Echoes of a Mill Mother’s Lament: Legacies of Labor Activism in Gastonia, North Carolina
By Claude Wilson
Senior Honors Thesis Department of History
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
March 24, 2020
“She was killed carrying the torch of social justice.” These are the words engraved on the memorial headstone of Ella May Wiggins in Bessemer City, North Carolina, first installed in 1979 by a group of Gaston County women.1 Half a century earlier, a truck full of gunmen
murdered Wiggins on her way to a union meeting in Gastonia and then buried in an unmarked grave. She was one of two victims killed during the 1929 Loray Mill Strike, when the
communist-led National Textile Workers Union had attempted to organize the millworkers at the Loray Mill in Gastonia. The other was Gastonia’s chief of police Orville Aderholt, who was killed in a shootout when the police had attempted to displace the striking workers from their campgrounds. These two deaths left a scar on the collective psyche of Gastonia for decades to come, creating an association between labor organizing and violence for the town’s inhabitants.
The Loray Mill Strike of 1929 was not the end of the aspirations of unionization for textile workers in Gastonia. Five years later came the 1934 Textile Workers’ Strike in which hundreds of thousands of textile workers across the country, including in Gastonia, struck for better wages, hours, and working conditions. Their labor action ended in mass strikebreaking and the blacklisting of the strikers, reinforcing the futility of labor organizing in the collective
consciousness of the workers of the American South. Shortly after the Textile Workers’ Strike of 1934, the Loray Mill was purchased by the Firestone Tire Company, marking the initiation of an amicable cooperative relationship between labor and management at the plant, which coincided with the period in American history known as the “labor-management accord,” a supposed
1Eric Wildstein, “’Martyr of Loray Mill’ remembered on 90thanniversary of her death,” Gaston Gazette, September
unspoken tacit alliance between major American corporations and the national organized labor movement.2
More than half a century after the traumatic conflict of 1929, however, labor organizers returned to the same mill that once was the catalyst for those two deaths. The American labor movement was on the decline, and businesses embraced the tactics of “union avoidance” with the tacit approval of the Reagan administration. The plant in Gastonia, now called the Firestone Fibers & Textiles Mill and manufacturing tire cord, was again the site of a struggle for
unionization, albeit a significantly less physically violent one. Over the course of 1987 and 1988, workers at the Firestone Mill attempted to unionize the manufacturing plant that had remained unorganized for over eighty years, facing the challenges of management’s anti-union tactics such as raising the specter of labor violence and threatening layoffs and closing down the plant. The push for union representation was an uphill battle for the Firestone workers. In addition to the anti-union sentiment that had been embedded in the Gastonia community by the 1929 Loray Mill Strike, they also had to overcome the ongoing decline of the influence of American labor unions as a whole, state “right to work” legislation that limited unions’ ability to raise funds in North Carolina, and the disproportionate power of plant management to communicate an anti-union narrative.
Despite these obstacles and an initial loss in the first union election in 1987, the workers at the Gastonia Firestone Mill successfully organized United Rubber Workers Local 1133 in 1988, achieving what workers almost six decades before had been unable to do. This organizing success in the face of such adverse circumstances provokes multiple questions: what were the conditions that influenced the workers of the Gastonia plant to unionize after over fifty years
2 Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
without union representation? In what ways did the local legacy of the 1929 Loray Mill Strike influence the way that plant workers approached unionization? And how were the workers at the plant able to overcome the multiple obstacles to organizing that they faced to eventually bring in union representation in 1988?
The unionization of the Gastonia Firestone plant was precipitated several decades earlier by the end of the so-called “labor-management accord” in the late 1960’s. The uneasy truce between labor unions and corporate ownership enabled by post-war prosperity collapsed entirely as American manufacturing profits began to decline as due to foreign competition from the emerging industries of Germany and Japan broke the former monopoly held by firms such as Firestone. As Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone describe in their 1988 book The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America, declining profits prompted
management to consider concessions to labor as an unnecessary expense that could be reduced through the use of union avoidance tactics.3 Moving into the 1980’s, the strategies of union
avoidance and strikebreaking were effectively given tacit endorsement by the Reagan
administration. The result of this was the reduction or stagnation of wages and benefits across the board, combined with the expansion of working hours and production quotas in the interest of efficiency – the same kind of strategy employed by management which incited the 1929 Loray Mill Strike. When Firestone management in Gastonia embraced this philosophy, this inspired workers at the plant to reconsider the narrative of the past originally construed as a warning against the dangers of labor unions but instead became a sympathetic struggle against
exploitative ownership. When the management of the Firestone plant proved unable to address
3 Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone, The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America
the problems that pro-union workers pointed out, the majority of workers successfully unionized the plant.
The 1929 Loray Mill Strike is the object of study by multiple academic works, such as Liston Pope’s Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia and John Salmond’s Gastonia 1929: The Story of the Loray Mill Strike, and it represents a significant moment in the labor
history of the American South, shaping the negative perception of workers in the region towards labor unions. By contrast, the 1988 unionization of the Firestone Mill had much less widespread impact on regional attitudes towards labor relations and almost entirely ignored in all academic literature on the labor history of Gastonia or on the long term effects of the original 1929 strike. Even in the comprehensive history of the URW, Bruce Meyer’s The Once and Future Union: The Rise and Fall of the United Rubber Workers, makes no mention of the union organizing
effort at the Firestone mill in Gastonia. Nonetheless, the unionization of the Gastonia Firestone Mill in the late 1980’s deserves academic inquiry because of its anomalous nature.
When discussing the 1988 unionization of the Gastonia Firestone plant, a key factor to consider in the state of the American manufacturing sector was the acquisition of the Firestone Tire Company by their Japanese competitor Bridgestone, which initially took a reconciliatory approach towards labor unions reminiscent of the bygone “labor-management accord” of the mid-twentieth century. While this attitude was later reversed in the early nineties, this did mean that during its first few years of existence United Rubber Workers Local 1133 was fortunate enough to negotiate its first contact with the relatively more amicable Bridgestone ownership, giving the union more of an opportunity to get its foot in the door. At the same time, the union still had to contend with hostile management on a local level and continued to hold its ground even after Bridgestone reversed its previously friendly stance.
Beyond whatever significance the unionization of the Gastonia Firestone plant might have in the broader labor history of North Carolina, the American South or the United States as a whole, it undeniably mattered in the local history of Gaston County. The plant’s unionization signaled the complete reversal of the attitudes towards labor unions historically held by the mill’s workers. This provokes further questions: how did unionization ultimately affect the daily lives of workers and their relationship to management? What benefits was the formation of United Rubber Workers Local 1133 ultimately able to secure for the Firestone plant employees, and what concessions did the union make in its negotiations? In the end, did unionization provide a net gain for the plant’s workers? And how did unionization change the way in which the workers perceived themselves in relation to their occupation?
