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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Sidney Smith, January 25, 1999. Interview I-0081. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

History of unions in hosiery industry and current lack of need for them

In this excerpt, Smith places the relative lack of unionization of the hosiery industry in a historic context, and shares his opinion that at the time of the interview, non-union workers were compensated better.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Sidney Smith, January 25, 1999. Interview I-0081. 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

JM: Trace if you would for me the evolution of labor relations and the whole union question and the hosiery side of textiles. Has that been an issue that you've had to spend much of your professional time during your tenure attending to in any shape or fashion? SS: No, because the hosiery is basically a very low percentage of unionized. It's less than [a] ten percent unionized labor force. Of course, [it is] probably around five percent, if not below. We really have to jump way back in history, just briefly. If you go back to the middle 1800s, the hosiery and the textiles were based in New England and the primary raw material was cotton. The Civil War came around and that textile industry, including hosiery, was cut off from cotton. They had to source cotton from Europe and Asia and other places. They vowed, never again. If you study your history books, there were a lot of people that even after the armistice--. END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A JM: This is the second cassette in the January 25, 1999 interview with Mr. Sid Smith of the National Association of Hosiery Manufacturers. We are in the Charlotte, North Carolina, headquarters of the Association and this is the second cassette interview; so, it is tape number 1.25.99-SS.2. SS: Again, even after the Armistice was signed of the Civil War, a lot of people weren't sure it was going to remain peaceful. It could all spring up again. The textile interests up in the northeast vowed never again would they be cut off from cotton. Many of them began to move south to get close to their raw materials. Land was cheap. They were even able to come in and buy some of those old places. [They] even began to move down the spinning [manufacturing from the north]. They put the spinning mills right at the edge of the cotton field. So, it was a close proximity. That transition carried on into the 1900s. The deteriorating labor market in the northeast continued to move everything down south. By the mid century, 1950s, the core of the hosiery manufacturing had been moved south. Therefore, we were in the non-labor union south. So, they [the unions] were not able to get a hold of or get into a lot of companies. The companies worked very hard to remain non-union. [The Association has] nothing against the right of a person to unionize, if they'd like. That is a right and we would, I think, argue even for that right. We simply argue that we can do a better job working directly with our people face to face. We take pride and concern about them. You also remember that almost paternalistic feeling that some of the old textile mills had. They [the mill owners] provided houses. They provided medical [assistance]. They provided everything. [Mill owners had] real, close paternalistic feeling to[ward] their people. Though that has given way to modern times, there's still an affinity to the employee. That has kept them non-union. JM: Do you have a quick sense of the wage differential between that tiny segment of the labor force within the industry that's unionized and the industry-wide non-unionized wage level? Is it a big difference? SS: No. I have not quantified it. In some ways the non-union was compensated better. I think if someone would ever do a real, in-depth honest look at a lot of agreements, that in the end one would see that the compensation for non-union is sometimes better. [This is true] particularly if you take into the fact that the union employee is paying through withholding a certain amount of money out of each paycheck. There had been virtually no differentiation. There's certainly been more flexibility in work hours and in things as it relates to the labor force being non-union.