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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 >>

State and local governments help tamp down union organization in the South

Even those southern workers who were able to organize have seen their power diminish, Perkel notes. State and local governments in the South played a significant role here, leveraging police power to prevent organizing, for example. With few regional resources, unions were unable to push back, such as in the 1934 textile workers' strike where even hundreds of thousands of workers were not able to effectively protest. Opposition was so great that Perkel believes even with better resources the effort to unionize the South would have failed.

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

I guess this is a little off the subject, but for groups that have gotten organized, outside of the South, are they able to stay organized, even in the face of these changing laws?
By and large, they're able to stay organized, but their ability to bargain collectively in an effective manner is gradually and rapidly eroding because employers are—well, starting with the most celebrated case, in 1981, when President Reagan broke the air-traffic control strike, employers have come to realize that, if they're determined enough, and if they're willing to take a strike, they can generally win it. So, even though workers may retain their union, they have come to realize that, in the particular environment that they live, their unions don't have the power that they thought they had, and that they used to have. So, while some fourteen-fifteen million workers are still organized, in the basic industries, they have gradually lost effective power. All right, now. Let's go on to the next factor that—part of the picture of explaining the difficulties of organizing, which we touched on earlier, namely, state and local governments. In the South, especially in textile areas, the local governments have been predominately dominated by textile interests. Sheriffs and other armed people have been used many times to put down worker efforts to organize. Even though it doesn't happen as often now as it used to, it's still something that the people who work in the mills are aware of. They know how the sheriff's department people feel and what the score is, so to speak, in their community, and they know how the community power people feel about unions. And this has an intimidating effect upon textile workers when they try to organize. Not just the knowledge but the fact that, every once in a while, the power of the community is exercised to put down their efforts. And the employers use these incidents effectively, through the media and education, to let everybody know where the power is, where it stands, and how it stands. So, all of these factors contribute to the sense of powerlessness and dependancy that textile workers tend to feel. That brings us to the final actor in this drama, the Union. What have been the factors that influenced the Union's ability to succeed in organizing, aside from what we've been talking about, namely, the people involved. The Union, like any union, is dependant upon its ability to organize to exist as a force in the community. The money that it needs to pay its employees is garnered from its organized members. So it's kind of a vicious circle. If you can't organize, you can't have much money to hire organizers. The Federation—the AFL-CIO, and the Industrial Union Department, the national federations have done what they could to assist textile unions to organize. There've been a number of efforts stimulated by national programs—the Operation Dixie in the early postwar period, the J.P.Stevens campaign which was more than just the Textile Workers Union campaign, there was one other major one—well, in the '30s, the 1934 Textile Strike. They were all nationally-supported efforts to organize textile workers, and they all suffered from the fact that there's an inadequacy of resources on the part of organized labor to deal with the tremendous problems that exist among the unorganized workers of the country. The resources available to the Textile Union, and to the AFL-CIO, were very small, in comparison with the task involved. It's most graphically indicated by the 1934 Strike, I don't know if you have any familiarity with it.
Yes, I do.
Well, if you've studied that at all, you know it was sort of like the United States in Grenada—we were the Grenadians. So you had a situation where several hundred thousand workers had gotten the message that they needed a strike and they went out on strike and you had an organization like the Grenadian government trying to run the strike against the state of Georgia, and the militia, and the textile employers. So the disparity in resources was ludicrous and, certainly, the results were inevitable. Similarly, in every major struggle to organize textile workers, it's a David-Goliath proposition. Obviously, I've given you my own point of view and I try to look at things from more than one side and I've always been somewhat critical of the Textile Union in its efforts to organize. It's always seemed to me that we must be doing something wrong to be so unsuccessful. And I think there's some truth in that, in that it's possible, certainly possible, that if we had sized up the problem differently, if we had done things differently, we might have had more success. But I do think, in retrospect, that—speaking as objectively as I can—that the overwhelming objective situation was so much on the side of defeat, calling for defeat, that even if we were many times as smart as we were, many times as more dedicated, and even had many more times as much money as we had, we couldn't have won. The odds against us were so great, in terms of the nature of the people involved, the nature of the opposition involved, the lack of support from the government, that it was an impossible situation. So I hope that helps you to understand why unions have been so unsuccessful in organizing Southern textile workers.