The first contract that Local 1133 was able to secure guaranteed wage increases and benefits for its workers as well as a system for addressing grievances with management,
make concessions when Bridgestone determined that it was necessary to replace the existing plant in Gastonia for a new, updated facility in King’s Mountain about ten miles away. While the union successfully secured continued employment for the plant’s workers at the new plant, it failed to prevent mandatory overtime and longer workdays. Nonetheless, the union’s presence itself provided the workers with job security in circumstances where ownership might otherwise have had the option to relocate the plant wherever they wanted without having to negotiate with the workers in Gastonia at all.
The first chapter traces the origins of the Loray Mill, the background and events of the 1929 strike. I assess the strike’s impact on Gaston County as a whole, including its purchase and transformation by the Firestone Tire company, before situating the legacy of the strike in the labor history of the United States between the 1929 strike and beginning of the unionization effort in the 1980s. The second chapter examines union organizing in the mid-to-late 1980s at the Gastonia Firestone mill, including the conditions and problems that prompted the organizing effort and the tactics employed by pro-union workers and by management in their campaigns of supporting and opposing unionization respectively. Finally the third chapter summarizes the aftermath of the unionization of the Firestone mill, including the purchase of the Firestone company by its Japanese competitor Bridgestone, the negotiation of Local 1133’s first union contract, the mill’s relocation to a new plant in nearby King’s Mountain, and the overall impact of unionization on the lives of the plant’s workers.
history of the American South, it also demonstrates how conditions that typically discouraged organizing could also be used as points of resistance and catalysts for labor organizing.
Ultimately, despite the surface level anti-union sentiment associated with the local legacy of the Loray Mill Strike of 1929, similar circumstances of the imposition of austerity and abuse of power by management meant that the local history of the ’29 Strike ultimately served as a source of inspiration for the unionization of the Firestone Mill in the late 1980’s and for the invigoration of a sense of class consciousness, setting it in contrast to the broader trends in the rest of
Chapter One: Setting the Stage for ’87: The Loray Mill Strike, the “Labor-Management Accord,” and the Neoliberal Turn
“Outside the gates was a line of pickets and perhaps a thousand or so workers and spectators who had gathered following a rumor started earlier in the day that there was to be a strike.”4 This
was the beginning of the Loray Mill Strike of 1929 as reported by The Charlotte Observer, in which hundreds of millworkers went on strike for better wages, hours, and working conditions, organizing with the communist National Textile Workers Union. Reporters at the time noted that during the picket “there has been no evidence of any disturbance,”5 an observation now tinged
with irony with the benefit of hindsight.
The Loray Mill Strike had a significant influence on the later unionization drive at the same plant location in 1987 and 1988 in multiple ways. On one hand, the 1929 strike, and the death and violence associated with it, were sources of deep-rooted suspicion towards labor unions for decades afterwards in Gastonia and the surrounding area. While competing narratives of the strike existed, the one that was most widely purported by the local news media and business community, and believed by the vast majority of the public, was that it was entirely stoked by northern Communist “outside agitators.”6 Regardless of the truth or falsity of this narrative, it
tainted labor organizing efforts in the community with a reputation of bloodshed, radicalism and foreignness.
Between the Loray Mill Strike of 1929 and the unionization effort at the same location almost six decades later, the American labor movement and national manufacturing sector went through a period of contemporaneous prosperity before reaching a peak and entering a decline as
4The Charlotte Observer, April 2, 1929, p. 3. 5 Ibid.
foreign competition from Europe and Japan drove down profits and motivated ownership to embrace the tactics of union avoidance to cut costs. The result of this increased foreign manufacturing competition and the corporate embrace of union avoidance was the decline of unionization across America along with the stagnation of wages and increased austerity enforced on workers, ironically creating the motivation for renewed union organizing efforts in Gastonia.
The Loray Mill and the Stretch-Out
The story of the Loray Mill begins at the turn of the twentieth century, when the American South was beginning to industrialize post-Reconstruction. The Loray Mill was first established in 1900, the seventh textile mill in the community, and it changed owners multiple times over the course over its early existence before finally being acquired by the Jenckes Spinning Company in 1919. The Jenckes Spinning Company was a Rhode Island-based textile business, making the Loray Mill the first textile mill in Gastonia owned by a Northern business7 The Loray Textile
Mill’s foundation was a part of the broader trend of capital flight during the early 20th century,
when New England textile manufacturers began moving production into the less industrialized south where they could find workers willing to sell their labor for lower wages than their
northern counterparts.8 While this incentive to reduce the costs of production initially brought the
Loray Mill to Gastonia, the drive to minimize expenses and maximize efficiency would create the circumstances that led to the 1929 strike.
The Manville-Jenckes Company attempted to further increase productivity and efficiency by bringing in an industrial strategy from the north known as the “stretch-out” system, requiring
7 Ibid., 222.
workers to work longer hours without a corresponding increase in pay, effectively slashing their wages while compelling them to provide more labor. The introduction of the “stretch-out” to the Loray Mill by the Manville-Jenckes Company constituted the first implementation of the
industrial technique in the history of the Southern textile industry.9 Although the Loray Mill was
the Manville-Jenckes company’s most profitable textile plant, management sought to reduce production costs even further in their drive for financial gain and a competitive advantage in the textile market.10 Despite the profitability of the Loray Mill, ownership still sought to maximize
capitalist efficiency, even at the expense of the wellbeing of their workforce. The
implementation of the “stretch-out” system at Loray Mill leading to the 1929 strike parallels how the implementation of a similar “stretch-out” at the Firestone plant in the 1980s would serve as the impetus for the unionization drive of the workers.
The “stretch-out,” a new practice in Southern industry, compelled workers to do more work with less pay, worsening conditions at the mill and generating the discontent that would serve as the catalyst for their attempted unionization. During the 1920s, the textile mills of North Carolina were characterized by widespread discontent among the workers who resented the imposition of long working hours for low wages and the inhospitable conditions that they were forced to endure, as well as a growing sense of class consciousness created by the close proximity of living quarters and shared troubles in the textile mill villages.11 In these circumstances, the
workers were open to whomever would actually help them organize, and in the 1920s American South their options were limited due to the absence of established trade unions in the area. After World War I, the labor movement had successfully made inroads into North Carolina and
9 Pope, Millhands and Preachers, 229. 10 Ibid.
unionized thousands of workers, but by the end of 1921 not a single local survived the onslaught of wage cuts and strike breaking inflicted by ownership, and the labor movement in North Carolina was effectively dead until organizing efforts finally returned to the state at the end of the 1920’s.12
The combination of the increasing exploitation of the Loray Mill workers and the lack of labor union presence in the American South during this time attracted the attention of the radical, Communist-led National Textile Workers Union. The belief that the Gastonia strike was the product of “outside agitation” is the inversion of the actual relationship of the Communist Party organizers to the workers of the Loray Mill. Instead of outside radicals creating the tensions, existing tensions attracted the arrival of these radicals who offered the only feasible response to their problems. Workers had no way of meaningfully communicating their concerns or problems to management at the Loray Mill; there was no “open door policy,” in which managers at least attempted to give the appearance of concern with employee input.13 The lack of any means to
negotiate with ownership or have their voices heard led to the mill workers aligning with a social forces that were perceived as “foreign” to the South, a situation that would recur over half a century later with the 1980’s unionization of the Firestone plant.
