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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Dora Scott Miller, June 6, 1979. Interview H-0211. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The role of a union at Liggett and Myers

Miller describes the role of her union at Liggett and Myers. Once President Franklin Roosevelt began advocating the idea, the company was forced to allow the movement to take hold, and eventually Miller became a shop steward. The union was segregated at the time, but black union members crossed race lines in the late 1930s to join white strikers, earning a bit of a raise as a result. Miller adds some details about her position as shop steward and some of the conflicts she negotiated with management in that role.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Dora Scott Miller, June 6, 1979. Interview H-0211. 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

BEVERLY JONES:
You mentioned you were a union leader in the factory. You mentioned that the union began in 1934. Why was the union started?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Well, we had different speakers come from different places come to speak to us. They'd invite people to come in—groups of people—so that they'd discuss the union to them. We met in the old Wonderland Theatre building, down where they had they had the first meetings at. Later, a few years, they had a union hall. They bought this nice place down on Roxboro Street. That was a year. They'd scramble around everywhere upstairs in them holes and everywhere till they got and built this nice place. Of course, the urban renewal got that. Then, the last few years, the two unions a-merged. One-ninety-four went in with 208, black and white together, but formerly, 194 was black and 208 was white.
BEVERLY JONES:
How active were black women in the union to begin with?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Just a few black women. Two black women that was there was the shop stewards—myself and Mrs. Marie Macmillan.
BEVERLY JONES:
How many floors did black women work on at the factory? You only had two shops in it.
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
We had three floors, but women worked on them, and on one floor weren't nothing worked on it but men.
BEVERLY JONES:
So the leadership of the union in '34 was dominated by the males?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Un-huh. The women didn't come in till later. They worked in the union, but wasn't no women shop stewards till later. Marie Macmillan, she was one of the first ones, then I was the second one.
BEVERLY JONES:
What is the role of the shop steward again?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
When you have problems. You have a problem on your job, you feel like you haven't been treated right or something. Sometimes the foreman'll say, "You're not doing a good job." He'll go to the shop steward. Then you have to go talk to this person and find out what the problem is and get to the bottom of it and see what the real problem is.
BEVERLY JONES:
What was the reaction of management toward the whole idea of the union?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
They didn't care for it, but they eventually accepted it. At first, they didn't want to accept it. In Roosevelt's time, he advocated unions, and we finally got it through. We got our union and got it organized and everything, and they had to accept it.
BEVERLY JONES:
Were there any strikes that you can recall?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
The cigarette factory strike and truck drivers. They struck in '38.
BEVERLY JONES:
What were the grievances? Why were they striking?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
I can't recall exactly, because I didn't work in that department. They struck—that was 208—the truck drivers, they was in a union, but it's different one from 208.
BEVERLY JONES:
The truck drivers and cigarette workers in '34. The cigarette workers were white and black?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Just a few blacks. Weren't but a very few blacks worked over there in that time. Everything over there was white.
BEVERLY JONES:
The majority of the cigarette workers were white?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Yeah.
BEVERLY JONES:
How about the truck drivers?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
They were white. They just got some black truck drivers recently.
BEVERLY JONES:
So whites were striking?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Yeah, whites struck.
BEVERLY JONES:
What was the feeling of blacks?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
We had to come out too, 'cause the truck drivers didn't run, we couldn't work. We had to come out—had to stay out and suffer with then. Weren't out too long, but we had to come out. We didn't have to march. We didn't have to walk on the picket line, but at that time when they struck, they had a few blacks over there. My sister was working over there at the time, and she had to walk the picket line. They had just a very few blacks over there at that time—black women—over on the cigarette department when they had the strike. My sister was working over there; she retired from there.
BEVERLY JONES:
It's unusual where the strike began. The conditions you were working under were very hard and paying less. The cigarette workers were making more and many of them were white.
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
They made much more.
BEVERLY JONES:
The truck drivers were white, and they decided to strike.
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
They struck, and we had to come out too—truck drivers were in the teamsters union.
BEVERLY JONES:
Why didn't the whole idea of a strike begin among blacks?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Our union wasn't strong enough at that particular time to strike.
BEVERLY JONES:
The benefits that occurred as a result of this strike also filtered…
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
We got some benefit from it.
