Textile Men: Looms, Loans and Lockouts

Black and white photo of group of men in bowler hats, some holding signs

courtesy of Mrs. Gilbert Harrison

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 3 No. 4, "Facing South." Find more from that issue here.

In the period during and immediately after World War I, Spencer Love, Lacy Wright and Joe Pedigo each entered southern textile mills, one as an owner and empire builder, another as a mill hand with a secondary school education, the third as an embryonic union organizer.

It was a turbulent time, and within the space of a few years the rapid expansion of piedmont manufacturers transformed the stepchild of the New England mills into the backbone of southern industrialization. From the peak of the post-war surge in 1923 to 1933, New England lost 40 percent of its mills and the capacity of the newer, lower-waged southern industry increased fivefold. In the next four decades, the textile industry became the largest employer in the South, the creator of countless fortunes and the biggest obstacle to organized labor.

J. Spencer Love, Lacy Wright and Joe Pedigo—all descendants of southern families—were among the men and women who made textiles, and therefore the South, what it is today. Their stories, each beginning with the World War I boom, chronicle the ups and downs of the industry as no set of statistics can.


J. Spencer Love grew up in Cambridge, Mass., the son of a Harvard professor who had migrated north from his family home of Gastonia, N.C. When young Spencer returned from World War I, sporting the rank of major and a personal citation from Gen. John J. Pershing, he could find no job on Boston's bank-lined Boyston Street. With $3,000 in savings, his Harvard education and the family reputation in Gastonia, he headed south to find work. An uncle offered Love a position as payroll clerk at a fledgling mill in Gastonia for $120 a month. Love took it, but wanted more. At age 23, he borrowed $80,000 and took controlling interest of the entire mill. He paid off the debt in four years and word spread of his desire to move to a new location. The Burlington Chamber of Commerce, 132 miles northeast of Gastonia, made the best offer, underwriting support for a new plant in Burlington. From that beginning in 1923, Love built Burlington Mills into what would be, at his death in 1962, the largest textile operation in the world. In 40 years of business, Love gambled and nearly always won; he expanded tremendously, garnering new markets; he became a super personnel manager, systematically weeding out all union supporters. Love's work became a cause, the undivided interest of his life.

Lacy Wright was also involved in textiles, but he didn't buy mills, he worked in them. He grew up in the mill village of Greensboro, N.C., owned by the Cone family, where his father had moved the family from their farm near Carthage, N.C. Wright never left Greensboro. In 1917, at age 12, he began mill work to help support the family, after just five and a half years of school. When Love bought his first business, Lacy Wright was still working in a Greensboro mill. He moved between two Cone mills, stuck with his job and provided for his family, worked with the union and witnessed its decline and grew weak from breathing cotton dust. Finally in 1966, at age 61, Lacy Wright had to leave the mill, no longer able to breathe easily. Wright did not choose textiles as his life's concern. He had no choice. But in retirement he returned to textiles, and with other victims of “brown lung" disease, started an independent, grassroots movement for social change. Today, Wright is president of the Greensboro chapter of the Carolina Brown Lung Association. And though he now can barely read or write, he holds press conferences and argues with public officials in his organization's quest for a change in cotton mill conditions and compensation for those already afflicted from breathing the deadly dust.

Joe Pedigo grew up in Roanoke, Va., at the foot of the Appalachian mountains. His father was a carpenter and union member, and nourished a feeling of racial tolerance and loyal Republicanism. Two of Pedigo's sisters, independent themselves, left the area for college and never returned to Roanoke. Pedigo, however, graduated from high school and stayed, entering a local mill. He worked for the American Viscose Company, a synthetics plant, where he earned 53 cents an hour, three times the salary of cotton mill workers like Lacy Wright. In 1931 Pedigo helped form a union that was quickly recognized by the company's German manager. Shortly afterwards, the local affiliated with the United Textile Workers. Meanwhile, Pedigo began attending meetings of the local Socialist Party. In 1939 he left the mill to join the staff of the nascent Textile Workers Union of America, working for another three decades as a union organizer. He dealt with textile executives like Love repeatedly, and his actions had a great influence on Wright and the other southern textile workers. By the time he retired in 1973, Pedigo had organized the largest local union in the history of textiles, witnessed both vicious anti-union violence and a devastating split within the national union and struggled to regain the membership strength of the late 1940s.