The Loray Mill Strike
When the mill workers organized by the National Textile Workers Union went on strike in 1929, this constituted the first and only major industrial action led by communists in the history
12 George Sinclair Mitchell, Textile Unionism and the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1931),
of the American South.14 When the National Textile Workers Union launched the Loray Mill
Strike, it issued a series of demands from the mill’s workers:
1. Elimination of all piece work, hank, or cloth systems, and substitution of a standard wage scale.
2. A minimum standard weekly wage of $20. 3. Forty-hour, five-day week.
4. Abolition of all speeding and doubling up of work. 5. Equal pay for equal work for women and youth. 6. Decent and sanitary working and housing conditions.
a. Immediate installation of baths without extra charge to workers. b. Screening of all homes without extra charge to workers.
c. Repair of toilets in mill.
7. Reduction by 50 per cent of rent and light charges. 8. Recognition of the union.15
These demands were not unprecedented pie-in-the-sky requests: in 1928, the National Industrial Conference Board reported that about four hundred thousand workers were working eight hours per day, five days per week.16 As early as 1922, the Ford Motor Company had adopted the forty
hour workweek as a companywide policy.17 Far from unrealistic radicalism, the demands of the
Loray Mill workers and the National Textile Workers Union were directed mostly at getting the union recognized, ending the practice of the “stretch-out,” and the adoption of Fordist policies.
One of the public leaders of the unionizing mill workers was Ella May Wiggins, who wrote ballads in support of the strikers and gave rousing speeches to the union drawing on her own experiences as a worker. The Communist Party affiliated magazine The New Masses quoted Wiggins’ speeches about the adversities that motivated her to support the union:
I never made no more than nine dollars a week, and you can’t do for a family on such money. I’m the mother of nine. Four died with the whooping cough. I was working nights, and I asked the super to put me on days, so’s I could tend ‘em when they had their bad spells. But he wouldn’t. He’s the sorriest man alive, I reckon. So I had to quit, and there wasn’t no
14 Ibid., 207.
15Reginald P. Mitchell, “Strikers in Gaston Backed By Communist,” The Charlotte Observer, April 3, 1929. 16 National Industrial Conference Board, The Five-Day Week in Manufacturing Industries (New York: National
Industrial Conference Board, 1929), 18.
money for medicine, and they just died. I couldn’t do for my children any more than you women on the money we git. That’s why I come out for the union, and why we all got to stand for the union, so’s we can do better for our children, and they won’t have lives like we got.18
The prominence of Wiggins in the strike exemplifies the role of female leadership during the 1929 Gastonia strike, and how issues of class and gender intersected at the Loray Mill. Women and children accounted for about half of the total strikers,19 having a specific stake in the demand
for “equal pay.” In addition, as the quotation from Ella May indicates, many female mill workers were also expected to perform domestic labor, intensifying the impact of long hours and low pay. These adversarial circumstances meant that women were a driving force behind unionization in the Gastonia textile mills. Near the beginning of the strike, The Charlotte Observer noted that “the women… have been playing leading parts. Among the group of striking operatives women were the most outspoken and determined.”20
The National Textile Workers Union were on strike for over two months, having established a tent colony for the workers who had been kicked out of their millhouses when disaster struck. On the night of June 7th, workers were organizing a picket line and another walkout when on
their march to Loray Mill they were violently turned back by the police. Officers, led by Chief of Police Orville Aderholt, made their way to the workers’ tent colony where they attempted to force their way into the union headquarters. As the striking workers and communist organizers challenged the legality of the police raid and demanded the officers show a warrant, one of the police attempted to seize a firearm being held by one of the camp’s guards. This almost
immediately escalated into a shoot-out between the police and the tent colony guards. In the
18Margaret Larkin, “The Story of Ella May,” New Masses, Nov. 1929, Vol. 5, No. 6, p. 3. 19 Pope, Millhands and Preachers, 258.
crossfire one of the strikers and four of the officers, including Police Chief Aderholt, were injured, and Chief Aderholt died from his wounds the next day.21
The actual circumstances of Aderholt’s death, specifically who shot the fatal bullet, remain unclear, but the strikers were immediately blamed for his killing. The death of Chief Aderholt was a public relations nightmare for the striking workers and union organizers, who were already burdened with the reputation of being troublemakers, radicals, and outside agitators. Now they were directly associated with the killing of a major public official, confirming their
characterization as violent and dangerous in the eyes of the community. The trauma of this event would ossify distrust of labor unions in the public memory of Gastonia for years to come. Where once the union was working to enforce their demands, they were now trying desperately just to not be driven out.
This historical memory of the death of Chief Aderholt was not undisputed, however. While the popular narrative blamed Aderholt’s death on the violence of the strikers, another
interpretation of the event places the blame on the police. Wanda Goble, a worker of the Firestone plant, located at the site of the Loray Mill and employed there from the 1970s to the 2000s, recounted her understanding of the events of June 7th based on her own research, recalling
that “Chief Aderholt and his deputies were known to, it’s called ‘going across the river’ and you’re in Mecklenburg County then, and you were allowed to drink there… on this one particular evening went across the river into Mecklenburg County and proceeded to drink, and when they got, I guess you’d say ‘all liquored up’ they came back to Vance street.”22 Wanda
asserts that under the influence of alcohol, Chief Aderholt and his men initiated the violence against the strikers: “They opened fire on all the people in the tents, women and children, and
21 Pope, Millhands and Preachers, 251-252.
they fired back. It was told, by the Chamber of Commerce I assume, that someone in that group… shot Chief Aderholt. But that wasn’t true. One of his own deputies had shot him, not meaning to, but you know, they were drunk. It was chaos.”23 In contrast with the mainstream
depiction of Aderholt as an anti-communist martyr, this counter-narrative reinterprets him as the source of the escalation of violence in the Loray Mill strike. Even as the standard narrative about the death of Chief Aderholt reinforced the anti-unionist ideology that dominated the community of Gastonia, it did not hold a total monopoly on how the events were understood within the community. The existence of this counter-narrative about the events of the 1929 Loray Mill strike and the death of Chief Aderholt would provide the foundation for later ideological resistance to the predominant anti-unionism in Gaston county.