BEVERLY JONES:
What benefits did you get?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
We got a few pennies in our raises. At that time, our union wasn't strong enough. Being a black union, it took it a little longer to get the strength that the white one did have.
BEVERLY JONES:
What about the leadership of the union? What type of person was chosen as President?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
We had some very, very good leaders. After the union really got strong, we had some leaders even go into the international. Willa Mae Stewart's father, he worked for the international and retired from there—making some big money.
BEVERLY JONES:
Were the individuals you picked as leaders, were they younger, were they older?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Well, they wasn't young. I would say middle age. The majority of them was good Christian leaders—church people—were supposed to have been trustworthy.
BEVERLY JONES:
Were they outstanding in the community?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Outstanding in the community, yes.
BEVERLY JONES:
All the individuals who held offices in the union were males?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Yeah, except we two women. We were the only two women. They had some secretaries, but not no shop stewards.
BEVERLY JONES:
Why do you think you were chosen as a shop steward?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
They had a vote. The girl died ain't been too long ago—Amanda Wallace—she was the one that offered me for her committee for the shop steward.
BEVERLY JONES:
That meant that everybody in the union voted for the shop steward?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Voted for me. Whoever got the highest number of votes, that's the one won.
BEVERLY JONES:
What type of relationship did you as a shop steward have with the management?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
I had good relationship with them. They respected me highly, very highly. I always tried to carry myself in a way before I became shop steward that I would be respected then. Even after I became shop steward, then I still had my respect with them. They respected me high as I could expect.
BEVERLY JONES:
Tell me about some of the grievances that black workers would bring to you since you were a shop steward. What were some of the complaints?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Sometimes they feel like they hadn't been honestly dealt with; they was overworked at times and put too much on them. Maybe one person would be out, and they have to do two people's job or something like that. Sometimes they'd come to you with something that wasn't any good.
BEVERLY JONES:
Do you recall what complaint that you'd probably work at for a long time and you did go to the management and you did receive some type of … you were quite successful in trying to remedy some of the complaints?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
I didn't never have any complaints that bad that it took me a long time to straighten them out.
BEVERLY JONES:
How did you deal with a complaint?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
I would talk to the person, then I would go to the foreman and talk with him. Then we'd get together and go to the office. I would talk to each individual, and then we'd take it to the office—the floor office, not the main office—and we would talk individually, two or three, whichever was involved. Whoever was in the office, they had to go out 'cause everybody didn't sit there and listen to what you had to talk about. So whoever was the timekeeper, whoever was in the office sit there and listen to what you had to say. So whoever was involved was the one what did the talking. Whatever your case was, you didn't talk it over with nobody else. If you had a problem, I didn't go back and tell the other person what it was. If I worked that problem out, me and this individual, I'd tell them to keep your mouth shut, since I worked it out. One thing I had, I saved a boy once. I thought I was going to lose him. You to smoke the company's brand. Whatever cigarette they sell, you supposed to smoke one of them; they give you a pack of cigarettes a day. They found a "Camel"—at that time, "Camel" was kind of popular—they found a "Camel" cigarette. He was working and had a breakdown with the machine. Out fell a pack of "Camel" cigarettes, and that was one of the hardest cases I had.
BEVERLY JONES:
You could be fired because of that?
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Yeah, you could be fired—even now! They'll fire you now. They give you a pack a day. You're not to be caught with no other brand. Better not let them catch you in the store buying no other brand. They catch you in the store, report it and everything.
BEVERLY JONES:
Do you recall a complaint that you dealt with and it didn't turn out the way you wanted it to turn out.
DORA SCOTT MILLER:
Yes, I've had some problems with things that didn't turn out exactly like I wanted it to. But, it wasn't no bad cases. I never had anything that was too bad. We had some men shop stewards too that worked with me. Sometimes I'd get a case that be kind of tight, and I would call on a man to help me, to go in with me. The chairman of the shop stewards, I'd call him in with me when something's real tight. I had just one foreman; he worked on the first floor. He just couldn't stand women; no women worked down there. I had to go down there on my job at that particular time; I was carrying papers all over the building. Every hour I had to carry papers to him. He couldn't stand a woman to do nothing for him.