These three—Love, Wright and Pedigo—witnessed and, in their own ways, ushered in the modern era of textiles. Their careers, viewed together, offer a unique vantage point for understanding the realities of the modern southern textile industry, its roots, its people and, perhaps, its future.

By the time they joined the work force, textiles were already spearheading the industrialization of the South. As early as 1881 at the famed Atlanta Exposition, financiers and industrialists had begun scrutinizing the South for business opportunities. The New South, rising from the Civil War's wreckage, felt a burst of energy and confidence. The railroads, banks, Charleston ship builders and, most important, cotton producers all capitalized on this burst of human energy.

By 1880, production of cotton had gradually increased to three times the low yield of 1865. Technology for harnessing the South's water power had been developed. People were looking for jobs. Industrialists and New South advocates proclaimed textiles as the salvation of the South. Mill agents crisscrossed the mountains and piedmont, recruiting entire families with promises of guaranteed jobs and earnings, schools and houses, and relief from the unreliable yields of the upland farms. Financiers easily gathered support from Yankee capitalists and recently-moneyed southern investors.

The mills moved in—to both established and unsettled areas —and took hold. They soon controlled the water power, wilderness, cotton, investments and, most important, people's lives. Entire families worked in the mills, often including children as young as seven or eight. Their lives were in the hands of these new entrepreneurs, developing the forms of a paternalism that would grow into one of the most powerfully subtle mechanisms of control in the history of the country.

Many textile workers soon began to rebel against this control, against the low wages, against the 60-70 hour work weeks. The Knights of Labor gained strength, as did the AFL's National Union of Textile Workers of America. In 1886, for instance, the powerful Knights local in Augusta, Ga. petitioned the mill management to discontinue the pass system, replace superintendents who discriminated against members of the union, fill all future vacancies with union men and increase wages to a level reflecting the improved market for cotton goods.

But the union's strength, though at a high point for southern textiles, was still easily insufficient, and the Augusta strikers, like so many in the South, could not win against the combined hostility of mill owners throughout the piedmont. The Augusta strike, like so many at the time, was repulsed.


Spencer Love - I

Firmly established during the 1880s and 1890s, the textile industry expanded in the early years of this century, boomed during World War I and continued to flourish until the inevitable economic downturn several years later. Bold businessmen like Spencer Love found enough credit to get established, but only with the help of friends and relatives.

When Love moved to Burlington in 1923 his prospects did not appear particularly bright. He carried a heavy debt into a market that was beginning to decline from the post-war bulge. And he found his machinery incapable of weaving the entire width of a bedspread. Undeterred, he simply sewed two together, and disguised the resulting unsightly seam with a filling of rayon yarn woven into the cotton warp. The gleam of the rayon, he found, offered the glitter that a depressed market, too poor for silk, would eagerly buy. Love bought larger machinery, added more rayon to his weave, scrambled up and down the east coast for credit and soon embarked on the largest expansion effort a depression has ever known.

From 1926 to 1937 Love built a number of mills throughout the region. He gained reknown for his "Wooden Walls of Burlington" because he left one temporary wall in his new mills, easily removed for expansion. And the walls came tumbling down as his sales of bedspreads and other products picked up, especially when fiber suppliers developed a soft and pliant rayon, more versatile and appealing than the early stiff and shiny material he had used.

The key to Love's expansion was his highly risky practice of beginning new plants with other people's money. He would entice local citizens into building a mill, then borrow on a previously established company to buy equipment for the new plant. Love found the suppliers and customers for the new mill, and even though he tied up little of his own capital, he maintained controlling interest in each new firm. In ten years, he had spun off 30 separate and distinct companies. With his credit stretched to the limit, yet his adroit skill well respected on Wall Street, Love decided it was time to consolidate his operations into one publicly-held corporation. In 1937, he listed Burlington Mills on the New York Stock Exchange and watched investors hungrily grab up the available stock. His own reward came to 95,000 shares, worth $1.6 million —a tidy profit, especially considering the dismal economy.


Lacy Wright -I

For Lacy Wright, the Depression era was less profitable. By 1925, when he was 20 years old, Wright had already spent eight years in the mill. "I loved school and I got along good," he recalls. "I would have liked to have went on."

