WORKING LIVES: The Southern Exposure History of Labor in the South by Marc S.--Ed. Miller

WORKING LIVES: The Southern Exposure History of Labor in the South

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With the recent settlement between J. P. Stevens and its textile workers, one might think that some sort of symbolic watershed had been reached in Southern labor history, but one look at this compilation quickly shatters that illusion. Assembled by a group from the Institute for Southern Studies and its publication Southern Exposure, where most of this material has appeared, this collage of oral history reports and local history research leaves one overriding impression: namely, that since the turn of the century (at least) Southern textile and mine workers, together with scattered workers in other less concentrated industries, have been on a deadly treadmill of dangerous work and sometimes more dangerous efforts at union organizing. Against this backdrop, the J. P. Stevens success looks less definitive. With its social background rooted in generations on the land, the southern labor force, as opposed to the immigrant workers of the north, lacked experience at collective industrial action and had to start from scratch; indeed, the descriptions of life in the mills recall those of England a century earlier, when textile workers there first began to organize. The chronicle here becomes a relentless tale of misery and death, with individual episodes depicting events like the ""massacre at Gauley Bridge"" (W. Va.), where hundreds of black workers recruited from out of state died from exposure to silica dust during the 1930s, or the murder of union organizer Barney Graham during the Davidson-Wilder mine strike of 1932-33. The story continues in that vein up to the present: the J. P, Stevens pre-settlement saga is put within the context of a city--Greenville, S.C.--that prides itself on its hostility to unions. The fact that only around 14 percent of the South's labor force is unionized--less than the figure 15 years ago--points to the intractable problems of the region, problems now exacerbated by American industry's general desire to avoid unionized areas of the country. But the trouble with this collection is that it presents its tale of struggle with a devout optimism and cheers for the courage and small victories of organizers without giving sufficient sense of why so little progress has been made. As a kind of reference work, the anthology is useful, but as explanation it's soft at its heart.

Pub Date: Jan. 16th, 1980
Publisher: Pantheon