is the reason why Alcoa came, and so they sit side by side, again, another image to me that is very meaningful. That both of these institutions are things that almost determine the people's psyches, the organic relationship of what governs this area, the two of those things together. And the river was there first, and the industry came because of the river, and then the people came to both of those places that were both there. Most of the people who came had some attachment, and the industry did not disturb their land. They could maintain an attachment to land. As you say, you have a garden, and you fight your beetles in your garden, and you try to get your planting when it doesn't rain. But nonetheless, you've still been involved with working in this heavy industrial development, and both of these things kind of govern your existence, an attachment to land, also an attachment to this industry. And it's been a good industry which has given people good wages with benefits, has accepted the presence of a union, has worked along with it in a way that's benefitted both them and the workers. So it's been kind of a. . . .
A joint effort.
A joint effort and a group of forces that came together in one place to make people in control of their lives, have enough money to live the kind of lives that they'd like to have, while at the same time not disturbing their atmosphere, their environment, and not disturbing their ties to their land and their ability to be able to garden and to go fishing, to go swimming, to go hunting, perhaps, in the mountains. It's accommodated both, perhaps, the rural traditions in which they grew up and also the need to be in the present-day moneyed economy. And the union, of course, is one of the significant features in that, but it's also that Alcoa has become sort of a permanent part of people's psyches here. It's almost as natural as the river.
Yes, it is. I have tried in my own mind to analyze that relationship through the years, and I think perhaps when I interrupted and said it's a joint effort. . . . And this probably goes back to management, perhaps not plant manager level but higher than that. But somewhere in the top management leadership in Alcoa there's been this concept of good, faithful employees being compensated. And if I had to say it bluntly, one thing that the union can be proud of is that we nudged them along a little faster than they probably would come. There has been-and this has to be true-a wonderful relationship between plant management in Badin and the local union officers. I think the good Lord has acted to send their managers, and the good Lord has let the rank and file elect the person for the time. I can take that list and almost spell that out. There was a time when the hard-nosed person came along, needed in that area. Maybe the good Lord waved a stick, and the people said, "Well, we'd better get. . . ." And then there was a time when a pacifist attitude, "Just take it easy for a while." And he came along after I did. But the summary, I think, is we were both headed the same direction, as far as the employees of Alcoa. We used different tactics. The people wanted to do for themselves, and this is an independent streak, I think, and therefore they reached out and took in the union as something that can speak for the group, and it's been good for Alcoa. They'll tell you that. They would rather deal with one person than 700-something, because it's a channel into. . . . Of course, there's always one who's going to upset things for management and the union, too. We've had our faults, and we've had our faulty people. I can't say that Alcoa has had that philosophy all these years. The employees had to make Alcoa what it is today. But the Badin plant stands apart from any other location. I could tell you some horror stories about what we've battled in our own meetings before we meet management to talk it over. There's been some screwballs up there, but then you had the average, the overall group with level heads. "Now look, this is not the right thing for the people, and this is not what we're going to do." We've had to almost tie and gag and bind people on our side of the table. And there's times in meetings that I've been with Alcoa management, in grievance meetings and just discussion of problems in the plant, that you couldn't tell who was on what side of the table. And this is unique within itself. The nature of bargaining started changing in the early fifties, very soon after I entered office. They were down to earth, fact for fact, not pounding on the table and this sort of thing. It changed. And in the period before then, that's the only way you got through: beat on the table. And that's not the way to get attention. And if Badin is unique, that's the people. It's not the people who represented them. I didn't have any part of it; I had the people behind me, the majority of the people, in everything I attempted, and I think that's been true overall. That's why I say we were headed the same direction. We used different tactics, went a different route, to get there, to accomplish it. I think that's why probably somewhere you have to knit that effort together, the joint management-labor relations sort of thing. But I do know that somewhere at Alcoa [in] that human relations thing, that there's been some heads chopped pretty hard here in this plant, because of things that I attempted to do and some things that I attempted to get straightened out here, and I know they were straightened out, because these people were out of line. They were creating a problem down here on the plant level, within the department. And in every case, they didn't fit the policy. Now where that started, I don't know. I could not put my finger on it. But this interrelation thing started changing in the early fifties, and the level-headed discussion. Not right, and you'd better have some reasons. Now you show Alcoa what is right, and more times than not they go along with it. It might take a little longer sometimes.
Would you say that the company or management wasn't exactly aggressive in its approach to improving the conditions of workers, but that they were responsive?
They've been responsive all through the years.