"When I started to work I made 75 cents a day, ten hours a day. I did about everything that was to be done in the carding room from sweeping the floor to being a slub attender, everything with the exception of being a bossman or a fixer. I never did warrant either one of those, and I wouldn't have had one of them."

In 1925, with the mills laying off workers as a consequence of post-war overproduction, Wright left to take a job delivering special messages for the Post Office. By 1933, however, the Depression had spread from the millroom to the mailroom. Wright, lacking civil service status, was laid off. 

He returned to the mills and found a position at Cone's neighboring Revolution plant as a slubber attender. The bad economy was everywhere, and in 1935 Lacy was laid off from Revolution. "There wasn't enough jobs for all of us," he says. "They were going to do away with the old slubber and speeder and put in a new type that would make more production than we had been making before."

Hungry for work, Wright returned to the White Oak plant where he had begun work 18 years before. A sympathetic supervisor took him back. Wright lived through the Depression in White Oak, fearful of the joblessness that surrounded him.

Sitting in his modest living room today, Wright remembers that Cone Mills was  running three or four days a week in place of shutting down and laying off like a lot of mills did. They managed some way or another. Now I give the company credit for it. They've got a big bunch of warehouses over there, and they made a lot of cloth and sorted it in that warehouse that they didn't have no sales for. In other words, you could eat. Back in them days, they had pink beans. They were a little different from what we have, pinto beans now. If you could get a piece of fatback, some pinto beans and a little corn meal or flour, you could make it.

But Wright, like many mill hands, was forced to confront the value of his job in other terms. The flying squadrons of the 1934 general strike saw to that.

Frustrated by the unresponsiveness of the National Recovery Act's Code Authority, the rank and file of the AFL's United Textile Workers (UTW) forced the union into activity. Faced with low wages and a lengthening stretch-out (doing more work with fewer people), 40 Alabama textile locals walked out in July. On September 1, 1934, UTW called a general strike which rapidly spread across the country. At the peak of the brief three-week outburst, over 400,000 workers left the mills, the largest walk out in the nation's history.

Throughout September, flying squadrons—caravans of Depression-starved itinerant picketers— crisscrossed the South, stopping at mills they hoped to close. The textile industry and its friends responded with all their force. Georgia's Governor Eugene Talmadge began to detain "vagrant” workers in virtual concentration camp settings. Strikers were shot. Vigilantes surfaced. National Guard troopers were called out. Martial law was declared throughout the South, and rioting raged from Rhode Island to Pennsylvania to Georgia. Workers were thrown out of their company houses. After three weeks of near anarchy, at least 13 Southerners were left dead and many more were wounded. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was compelled to form a special board to negotiate a settlement, but their recommendations compromised the needs of the striking workers. The union accepted them, but the strike was lost. Moreover, the UTW's false claims of victory planted a deep skepticism of unions throughout the piedmont.

The flying squadron's dramatic sweep confronted a person like Lacy Wright with a complex set of choices. Wright's impressions of unions reach back to his childhood days in the mill. "The company got on them people so bad about trying to organize down there," he recalls, "that they fired I don't know how many of them and took their furniture and set it out in the streets. And me being young, that was one thing that's always stuck out to me. That went against my grain, to see them people out of work on the streets."

But Wright needed work in 1934, and when his supervisor told him to use a picker stick (a solid four foot long hickory stick that is part of a loom) if the flying squadrons came that night, Wright was torn. "In place of going out on that side of the building and getting me a picker stick," he remembers saying, "I'm going on this side and find me a hole." He wouldn't support the strikers, but neither would he fight them.


Joe Pedigo - I

Joe Pedigo waited until he graduated from high school in 1926 before he entered the mill in his hometown of Roanoke, Va. Rather than join a cotton mill like Wright, where cutbacks and stretchouts were already common practices, Pedigo began work at a synthetics fibers plant. Synthetics mills, the aristocrats of the industry, paid higher wages in a more guaranteed market than the highly volatile cotton trade.

Pedigo's interest quickly turned to unions and organizing. Wages were relatively good, he remembers, but just the same conditions were pretty bad in the 30s. You could make the least mistake and there would be some little cockroach foreman that would run up to you and say, “Look, Pedigo, if you can't do this work right, there is a barefooted boy outside looking for a job.” He was telling the truth, there was plenty of them out there looking for jobs. As far as I was concerned, if I never got anything out of a union, if I never got a raise or vacations or anything else, just to get rid of hearing that kind of stuff and be able to look the guy in the eye and speak my piece was what I was after and I think that a number of the other people were motivated by the same reason, just a question of human dignity.