As union organizers were rounded up by the legal authorities for their implication in the death of Chief Aderholt, the rank-and-file were subjected to retaliatory violence from the anti-union opposition. This reached its height on September 14th when workers gathering in Gastonia
were intercepted by an armed convoy. The official newspaper of the American Communist Party, The Daily Worker reported that “one truckload of Bessemer City textile workers were pursued by two automobiles. One went ahead and blocked the truck, the other rode past and fired upon the passengers with deadly effect. Ella May Wiggins, a woman textile worker, a mother of five young children, they killed outright.”24 The Daily Worker’s report emphasizes that Wiggins
was a worker and mother to emphasize the cruelty of the killing, but elsewhere on the front page emphasized the importance of her contribution to the strike effort. The paper described her as “a fearless leader of the North Carolina textile strikers” who “was among the first to join the
National Textile Workers Union.”25 This frames the killing of Wiggins as not just an act of
anti-communist political violence, but instead as an assassination intended to further weaken the strikers by eliminating a key charismatic organizer. The death of Ella May Wiggins compounded the violent trauma of the Loray Mill strike on the community and reinforced the association between labor organizing and endangerment.
Between the deaths of Orville Aderholt and Ella May Wiggins, the efforts of the National Textile Workers Union had collapsed. However, the defeat of the organization effort was a pyrrhic victory for the Manville-Jenckes Company. The Loray Mill strike halted production at the company’s most profitable plant, leaving the business operating in the red. Shortly after the end of the strike, the Loray Mill reduced its operations to only four days per week before Manville-Jenckes filed for bankruptcy in early 1930.26 The combined impacts of the Loray Mill
strike and the onset of the Great Depression destroyed the company, but even then this would not be the end of labor unrest in Gastonia among the textile workers.
The New Deal and the “Labor-Management Accord”
In September of 1934, workers throughout the American textile industry went on strike, including in Gaston County. This strike was also met with defeat, however, collapsing after three weeks when strikers were fired from their jobs and replaced by scabs. After this second failure, “workers in Gaston County, as elsewhere, responded by giving up on the whole idea of unionism as a means of a better life.”27 From then on, workers in the community “manifested little
disposition to build stable unions as regular channels for collective bargaining or even as
26 Pope, Millhands and Preachers, 309.
27 John A. Salmond, Gastonia 1929: The Story of the Loray Mill Strike (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina
organizations to prepare for victory in problematical strikes.”28 This trend would last for over
half a century until it was finally subverted by the successful unionization of the Firestone plant in the late 1980’s.
Shortly after the failure of the 1934 strike, the Loray Mill was taken over and transformed by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. Wanda Goble recalled, “In 1935, Harvey Firestone bought the old Loray plant from Manville-Jenckes, and it became very family oriented. They had a swimming pool; they had a men’s club.” She added, “They paid you good wages, worked you hard, but they paid you good wages, good insurance, good benefits.”29 Her husband, Philip
Goble concurred on the extent to which Firestone radically altered what it was like to be a mill worker in Gastonia: “If you had to go to the hospital… for any reason, you walk in the door and you showed them that Firestone card… you never got a bill.” The transformation of Loray into the Firestone Mill signified a shift away from Taylorist scientific management to Fordist paternalism that incorporated employee welfare into its concerns. Harvey Firestone’s corporate model epitomized what Sanford Jacoby described as “welfare capitalism,” in which the company provided insurance, recreational facilities, and “human relations” structures as an alternative to collective bargaining with a labor union, instead recreating paternalist manorial relations between employees and ownership that emphasize their common interests.30
This new, familial attitude was a part of the way that Firestone presented and marketed itself to the community. In the spring of 1944 the Firestone Cotton Mills’ personnel director spoke to the Gastonia Rotary club about the importance of this familial, humane approach to
management, citing a Reader’s Digest survey that found that American workers “feel that
28 Pope, Millhands and Preachers, 314.
29Wanda and Phillip Goble, interviewed by Claude Wilson, King’s Mountain, NC, September 28, 2019.
30 Sanford Jacoby, Modern Manors: Welfare Capitalism since the New Deal (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
although their efforts form 68% of production factors they get only about 10% of the attention…. Workers in industry want to be treated as human beings and not as numbers on a payroll.”31
Under this new approach to worker-management relations, there were now directives to make workers feel like individuals, address personal, interpersonal, and social issues faced by workers that might have an effect on production, and engage with employees on a person-to-person basis in order to communicate and make clear that their interests were aligned with those of the company.32
This marked the new “labor-management accord” of the mid-twentieth century, in which an unspoken truce appeared to exist between labor and capital. As Nelson Lichtenstein points out in his book State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, the concept of such an accord was a retroactive label created by left-leaning liberals during the 1980’s when labor was faced with falling wages and a wave of strikebreaking.33 But this apparent accord cannot entirely be
ascribed to the benevolence of Harvey Firestone and his contemporary businessmen. It is not a coincidence that this accord emerged during the same period of time when the policies of the New Deal established widespread protections for workers and allowed for the significant expansion of labor unions. This period of time, described by Jefferson Cowie as the “Great Exception,” was marked by the unionization of over one third of the workforce and wages growing at the same rate as productivity.34 The increased prevalence of unions provided a “herd
31 Dean D. Knudsen, Donald Shriver, and John R. Earle, Spindles and Spires: A Re-Study of Religion and Social Change in Gastonia (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1976), 88.
33 Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
34 Jefferson Cowie, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Princeton: Princeton
immunity” for workers in non-union factories by driving up wage and benefit standards in predominantly unionized industries.
The labor-management accord and widespread success of trade unions under the New Deal did not mean that unions would have any success in the still-traumatized community of Gaston County. In 1946, the Textile Workers Union of America launched another organizing drive at the Firestone mill in Gastonia. In addition to memories of the 1929 Loray Mill Strike marring the reputation of labor unions, organizers also faced the challenges of the end of the mill villages, which had originally cultivated class consciousness. The villages were replaced by more
dispersed, atomized residences, which exacerbated the difficulty of finding a meeting hall willing to host labor organizers in a community that was broadly hostile to unions and subject to
widespread propaganda that demonized labor organizations such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations.35 The combination of the strong tendencies of Southern anti-unionism present in
the area, general contentment between management and workers, and the particular local history of Gastonia made the Firestone mill practically impenetrable to organizing efforts.
While the policies of the New Deal significantly empowered labor unions over the course of the 1930s and 1940s, this strength was undercut by the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known as the Taft-Hartley Act. Section 14b of the Taft-Hartley Act gave states the authority to pass “right to work” laws, which outlawed contract clauses that mandated union membership at firms, such as union shop clauses. A union shop clause requires that workers join the union representing their plant once it was certified or they were hired. After the Taft-Hartley Act’s passage, twenty states, mostly in the South and including North Carolina, passed
work” legislation.36 Without being able to enforce union shop clauses, labor unions in the
American South were significantly weaker than their northern counterparts and left vulnerable to “free-riding.” This compounded the already significant challenge of initially forming the union in this hostile social environment.
