Carter County was once a hotbed of agitation for workers’ rights, according to Marie Tedesco, director of East Tennessee State University’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program.
In the 1920s, German rayon mills looking for cheap labor moved into Elizabethton with the assumption that the workers of the region were docile and easily exploited. Tedesco, who has written extensively on the subject, said they based their assumptions on stereotypes.
“I think they were influenced by popular media reports about workers in Appalachia and East Tennessee being submissive – and the fact that they needed wages because agriculture wasn’t doing well in this area,” Tedesco said. “There was this stereotype of the southern white worker that they would be submissive and pliable because they needed wages.”
The fact that women made up a large part of the workforce contributed to this dismissive attitude, according to Tedesco.
But on March 12, 1929, this preconceived notion of the region’s workers was proved wrong when Margaret Bowen and other labor organizers led more than 500 of their co-workers out of the American Glanzstoff plant to begin one of most militant strikes in Appalachian history. In Tedesco’s Tennessee Encyclopedia article, “Elizabethton Rayon Plant Strikes of 1929,” she discusses how everything unfolded.
After Bowen led the walkout that closed the plant two days later, Tedesco said other shifts joined the strike, which eventually prompted the involvement of other plants’ workers, such as the workers at the Bemberg plant, who joined the strike in solidarity with the Glanzstoff workers.
The strikers demanded higher pay, better working conditions and collective bargaining rights. Women workers also objected to unequal pay and unfair treatment.
The workers at these plants did not have a union when the strike began, but the workers from the Bemberg plant formed a local chapter of the United Textile Workers Union of America two years prior, which had much of the same demands. The chapter was reactivated at a March 13 meeting.
Arthur Mothwurf, president of the plants, refused to let the workers unionize and did not consider increasing wages. Tensions between workers and management were beginning to reach a boiling point.
While Tedesco pointed out many newspapers such as the Elizabethton Star generally sympathized with the local officials and businessmen who condemned the strikes, the region’s workers, farmers and merchants sympathized with the workers at the plants. Local clergymen also supported the strikers, along with the county sheriff, who promised to protect property but not “scabs,” a labor union term for workers who replace workers on strike.
Some throughout the region did oppose the strikes, however.
“There were conflicts, there was no doubt about that. Some folks didn’t think they should’ve walked out,” Tedesco said. “Some thought this was all they had, so it is hard to have a negative view toward those who didn’t want to strike.”
Sporadic violence between scabs, strikebreakers and strikers continued.
“At first, the atmosphere was jovial, but of course, that dissipates as the strike continues,” Tedesco said.
Since the workers refused to end the strike, a deal was eventually struck between them and the president of the plants, who reluctantly signed an agreement that called for wage increases and the recognition of an in-plant grievance committee. Still, there was no union recognition, and when the plant was reopened March 26, management refused to rehire many of the workers who organized the strike.
When Edward McGrady from the American Federation of Labor came to investigate the situation, he and Alfred Hoffman, a hosiery union official, were kidnapped and dropped off in North Carolina. They were warned not to return.
Outraged by this act of intimidation, over 4,000 workers rallied against the plants once again, and on April 13, management dismissed union members in the grievance committees. This led to a second strike on April 15.
Despite gaining the sympathy of much of the community, Gov. Henry Horton mobilized the National Guard to protect the company strikebreakers. The plants were soon reopened as the guardsmen set up machine gun nests on rooftops throughout the area.
“If you’re a striker and you set up a picket line and see machine gun nests, that’s pretty intimidating,” Tedesco said. “It intensified the fear factor – there’s no doubt about that. It showed the workers whose side the state and local government was on, but they probably already knew that.”
Over 1,200 workers were arrested as violence between the National Guard and workers continued. Locals demanded the removal of the troops following the violence, but the governor refused.
When the plants eventually agreed to reinstate some workers on May 23 after mediators worked out a deal, 2,500 workers reluctantly signed the agreement before other strikes began throughout the summer over the issue of discrimination, which continued to plague the plants.
In the end, the strikes died down and management did not allow the workers to unionize. Tedesco said much of the morale among the workers was lost after weeks of repression.
“It just beat people down, and it was hard to fight,” she said.
The result of the strikes were generally negative for the workers. The strikers lost, and many were blacklisted as radicals and agitators affiliated with communists and union organizers. Most were never rehired.
Despite the defeat, the strikes of 1929 instilled a sense of militancy among many of the workers at the plants for years to come. But with a change in the level of industrialization in the region decades later and the vilification of unions during the Cold War, Tedesco said pro-union sentiment and labor organizing eventually dwindled.