In fact, thousands of textile workers —mostly women —responded to the stretch-outs, arbitrary firings and loss of dignity with a wave of wildcat strikes in early 1929. Mill towns like Elizabethton, Tenn., and Gastonia and Marion, N.C., exploded with a burst of protest that was finally quelled with National Guard shootings, anti-communist propaganda and company harassment. It was a widely publicized, often bloody uprising, but it yielded few immediate changes. Influenced by that rebellion, Joe Pedigo followed a slower, perhaps wiser pace in building on his co-workers' resentments. 

Pedigo was an organizer from the start. “I recall the first meeting that we had [in 1931],“ he says. “We held it uptown. I slipped around to 35 or 40 people that I trusted and told them about the meeting. Not a one showed up. There was just the same old faithful seven" from his Socialist Party study group. Undaunted, Pedigo called another meeting. "I went up to a guy and asked him to come to the meeting and he would want to know who was coming. I would say, 'You are the only one from this shop.' He would say O.K. and I would tell the next fellow [in the same shop] the same thing. At the next meeting, I had about 20 people, but each one of them was scared of the other one. That's why they hadn't shown up the first time."

By the time the company insisted on a showdown with the group, Pedigo and his friends had organized only 800 of the 4500 workers. Even so, it proved enough to get a first contract. When Pedigo was called to the manager's office, he recalls saying, "Look, Mr. Nerrin, the fellows are looking for me back down there in the spinning room. Something is liable to happen and I wouldn't want that. I've got to tell them something when I get back, so are you going to recognize us or not?" The manager, dangling between bluff and danger, responded, "Of course, I recognize it. There is no darn sense in the damn thing, but I recognize it."

Pedigo remembers the instant success of the local. "We went back and spread the word and rented the American Legion Hall and had people standing up on the sidewalks all the way up the steps and lined up like an unemployment line, waiting to join the union. We organized that thing overnight." Pedigo took his local into the national United Textile Workers.

When the 1934 general strike was called, Pedigo joined a flying squadron, though not the one that confronted Lacy Wright in Greensboro. "We took a flying squadron into Danville," he says.

They found out we were coming and locked the gates. Some of us went in cars, some in a bus, and we pulled that damn bus up beside the fence and climbed up on it and went over the fence. We started going into the plant and told people that there was a strike on, 'Come on and let's go.' We didn't have an incident the whole time, there wasn't a lick passed and everybody just came right on out and closed it down. The management was so scared, they must have thought that we were a bunch of thugs.

The failure of the 1934 General Strike did not deter Pedigo's enthusiasm. He followed union activities through his local in Roanoke, including the formation of the Textile Workers Organizing Committee in 1937 and the birth of the CIO's Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) in 1939.

Shortly after the founding convention of the TWUA in Philadelphia, George Baldanzi, an old friend of Pedigo's from the Socialist Party and UTW and now a TWUA staff person, hired Pedigo onto the TWUA organizing staff. Pedigo had already been organizing workers for eight years, and for the next 34 years, he undertook this work as a full-time profession.


Spencer Love-II

World War II brought the textile industry, like much of the rest of corporate America, out of the extended Depression. War orders poured in for underwear, uniforms, tents and raw materials. Spencer Love, like other textile leaders, integrated his operation in the "vertical" direction, joining most of the sales and retail functions to his manufacturing processes. While his company produced over 50 war-related products, Love served as a Director of the Bureau of Textiles, Leather and Clothing of the critically important War Production Board, a strategic position to hold in the midst of industry consolidation.

Burlington Mills emerged from the war in much stronger shape than many other mills, and Love began to buy out such established companies as May McEwer Kaiser and Peerless Woolen. He divided his organization into profit centers which enabled him to measure an executive's abilities on separate profit/loss statements. He significantly expanded into the hosiery line, snipping at the business of established competitors like Hanes Hosiery. He expanded his central offices and moved from Burlington to nearby Greensboro.