Despite the challenge that the Taft-Hartley Act posed to the national strength of organized labor, unions enjoyed success throughout most of the mid-twentieth century. Over 75 percent of all American manufacturing plants had collective-bargaining agreements in place by the mid-1960’s. Labor organizations like the AFL-CIO wielded considerable political and lobbying power. The incredible strength of labor unions allowed them to set the standards for the wages and benefits of industrial workers and enforce an unprecedented downward redistribution of wealth.”37 This would be the zenith of American organized labor before significant economic
shifts disrupted the labor-management accord that had existed for roughly three decades.
In addition to the mid-1960’s being the height of the strength of organized labor in the United States, this period of time was also the summit of national economic prosperity. Both the rate of return on investment and the share of the national income received by business owners would peak in the mid-1960s.38 A key component to the success of the so-called “labor-management
accord” was the profitability of the arrangement for business owners. Labor unions secured better wages at the firms they organized and drove national wage standards up, in turn encouraging consumption of manufactured goods, which were predominantly produced by
36 Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance (New Haven: Yale University
37 Lane Windham, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic
Divide (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 58.
38 Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone, The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America
American workers during this time. As long as this arrangement remained stable, management were willing to accept the status quo of widespread unionized labor.
The End of the “Labor-Management Accord”
This peak in profitability was followed by a drastic decline: the hegemonic power wielded by American industry began to slip away as foreign manufacturing competition regained the footing it had lost during World War II. From 1965 to 1973, the rate of profit for American businesses fell 29 percent, and more than 40 percent for American manufacturers, who now faced renewed competition from their foreign counterparts in reindustrialized countries such as Germany and Japan.39 The resurgence of foreign manufacturing and the competition that it generated created a
downturn in the flow of income to their domestic American counterparts. Through the 1970’s the value of foreign imports roughly doubled.40 This intensified international competition thus
incentivized manufacturers to cut expenses in order to compensate for their loss of profit. In response to this new foreign competition and declining profits, American manufacturing businesses began focusing efforts to reduce their expenses on labor. One response undertaken was moving capital abroad where wage standards were lower than those established by the robust America labor movement and becoming importers and distributors of the products made in these manufacturing plants outside the U.S.41 In addition to reorienting their business models
by initiating the “offshoring” of production to reduce these expenses, these businesses also worked to further reduce their remaining costs of employing domestic labor, beginning in the late 1970’s to search for new ways to reduce the wages and benefits afforded to workers, which
ownership saw as unnecessary expenses.42 In order to achieve this curtailment, corporate
management across industries launched an offensive campaign again organized labor.
The 1970’s marked the end of the “labor-management accord” in the United States. During this time period, management found that one of its best strategies for reducing labor costs was to embrace “union avoidance,” a two pronged assault on organized labor that manifested through outsourcing production to countries and region where organized labor was either weak or absent, as well as engaging in aggressive action against labor unions in firms covered by collective bargaining agreements.43 Business managers aimed to reduce labor costs by working to avoid the
unionization of existing plants while also forcing concessions on unionized plants with the threat of offshoring manufacturing and the justification of “economic necessity.” A key component in this new assault was the ascendancy of the business school in training managers. The culture of American management in the 1970’s was transformed by the fact that managers were more likely than ever before to have been trained at business schools that ingrained them with a particular view of labor-management relations. The business school doctrine taught that labor unions were an excess expense to be avoided at all costs, and the schools trained potential managers in union avoidance tactics.44 This new managerial approach saw labor unions as the sources of
unnecessary expenses, a return to pre-New Deal attitudes in reaction to economic contractions. Management’s offensive against organized labor and union drives was broadly successful in limiting the ability of workers to establish new unions. The right to organize was increasingly only nominal for American workers, who by the end of the 1970’s were defeated in more than half of the elections that they triggered by getting the majority of workers to sign union cards.45
42 Ibid. 43 Ibid., 48.
As labor unions faltered, the herd immunity that widespread unionization had provided for labor standards in unorganized firms declined as these unorganized workers lost the wage and benefit protections that the implicit potential for organizing had provided.
Workers in southern states where labor unions were already weak, such as North Carolina, were now even more vulnerable to abuses from management as organizing became increasingly impractical. One prominent example of corporate union avoidance tactics was the J. P. Stevens Textile Corporation. The Textile Workers Union of America successfully won an election to organize a J.P. Stevens Mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina in 1974. Over the course of the next three years however, J.P. Stevens outright refused any negotiation with the union, denying the workers a contract as a result.46 Even in cases where workers were successfully able to
organize, management was able to prevent them from actually benefitting from their
organization. While the government was nominally responsible for enforcing labor protections, in practice it actually enabled these abuses. For its extensive labor law violations, the J.P. Stevens Textile Corporation paid in excess of $1.3 million in government fines and
compensation to the workers that the company had fired for supporting the union. At the same time, the government was also awarding the company with lucrative contracts. One contract given to J.P. Stevens by the Defense Logistics Agency was worth $3.4 million, on its own more than twice the amount that the government had compelled the corporation to pay for its crimes.47
If the company could get away with its union avoidance by paying fines and back wages that amounted to less than what the government was paying them in contracts, they had no incentive to stop their union avoidance.
The struggle for unionization at the Roanoke Rapids mill would actually end in success for the workers, however. On October 19, 1980 J.P. Stevens finally gave in and signed the union contract with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, the successor organization of the Textile Workers Union of America.48 The story of the mill’s unionization would serve as
the basis for the 1979 film Norma Rae, specifically the role played in the union drive by mill worker Crystal Lee Sutton, a mother of three who was fired from her job for her labor organizing.49 Wanda and Philip Goble, drawing on their own experiences, praised the film’s
depiction of unionization as faithful to the challenges of organizing a southern mill, calling it “dead to heart” in its accuracy.50 Like Ella May Wiggins before her, Crystal Lee Sutton
exemplified the prominent role played by women in southern labor organizing, and through the legacy of Norma Rae projected this into the cultural mainstream.
Businesses regarded the work of women like Crystal Lee Sutton as a dangerous shift in the demographics of organized labor by businesses. Business consultants saw a direct connection between the growing women’s rights movement and the increased role of women in labor organizing.51 During the 1970’s, management had become increasingly concerned with the
influence of second wave feminism on the way that women approached labor issues.
