James P. Cannon

The Labor Revolt In The South

Written: 1929
First Published: The Militant, New York, Volume 2, No. 8, April 15, 1929
Source: Microfilm collection and original bound volumes for The Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California. This article is unsigned but it was the belief by editors at Pathfinder Press that the article was in fact written by Cannon.
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The revolt of the southern textile workers, embracing mills in three states, lifts the lid on a seething caldron of working-class discontent generated by the intensification of the labor process and the multiplied exploitation which has been taking place under the formula of “rationalization.” The capitalist dreams of a strikeless America are being shattered by the hammer blows of the class struggle in Tennessee and the Carolinas. These strikes are symptoms of the coming wave of struggles which will arise inevitably out of the whole condition of labor in the trustified industries. Besides that, they have a number of features which give them a special significance in themselves. The new unionism will go through its fiery test in these battles, and, if the correct tactics are employed, its foundations will be consolidated.

The strikes in the Carolinas are the answer of the cotton mill workers to the “stretch-over” system of speedup introduced recently under the direction of efficiency experts and which was calculated to increase and in some cases to double the number of looms operated by a worker for approximately the same pay. The miserable wage standards and long hours imposed on these unorganized workers had already provided the fuel for this fire. The report of the U.S. Department of Commerce showing the average annual wage of all workers in North Carolina manufacturing plants to be $774.20—about one-half the average wage in the North—tells its own story. The full-time weekly wage of women mill workers is $12.32 in South Carolina and $14.62 in North Carolina. For men it is $15.46 in the former and $17.41 in the latter. A fifty-five-hour week is the rule in South Carolina, and a fifty-six-hour week in North Carolina. Such conditions are the soil for a radical development of which these strikes represent only the beginning.

The present strike wave helps to demolish a popular capitalist myth, proclaimed in a million dollars’ worth of advertisementsa myth not without influence even in the ranks of the left wing of the labor movement—about the docility of the 100 percent American workers of the South and their immunity from strikes and labor unionism.

The workers involved in the strikes for the most part are natives, without previous experience in labor organization, who have been lately recruited from the countryside by the rapid industrialization of the South. A special writer in the New York Times says: “The boast of the manufacturers of the Carolinas is the large supply of both actual and potential laborers of AngloSaxon stock who are not, and never have been, successfully organized into unions .... Coming without warning, the strikes have been a distinct shock.” More of these shocks are in store.

The native workers in the industrialized South (and not only in the South) will prove to be valiant fighters in the coming labor battles which will bring with them the establishment of the new unionism. Indeed, as the movement gains strength and scope and becomes firmly fixed in the conditions of American life, they will be the leaders of it. The ability to see and understand this fact, in all its implications, is a sine qua non for a correct approach to the developing new situation by the Communists and left wing. In this period, which offers the prospect of the Communists playing an influential part in the American labor movement, it is necessary that we take nothing for granted, that we put aside all preconceived prejudices and closely examine and reexamine our tactics at every stage of the struggles.

Communists have appeared in this hitherto “undiscovered country” as the organizers of the strikes—or of some of themand in some cases have got the jump on the moribund AFL unions. And this is testimony to the vitality of the new union movement and of the Communists who are its driving force. The strikes are by no means a revolution or even a conscious political demonstration, but the activity of revolutionaries in them is a perfectly natural phenomenon. The complaint of the New Leader that “a great opportunity” has been “missed” because “A. F. of L. representatives have not acted promptly” is on the one hand a sour expression of wonderment and regret that Communists do not die when they are expelled, and on the other hand it is a confession that revolutionaries are the only clear and resolute fighters for reforms—for the immediate and pressing needs of the workers.

Communists are a small part of the labor movement; from a numerical standpoint a very small part. Nevertheless, they can play an influential and to a certain extent a leading part in many of the strike battles of the proximate future, and in the shaping of a new union movement, if they succeed in correlating revolutionary aims and consciousness with the realities of the situation and the workers’ actual needs of the moment. It is a question of tactics. Slogans must correspond to the situation. It is worthwhile to repeat this truism because it is not always remembered, and situations are lost because of slogans and demands which appear too remote and consequently fail to rally the workers in a given situation. What applies to slogans and demands holds good for all practical activities and conduct in connection with a concrete action or struggle.

These workers who are now entering the path of class struggle—many of them for the first time—will not pass over from political backwardness and passivity, from capitalistmindedness, to communism at one bound. Neither will their natural leaders, who spring out of the mass and express the mass, be full-fledged Leninists. Far from it. It is more likely that the typical man of influence will be a church member, a Moose, or a consistent voter for the Democratic ticket. It is with such phenomena as this, which will arise in a thousand instances, that the Communists will have to learn how to deal as the slogan of organizing the unorganized is translated into deeds. It is only by degrees, through patient and systematic work and through further development of the class struggle, that these workers and their natural leaders will develop their class consciousness and political understanding, and that individual exceptions will be found. But we cannot go by them if we are thinking in terms of mass organizations.

Just in proportion as success crowns the work for the new unions, as substantial organizations take shape, so will the question of the united front, of party relations with nonparty elements, of relations with “progressives,” etc., become more insistent. The current theories about the monopolistic control of the party over these unions will break on these rocks; or else the new unions will break.

Every honest militant will support the strikers and the new unions of the southern textile workers with all his power. At the same time he will watch their development from the standpoint of the questions mentioned above. They are decisive for the future. Upon the answer to them hinges the question whether we are driving ahead toward mass organizations of the workers or futile, sectarian, paper unions.

Another question of great importance in connection with the new strike wave, under the auspices of different organizations in different sections of the same industry, is that of the program for the unification of the struggles. The Communists must give a clear and correct answer to this question. It is the subject for a separate article.