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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Perkel, May 27, 1986. Interview H-0281. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Mill owners control their workers' communities in various ways

Textile mill owners still exert a great deal of power in the rural South, Perkel believes, despite the decline of the traditional mill town, because they cultivated a reputation as community benefactors instead of just employers. They exert control through benevolence, but also through control of local schools and media, inculcating a mistrust of external interference and government control.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Perkel, May 27, 1986. Interview H-0281. 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

Do you think that the textile companies continue to exert anywhere near the same kind of political power in a town or locality that they did, say, before World War Two? You no longer have the mill towns any more, but do you think they're still very strong politically?
Yes, I do. I think there has been a change. With few exceptions, they don't just run everything in the town, dictate everything. But they do have the predominance of power in most textile areas. The fact that textile mills are concentrated in certain areas makes the influence of the employer much greater than if they were spread out throughout the region. But the fact that they concentrated in certain areas gives them great political power in those areas. Well, that sort of brings me into the—I've been talking about worker characteristics—but, I think, in order to understand why we have so much difficulty organizing textile workers, we have to appreciate something about the characteristics of textile employers as well. And, as you probably are aware, historically, textile employers in the South have been regarded as public benefactors, rather than as simply employers. They're the people who brought jobs to the poorest agricultural South, and they were regarded by the community leaders and by people generally as benefactors. And they set up these one-industry towns or company-dominated areas and part of the benefits that they received from that was almost complete control of local government. The attitude, or mind-set that has resulted from that historical situation is a strong sense among textile employers, even those who may not have come from the South, that they are entitled to be the king-pin in the industrial and geographic area. Many of them still retain the paternalistic idea of being responsible for their people, their hands, as they call them, and there's an authoritarian, top-down communication system that has departed many non-textile industries but still is characteristic of the textile industry. The control of worker lives which had historically been a part of the mill village sociology still continues in the sense that the mill management feels that he has a right to know not only what his worker does on the job but outside of work, and he and his supervisors concern themselves with what happens outside of work. They're still important in the church community, the education community, and through them they still retain a great deal of control over the lives of textile workers. And certainly, control over what textile workers read in their local newspapers and what they learn in schools.
I've heard it said that companies really don't particularly want workers who have gotten much education, particularly a whole high school education. I think someone spoke with a mill owner down in South Carolina who said we'd just as soon have people who hadn't finished high school.
I think that's true. I think the nature of the work is such, being generally routine and repetitive, that employers think that people with higher education would not make good employees for these jobs, and so they do welcome uneducated people, and I think this is one reason why blacks have been so successful in getting into the industry in recent years. To the extent that blacks have low education levels and they interfere with their ability to get jobs that require higher skills and higher education. But that is not a problem in textiles.
Has that helped, though, in terms of trying to get workers to organize any? I think there have been some studies that have said that blacks have been more receptive.
Yes, blacks have been much more amenable to the call of the Union than whites in the textile industry. That certainly has been true, and the successful efforts in the case of J.P. Stevens Company certainly was largely due to the fact that a substantial proportion of the workforce in those mills were black. One other factor that should be mentioned to understand employer attitudes towards organization and toward the whole process of organization is the strong hostility that predominates, even stronger than in non-textile employers, hostility toward government interference. The notion of anybody coming in and telling the boss what to do is generally unwelcome in industry, but, in textiles, it's anathema. It's a matter of pride and almost family feeling that the boss is in charge and nobody can tell him what he can do and what he can't do. And this, of course, affects the whole process of organization because main protection of the right to organize is afforded by the federal legislation on that. And the employer hostility toward government interference plays an important role, even aside from economic and other considerations, in engendering a very strong anti-union bias among employers in the industry. Then I should mention some of the economic factors that affect employer attitudes toward unions. Textiles have been and still are a largely competitive industry, so that labor cost is extremely important to the employer, much more so than in many other industries where you have less competition.