Historically, employers saw women as less likely to organize than men, but consultants were now warning them that increased political consciousness made female workers increasingly likely to be labor agitators. One consultant warned that “all indications are that women are now inclined to vote union than men… this is entirely consistent with the women’s movement, by
48Sandra Salmans, “J. P. Stevens: One Year After The Truce,” The New York Times, October 18, 1981, Section 3,
49Maggie Jones, “Crystal Lee Sutton: The Organizer,” The New York Times Magazine, December 23, 2009.
whatever name.”52 When organized labor was a part of the political establishment during the
mid-twentieth century, it had been dominated by a patriarchal “boy’s club” similar to
management. Marginalized sections of the workforce, such as women, increasingly used labor organizing as an instrument of social justice, but the leadership of the mainstream labor movement failed to capitalize on these changes in workforce gender composition.
Looking back on the changing work environment of the Firestone plant in Gastonia, Wanda Goble recalled that “in 1975 it was really rough, and by 1985 it was getting pretty bad.”53
Moving into the 1980’s the trends of offshoring and deindustrialization that had begun in the prior decade intensified further. Domestic industry was now giving way to globalized
production, a transformation in political economy that displaced the base of the labor movement in the United States. American manufacturing employment plummeted from 27 percent in 1970 to 19 percent in 1986. 54 As production was moved abroad, the power of organized labor was
increasingly diffused, a process accelerated by the hostility of the federal government towards unions.
Under the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the United States federal government took a hard right, anti-union stance on labor issues that was immediately made apparent. During an August 1981 strike undertaken by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), Reagan fired the thirteen thousand striking workers and replaced them with their managers and military counterparts. Businesses took notice of the president’s decision and understood it as a sign of a shift in federal attitudes towards labor. With this strikebreaking, the executive branch lent legitimacy to the use of similar tactics towards workers in private industry.
52 Ibid., 71.
During a similar 1982 strike from Greyhound and Eastern Airlines workers, the companies followed Reagan’s lead and replaced the strikers with scabs. Before this would have been considered an unthinkable public relations nightmare, but the realignment of political attitudes now gave companies free rein. The result was that over the course of the 1980’s, unionization in the private sector fell from 20 percent to 12.1 percent.55 The ascendancy of anti-unionism under
Reagan decimated the already weakened labor movement in the United States.
Institutions that were established under the New Deal with the intention of protecting
organized labor now became instruments for its dismantling. In 1983, the Reagan administration appointed Donald Dotson as the head of the National Labor Relations Board, who took a firm pro-business, anti-labor stance and oversaw numerous decisions limiting the organizing rights afforded to workers. Employers were now legally allowed to threaten workers with plant closings and layoffs if they unionized, under the justification that these threats reflected
“economic realities.”56 The reorientation of the National Labor Relations Board to a firmly
pro-business stance compounded the existing obstacles to winning a union election, especially in a southern “right-to-work” state like North Carolina.
The regulatory capture of agencies intended to protect labor organizing gave businesses free reign to fight dirty against union supporters. The blind eye turned to unfair labor practices meant that employers were free to deploy threats and harassment in order to undermine labor
organizing efforts, making unionization considerably more difficult. As the bargaining power of labor unions declined, workers became increasingly less confident in the ability of labor unions
55 Stein, Pivotal Decade, 276.
to secure material gains or negotiation victories, making them less inclined to bother joining, creating a downward spiral in the influence of organized labor.57 The state-business alliance
against organized labor not only gave management a greater ability to defeat union elections, but it also undermined the reputation of labor unions, as winning even the smallest victories became an increasingly herculean task.
Between the traumatic legacy of the 1929 Loray Mill Strike and the declining strength of labor unions from the 1970’s onwards, the odds were overwhelmingly against the Firestone plant in Gastonia ever being successfully organized. At the same time however, the work of female union organizers like Ella May Wiggins and Crystal Lee Sutton during these times of labor weakness would serve as important points of inspiration when workers at the Gastonia plant began organizing in 1986.
Chapter Two: The Unionization of the Gastonia Firestone Plant during the 1980s Toward the beginning of the union organizing drive at the Gastonia Firestone Fibers & Textiles plant, the Charlotte Observer published an article on February 28, 1987, speaking to management and workers at the plant about their respective perspectives on the union drive. The plant management was naturally opposed to the unionization of the plant but framed their
opposition in terms of a paternal concern for their relationship with their employees. “Many generations of the same families have worked at this plant. Part of our strength is that family heritage. I’m fearful a union will destroy that strength,”58 Firestone Fibers and Textiles division
president Martin Yonas warned. Here management emphasizes the conception of the plant as a family and holistic entity with no conflicting interests. By contrast, the union was framed as an intrusive outside force that creates conflict.
Meanwhile, workers who opposed the union at the plant took a different approach,
emphasizing the violent trauma of the 1929 strike to encourage their co-workers to oppose the union, with management backing this counter-mobilization. One anti-union handbill mentioned in the article proclaimed that “bombings, burnings, shootings, beatings and every form of violence imaginable are accepted as normal methods of operation” for labor unions.59 Like the
argument presented by management, this framed the union as an outsider in the firm. These two rhetorical points, that the interests of management and plant workers are aligned by shared familial interests, and that the union represents a malign third party outsider with interests contrary to the workers, derived from the narrative rooted in the predominant anti-union
understanding of the 1929 Loray Mill Strike and formed the basis of the anti-unionization argument backed by plant management in Gastonia.
Workers who supported unionizing had a drastically different perspective on the matter. Third generation plant employee Johnny Anderson told the Observer that “before, some guys were making $9, $10, $11 an hour. I was making $9. They told us that now we have to do three times as much to make the same money. A union would give us a voice.”60 After almost six
decades, the workers at the former Loray mill began organizing a union because of the same impetus: the implementation of a “stretch-out” system compelling employees to work longer hours without a corresponding increase in pay.
The Background of the Unionization Effort
During the mid-to-late 1980s, the implementation of “stretch-outs” at the Gastonia Firestone plant led to increased hours, pay cuts, and lay-offs, compounding a number of other factors, all of which incentivized the union organizing efforts of the plant’s workers. Over the course of 1987 and 1988, union organizers and Firestone management would compete for support among the workers through flyers and meetings, stressing different ideological interpretations of labor unions as well as the relationships between firms and workers. While Firestone was initially able to discourage unionization by raising the specter of the 1929 strike, promising to address
employee grievances without the union, and indirectly threatening workers with lay-offs and plant closings, the union would succeed in organizing the plant in 1988 due to the management’s continued failure to address worker concerns and the uncertainty created by the acquisition of Firestone by the Japanese tire company Bridgestone.