Love often gambled, as in 1949 when Burlington slashed its prices on rayon products by 10 to 25 percent, betting that the price of rayon fiber, on which they depended, would also go down. Several weeks later he won, when Celanese Corporation of America, the third biggest yarn producer at the time, lowered its prices by 12.5 percent, to 42 cents a pound. With that gamble, Love ushered the entire industry into the first post-war price-cutting contest, a move calculated to increase his share of the market and force marginal competitors out of business.

Love cultivated his political and social obligations with equal skill. He planted his foot firmly in Greensboro's liberal community, chairing the Christmas Seal campaign in 1946, heading the Community Chest capital funds drive in 1954 and taking an active interest in the First Presbyterian Church. He regularly set aside up to a day a week for a wide variety of organizations on which he served as trustee and board member. From the state chairmanship of the National Conference of Christian and Jews' Brotherhood Week to the board meetings at the University of North Carolina, from the Business Advisory Council of the U.S. Department of Commerce to a director's chair at North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, Love made his influence widely felt. A supporter of John Kennedy and the state's liberal governor Terry Sanford, Love became heavily involved in politics, although rarely mentioned in Washington columns. He favored a $1.00 an hour minimum wage in 1960, a unique position for southern industrialists, and later found himself sitting beside Walter Reuther and Henry Ford on JFK's Advisory Committee on Labor Management Policy.

And all the while, his business was soaring. From 1937 to his death in 1962, Love took Burlington from a medium-sized company in a highly fragmented industry to the commanding leader of the emerging textile giants. Net sales rose from $27 million to $1 billion during this period, and stockholder equity increased from $6.5 million to $361 million.

Love became an eloquent spokesman for southern textile magnates. In June of 1955 he appeared before the Antitrust Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate's Judiciary Committee, essentially repeating what he had told the press several years before: “Government should ... be an umpire but should do nothing that would jeopardize our private enterprise system, that would hinder competition. You can't regulate the law of supply and demand." He argued that competition thrived, entreprenuers could find local capital and twice as many start-ups as liquidations had occurred since the war. The senators nodded readily in agreement. Only one, Joseph O'Mahoney (Dem.-Wy.) broke through the slick presentation with a line of questions that left Love in one of his rare moments of confusion. He asked Love if the industry needed anti-trust regulations; Love said no. He asked if price controls were needed; Love said no. He asked about government regulations in general; Love said the industry would be far better off without them. "Then you don't need a great deal of tariff protection," said O'Mahoney. "Well," paused Love, "you sort of have me there."

O'Mahoney's isolated skepticism was reinforced when TWUA Research Director Solomon Barkin presented data on Love and the textile industry. Barkin, well-respected in labor as well as academic circles for his intellectual presentations, offered reams of charts, listings, documentation and examples to counter Love's testimony.

Barkin corrected Love's figures on consolidations and mergers within textiles by omitting the highly decentralized apparel and knitting concerns from the data under review. He then detailed 25 cases where Burlington had used a variety of tactics—from mill closings to discriminatory discharges—to avoid collective bargaining. Barkin, perhaps more than the committee, was familiar with what Love had told Forbes several years before: "Fundamentally unions are unsound because in order to live they must promote strife, distrust, and discontent and set employee against employee, class against class, and group against group. . . . The unions know as well as you and I do that any and all reforms they can bring could be much more effectively and fairly served through legislation, both state and federal."


Joe Pedigo - II

Joe Pedigo disagreed with Love about the soundness of unions. He knew there had been a limited amount of significant legislation to aid American workers; he had experienced the conditions under which workers without a union had to live. He saw those conditions improve when mills were organized and spent his life building unions in southern textiles.

In 1942 Pedigo headed the campaign in Danville, Va., which produced the largest textile bargaining unit, 13,500 strong, in history. It was a campaign that took both determination and creativity, from Pedigo as well as those around him. The local police, for instance, wouldn't let the organizers distribute leaflets at the gates. Pedigo vividly remembers what happened after that. "I decided we had to have a test case," he says. "Jeannie (his wife-to- be) at that time weighed about 90 pounds soaking wet and we figured she would make an appealing victim. We had it all set up with cameras and everything and bondsmen all standing." She began to leaflet at the gate, refused police orders to leave and was finally arrested and taken to the police chief's office. Pedigo continues,

The old chief backed down on it. Finally he levelled his finger at me and said, "If you are trying to get a test case, you let that woman come back here one more time and you are going to get a test case." I said, "Well, chief, you are doing your duty and I'm doing mine. If you're back out there in the morning, you'll get a chance to do your duty. She'll be there!" The next morning we were all set up again and she went down on the gate and you couldn't find a policeman.