The union organizing attempt at the Gastonia Firestone plant took place within the intensely anti-union environment that was predominant in the United States during the 1980s, and
especially in the American South. In his 2006 book Fighting Against the Odds: A History of Southern Labor since World War II, professor Timothy Minchin emphasizes how labor unions
faced broad downward trends during this decade, with union membership declining from 23 percent of the workforce in 1980 to 16.1 percent in 1991.61 This anti-labor environment was not
only particularly strong because of the time period, but also because of the location. The South was the most anti-union region in the entire United States, and North Carolina was one of the most anti-union states in the South, where organized labor experienced the least amount of success. In 1984, North Carolina was the least unionized state in the entire country, with the smallest percentage of organized workers of any of the fifty states.62 In addition, in 1979, labor
unions won only about 40 percent of the National Labor Relations Board elections that they had successfully triggered. Only four years later in 1983, with arch-conservative Donald Dotson at the head of the NLRB, labor unions won less than 25 percent of their elections.63 Given these
conditions, and especially considering the local labor history of Gastonia in particular, union organizers were faced with a difficult uphill battle.
The unionization drive at the Firestone plant in Gastonia began in 1986 as working
conditions and cuts in pay began pushing workers to look outside of the company’s ineffective inner procedures for a solution. Despite company narratives about outside agitators, this campaign emerged from within the plant and the concerns of established employees.In 2000,
61 Timothy Minchin, Fighting Against the Odds: A History of Southern Labor since World War II, (Gainesville,
University Press of Florida, 2005), 148.
United Rubber Workers organizer John Sellers observed from his experiences organizing in the 1980s that “you can’t organize a plant from the outside. If I come in and tell you what your issues are, it doesn’t strike quite the same chord as someone you work with telling you.”64 The
unionization of the Gastonia plant would follow the pattern described by Sellers, with workers in the plant as the driving force towards union.
Wanda Goble, then Wanda Hallbrook, was one of three Firestone employees who kickstarted the union campaign at the Gastonia Plant, initially reaching out to the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, before choosing to organize with the United Rubber Workers. As Wanda Goble recounted, “We had our first meeting in Lineberger Park… very few showed up, and then we had our next meeting at a house on Vance Street and me and my best friend Susie, and one other gentleman was the only ones who showed up for that meeting.”65 Wanda and her
husband Phillip Goble had both been employed at the plant for over thirty years, beginning in the early 1970s. Despite beginning from this humble nucleus, the campaign would grow over the course of the next two years and eventually successfully organize the plant in 1988.
The legacy of the 1929 Loray Mill strike loomed large over the union campaign, not only as the root of anti-union anxiety among the workers, but also as an inspiration to the initial
organizers. “I researched [the 1929 strike] when we started to organize”66 Wanda recalled,
mentioning that she specifically drew on the academic works Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia by Liston Pope (1965), and Spindles and Spires: A Re-study of Religion and Social
Change in Gastonia by John R. Earle, Dean D. Knudsen, and Donald W. Shriver Jr. (1977). In
this way the legacy of the Loray Mill strike was more complicated than its conventional
64 Bruce M. Meyer, The Once and Future Union: The Rise and Fall of the United Rubber Workers, 1935-1995,
(Akron, University of Akron Press, 2002), 268-269.
portrayal suggested, for it has functioned as the source of anti-union sentiment in North Carolina and the South while also providing lessons for future labor organizers driven by similar
The biggest obstacle that the organizers had to overcome was still the deeply seated sense of distrust directed towards labor unions, especially in a southern town with a traumatic collective memory of a unionization attempt. Discussing the challenges of union organizing in the South during the 1980s, URW organizer Tom Jenkins explained that “once these guys make up their mind that they don’t want to be in a union, it’s tough to change it. Until the company provokes something, it has to be some mitigating circumstance where they say ‘OK, I’ve had enough of your crap. I’m going to join the union.’”67 Labor organizing at the Firestone Fibers and Textiles
plant in Gastonia did not emerge ex nihilo, but instead resulted from the culmination of existing grievances among the workers. The local culture meant that anti-unionism was the ideological default, but this anti-union sentiment was ultimately undone by the emergence of an explicit contradiction between the interests of the workers and the company.
Workers’ Concerns and Management’s Justifications
The flyers passed out by unionizing workers expressed the concerns that pushed Firestone employees to begin unionizing. One advertisement for a union meeting from January 22, 1988 begins with a question posed in large bold text: “DO YOU WANT A VOICE?” This heading was followed by a series of rhetorical questions aimed at the plant’s workers: “Tired of the company making all decisions with no employee input? Rules that change from day to day? Company cutting wages and giving nothing in return? No respect from management? Adding
more and more work to your job? Returning workers who have retired while leaving others laid off?”68 The flyer emphasizes a key sentiment that the organizing campaign was centered around,
a sense of powerlessness in relation to management. Not only are workers faced with lower pay and longer hours, they are aggrieved by the fact that management can impose this without any input, and they feel dehumanized by the unregulated authority that was wielded over them. The union then was a means through which the workers can restrain this unchecked power and ensure that they have a “voice” in negotiations.
This argument, supported by pro-union workers and labor organizers, contrasts with the narrative promoted by the plant’s management, which presented the union as unnecessary, or even an obstacle, to open communication between management and employees. On April 8th,
1988, Gastonia plant manager Jagmohan “Juggy” Anand wrote to Firestone employees that “during the last 4 weeks I have met with you twice to give you facts that would help you make a decision for the upcoming election. During these meetings we have discussed what has been done to address employee concerns and what areas still need to be handled. One thing that came out of these discussions very clearly was that our employees can express their own opinions and represent themselves.”69 Management responded to organizers’ emphasis on the lack of
communication by instituting a mandatory channel of communication, albeit one primarily intended to dissuade workers from unionizing and to insist that they should communicate with management individually rather than collectively.
Beyond issues of communication, one of the primary motivations for workers at the plant to unionize was the return of the same kind of “stretch-out” system that had contributed to the 1929 Loray Mill Strike in the same location, reducing the wages that an employee received for a given
68 Advertisement for a Union Meeting, January 21, 1988. https://lib.digitalnc.org/record/24423
number of work hours. The push for unionization at the Gastonia plant began shortly after Firestone laid off one hundred employees and compelled the remaining workers to cross-train in their occupations. This shake-up at the plant resulted in production declining and some
employees receiving lower wages.70 Just as the original implementation of the “stretch-out”
created conflict leading up to the 1929 strike, decades later the effort to extract more labor for less pay would serve as the catalyst for the unionization campaign. Even among workers who were not union supporters, these cuts in pay created resentment. “When you start cutting a man’s pay without talking to him, it’s got to bust,” plant employee Mickey Adair told the Charlotte Observer, adding “but I don’t know if a union would help.”71 The modern implementation of the
“stretch out” had clearly put off a significant number of the plant’s employees, but there remained a number of preexisting doubts that kept the majority of workers from initially
supporting the union. As in many cases, the implementation of wage cuts and stretch-outs alone failed to incentivize unionization.
Firestone’s justification for the lay-offs and wage cuts was that they were necessary for staying “competitive.” In February of 1987, factory manager Ralph King told the Gastonia Gazette that changes in operations at the plant were responsible for the increased discontent
among the workers, who were not satisfied with the justification that the changes were made for the sake of “competitiveness.”72 This indicated that changes to be “competitive” were directly
tied to the dissatisfaction among the workers that lead to the unionization drive. Firestone management argued that these reductions in pay and other disruptive changes were required in order for the company to survive in the face of competition against firms like Michelin in France,
70Lex Alexander, “Firestone rejects union,” Gastonia Gazette, March 6, 1987, page 1A
71Ken Soo, “Discontent, Mistrust Collide in Firestone Mill Union Vote,” The Charlotte Observer, March 5, 1987,
Pirelli in Italy, and Bridgestone in Japan, and to continue acting as the local employer. This reasoning was then deployed as a justification as to why the plant should not be unionized. “The major objective that all employees have is job security. The only way to assure job security is to be competitive in today’s marketplace…. I have yet to see a case where the unions provided job security by helping the company become more competitive,”73 plant manager Juggy Anand
wrote in a letter to Firestone employees. Here, management argues that the actions taken by Firestone that lead to the organizing drive were taken in order to ensure that Firestone remains “competitive,” and that keeping the business “competitive” was necessary to make sure the company still exists to employ people. Firestone’s workers were called on to make sacrifices in order to remain employed, without having any negotiating power to determine the scope of these sacrifices or how the burden will be distributed. A labor union would give the Firestone workers the ability to have a voice in negotiations over these concessions, but this also poses an obstacle to management in maximizing the plant’s efficiency and keeping it “competitive.”
At the core of the Gastonia plant management’s argument against unionization was that the compensation provided to employees was not really a decision within the power of management to make. Instead, it was merely the product of market forces such as the pressure of competition and the productivity of the workers. As plant manager “Juggy” Anand told Firestone employees in April 1988, “I have shared with you our competitive position and explained numerous times that what people get in wages and benefits was a direct function of how well we do. Given that fact, how can the union get any more?”74 In this view, the union cannot successfully bargain for
increased wages or benefits without making the firm less efficient and creating more lay-offs in the future.
73 Letter from J. Anand to Employees, March 1, 1988. https://lib.digitalnc.org/record/24386
In addition to concern over wages and benefits, another major motivation for worker
organizing was concern over safety and the impacts of manufacturing on their health. Recalling the health hazards that were regularly encountered by Firestone employees, Phillip Goble recounted how in the “three of the different jobs I worked with, I always worked with
chemicals… the second one, they had this stuff called red lead in it, and once you pour it in there at 475 degrees, close that lid, we didn’t know it, once the red lead gets in your bloodstream there’s no way to get it out… the company told us they wouldn’t give us nothing to work under that would hurt us.”75 Lead poisoning was one example of how workers at the Gastonia plant
were regularly exposed to chemicals that contributed to health problems in the long term. Despite the company’s insistence that the employees would not be harmed by the materials that they worked with; the International Agency for Research on Cancer has found that the evidence pointed to widespread exposure to carcinogens in the rubber manufacturing industry, with occupational hazards including bladder, lung, and stomach cancers, leukemia, and lymphoma.76
Organizing as a labor union had the potential to ensure that worker exposure to harmful carcinogens and other chemicals could at least be somewhat mitigated.
Along with the issues of wages and health, a major concern that drove the push for unionization, especially among women working at the plant, was the prevalence of sexual
harassment. Wanda Goble explained that “at that time, there was nothing really said about sexual harassment. You either put out or you shut up and do your job or you were fired.” She recalled in about 1980 the plant president had “offered [her] a secretary job [working for] him. I told him, I
75Wanda and Phillip Goble, interviewed by Claude Wilson, King’s Mountain, NC, September 28, 2019.
76 IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risk to Humans. Chemical Agents and Related
said ‘I’m not educated enough for that….’ I didn’t put out, and that’s what he wanted, and I told him no.” This was not an isolated incident, as Goble recounted that “when Ralph King was president, and then again when… Jagmohan Anand was… we were to go to Virginia once and to Ohio the next time, and I opted out both times because they wanted to get personal with me… it made them mad.”77 The regularity of this harassment and abuse of power from the plant’s
management served as a major impetus for labor organizing and motivation for female employees to act as the driving force behind this organizing.
The problem of sexual harassment at the Gastonia plant was not limited to the top leadership but pervaded the lower rungs of management. Goble mentioned that these unwanted advances extended “all the way down to my floor supervisors. I’d get called in the office, on a trumped up something, and then [they’d] proceed to tell me how much they could do for me… make me a woman. I said, ‘it’d take more of a man than you.’” 78 The prevalence of harassment from
managers and supervisors served to reinforce the need for a union to act as a check on this abuse of power, especially for women working at the plant. Since management was the source of the problem and incapable of addressing it, it was necessary to create an alternative, accountable structure of power with the ability to hold management accountable for its abuses. For workers, the only viable structure of this kind was a union.
Rhetoric of Union Opponents and Supporters
Despite the unresponsive and at times abusive nature of management, a significant part of the collective identity promoted by management at the Firestone plant in Gastonia was that it was a sort of “family.” Most of the workers at the plant were employed there because their relatives
were employees. Wanda Goble recalled a number of her relatives who worked alongside her at the plant: “my step-father-in-law, my ex-husband… his brother, my brother, my sister-in-law… Firestone was known as a family affair.” She added “if you graduated from high school, you went right on to Firestone.” The familial nature of the plant’s workforce manifested frequently in the messaging deployed by management and opponents of the union within the plant.
Workers who opposed unionization, such as Alfred Hardee, drew on this rhetoric of
Firestone as a “family.” As he told the Gastonia Gazette in March 1, 1987, “We’re just one big, happy family. It’ll work its way out. Family squabbles usually do.”79 This reflects the core
message of the anti-union line supported by plant management, that the Firestone Company’s interests are in line with those of its workers and that the company has a paternal interest in its employees’ well-being. When the company takes actions that harm its employees, such as through layoffs, pay cuts, or stretch-out, then this is, according to management, because of economic necessity. Implicit in this “family” framing was that the company and management are the patriarchs responsible for decision-making, and employees were wives and children in subservient roles, effectively emasculating male workers and reinforcing patriarchal attitudes towards female workers.
Building off of this framing of the Gastonia Firestone plant as a holistic “family,” management characterized the union as outsiders intruding and disrupting this harmonious arrangement. On January 15, 1988, workers at the plant received a letter from plant manager “Juggy” Anand and Firestone Fibers and Textiles division president Martin Yonas that attempted to dissuade employees from supporting the union. The letter reminded workers that “we have had many meetings and have had the benefit of your suggestions, comments, and criticisms in