Shortly afterwards, he broke through the non-union Cone chain in Greensboro with an election victory at the Proximity plant. In Rome, Ga. in the late 40s, Pedigo encountered vicious attacks in the press and crowded jail cells en route to several victories.

TWUA, however, reached its peak by 1948. The union's post-war drive, Operation Dixie, proved unsuccessful in its efforts to defeat the southern holdouts from the 30s. Lack of funds and the large number of young, inexperienced organizers were partially responsible for the failure. The industrialists and politicians, however, also had a hand in shaping events. In Washington in 1947, President Truman signed the Taft-Hartley Act which gave the South the right-to-work laws that remain today. Equally important, perhaps, was intrique and collusion at the local level. Joe Pedigo recalls working in Rome, Ga. during the southern drive with nine young organizers sent by the state CIO. "There was one that appeared to be more disruptive than all the rest. This fellow's name was Gray. I picked up Leo Huberman's Labor Spy Racket and leafed over into the index in the back and found the name Gray. It was the same person. He was employed by the Railway Audit in the 30s."

Immediately after the Operation Dixie debacle and a general decline in the industry, a split developed within TWUA. George Baldanzi, the executive vice-president who hired Pedigo, was pushing for an aggressive stance while Emil Rieve, the union's president, maintained a more cautious position. Baldanzi, closely associated with Operation Dixie and the southern staff, ran against Rieve in 1952 and lost. Embittered, Baldanzi took many of his allies into the UTW, including Joe Pedigo who was fired by the TWUA. The aftermath of this split proved disastrous to both sides. Inter-union competition and raids of established locals became the focus in the early 50s, rather than creative counters to the McCarthy-era backlash. There was a great deal of bitterness felt on both sides and the TWUA lost some of its brightest young organizers who had been attracted by Baldanzi's idealism and captivating oratory.

Pedigo spent several years organizing and servicing UTW locals. He had some success, but UTW was too small and weakened to unionize major mills. He returned again to TWUA.

Determined that textile unionism should not bounce back, arch-conservative (and later top Nixon campaign contributor) Roger Mil liken closed his Darlington, S.C. plant in 1956 after a TWUA election victory. This case has made NLRB history by stretching into the 70s without paying workers for illegally ending their jobs. While Darlington intimidated an important 1958 union campaign at Cannon Mills, the Harriet-Henderson mills in Henderson, N.C. proved to be more crucial in the long run.

John D. Cooper, president of the Henderson mills, refused to sign a standard contract renewal because, some believe, Julius Fry, the TWUA staffer servicing the local, was too good at winning grievances under the contract. On November 17, 1958, after unsuccessful negotiations, the TWUA members walked out with placards that read, "Jesus leads us, the union feeds us, John D. needs us."

Before the strike was officially ended by the union in 1961, Boyd Payton, the southern director of the TWUA was sent to jail on what would prove to be framed charges, Gov. Luther Hodges unsuccessfully umpired closed door negotiations and the leading union and anti-union lawyers, Arthur Goldberg and Frank Constangy, joined the battle. Scabs eventually filled the Henderson mills and the strike was lost. The TWUA was completely beaten.

 Pedigo, meanwhile, was mounting TWUA's first campaign against J. P. Stevens in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. during the 1958 Henderson strike. In the union's weakened position after the Henderson fiasco, Payton and others were not in a position to resent Pedigo's defection to the UTW. Payton, even in the midst of the Henderson difficulties, wrote union president William Pollock in an effort to keep Pedigo in the Carolinas: “Many people thought it a mistake to bring him (Pedigo) back on our staff. . . . Now, everyone wants him wherever a campaign is in progress."

Through the years, Pedigo always worked with a particular style. Retired since 1973 and living in a small home outside Charlotte, he explains:

You organize a few key people who in turn organize a plant. My approach has always been to first find the people that count, and no matter how long it takes, hunt until you find key people in key departments and educate the hell out of them. Once you have surrounded yourself with those people, you will get the plant. If you just take the first guy that comes up with a chip on his shoulder,

the chances are he will be fired the first time he sticks his neck out for the union. He's no good to you. You have to be a bit more selective, which means that you have got to initially take a lot longer in setting up your ground work. If you set up quick ground work, sometimes it works, but often you wind up with people on your committee that nobody has any respect for. I have always stuck with that formula.


Lacy Wright - II

When World War II arrived, Lacy Wright was too old to fight but not rich enough to quit his job. He stayed in the mill. War orders increased and shifts lengthened until, at Wright's plant, everyone was encouraged to work 16 hours a day. “I worked a ten hour day," he remembers, “six days most weeks. I wouldn't take 16 hours. It taxed me too heavy—travel time home, get to bed, sleep about six hours, get up."

Wright's early feelings of injustice began to take some form when the union first arrived in Greensboro in the 40s. Joe Pedigo's election victory at Cone's Proximity Plant did not cover Wright in the nearby White Oak plant, but Wright felt its impact. He became a union man and worked for a TWUA contract. It took years to win. "Early union activities," he recalls, "were undercover due to the fear of people we were trying to work with. I was identified early as a union supporter and people were reluctant to talk with me. I was not attacked personally but we knew these people that we would talk to were visited by the company."

Finally, after several votes, a contract was won in the 50s. Wright, like many other millworkers sympathetic to the union, felt the confusion of the TWUA-UTW battles of the early 50s. The first contract in his plant was a UTW agreement, but the local soon switched to the TWUA. Wright learned one important lesson from those years. "I always felt like if you ever do any good in the South to organize textile workers, you aren't going to do it by misinforming them too badly. Now, I don't believe but what in any situation but what some of it's going to be propaganda and some of it's going to be the truth. But I believe that if you ever do any good in the South it's got to be when the truth overrides propaganda."

Even when the union's internal squabbles subsided, Wright, then a leader in his local, continued to feel some of the frustration of an organizer:

These people down here, I've watched them all my life. They are people that don't want to be bothered. They want to go to work; they want to come home and they don't want nothing to bother them. And they don't want to be bothered, a lot of them, too much with the boss down there, whether they're doing their job right or not. When they get home they don't want to be bothered, they don't want responsibilities. And why it is, I don't know. I don't understand it. I fought the whole time I was in organized labor to try to get it across to them: "You have got a respon¬sibility. "The responsibility to me, and to my family, was to put some food in on the table for them to eat, a house with some furniture in it for them to live. Now then, the only way I can do that is, I got to get enough pay out of what work I do.

As Wright's commitments grew stronger, his health began to fail. He suspected, but had no proof, that his poor eyesight and hearing —which kept him from assuming local union officer responsibilities—had resulted from his work. He did not understand the source of his breathing problem. But he did know that he could not keep working for long. After some years of prodding, Wright became the president of his union local, but only for one year. In 1966, at the age of 61, he quit when he realized, "I just couldn't breathe anymore." Doctors told him he had emphysema or bronchitis, but along with union officials, he was unconvinced.

In 1969, Lacy Wright explained his case to a field hearing of the U.S. Senate's Labor and Public Welfare Committee. Senator Harrison Williams (Dem.-N.J.) had brought the Committee to textile country to investigate an occupational disease called byssinosis or "brown lung," caused by workers breathing cotton dust. Wright told the senators, "I noticed when I was young that the dust bothered me. But, of course, I didn't realize what it could do. Over the years, I began to notice my energy was being sapped, normal work made me short winded.”

Finally, in the summer of 1975, a doctor told Wright that he suffered from brown lung disease. By that time he had decided to do something about it. Together with other retired cotton mill workers in North and South Carolina, he spearheaded a new organizing effort to call attention to health hazards in the mill and win relief for members of the Carolina Brown Lung Association.

Today, Wright debates legislators on fine points of the state-administered Occupational Safety and Health Act. He has met with, and challenged, North Carolina's Secretary of Labor. He calls and moderates press conferences. He recruits more members into BLA chapters and campaigns for all brown lung victims. As a result of his Association activities Wright, now aged 70, has decided ”l only want to spend the time I have left," he says, "helping other people. I don't need anyone to tell me I can't breathe. There's nothing I can do about that now. But we have to make things better for those people that are still in the mill so they don't have to get sick too."