To attract those mills and factories, cheap labor became as much a marketable commodity for southern developers as inexpensive raw materials. Cities across Virginia promoted the availability of low-wage labor, both black and white. One business booster pamphlet described the white workforce as "equal to any demand, and easily adapted to most industries," while black workers were "tractable in temper, and in general easily taught or managed."
Gender, Race, and Industrial Development
In the decades after 1900, rapid growth in the industrial, retail, and service sectors of the economy changed the world of "public" work. What had been a predominantly white, male enclave was poised to become a mixed-gender work place as young women were recruited into the labor force in ever increasing numbers. That transformation would require economic, social, and political leaders to change Virginians' traditional view of wage labor.
Politicians and businessmen helped foster this transformation through appeals to racial solidarity and the promotion of wage labor as appropriate work for southern white women. They also reassured their constituents that they had taken steps to prevent the dangers women might face in the industrial work place. Those steps included racially segregated workplaces, the availability of "elevating social influences," and the strict supervision and protection provided by white male supervisors.
Despite being among the lowest-paid industrial workers in the nation, white workers may have taken at least some small satisfaction in what W. E. B. Du Bois called the "psychological wage" of white supremacy. On the job, the privilege of race dictated that once manufacturers mechanized the production of textiles, cigarettes, and other products, the machine tenders would be white. So, too, would be all of the trades needed to keep an industrial plant operating. Few African Americans would ever be employed as mechanics, craftsmen, machine tenders, or any of the other "skilled" positions in Virginia's factories. Where, in the nineteenth century, all tobacco products had been made by skilled black hands, in the twentieth century billions of cigarettes would be turned out by machines tended by white women, supervised by white men.
Employers were, for the greatest part, willing to accept local custom and accede to the desires of the dominant culture. For their part, white supremacy and segregation produced a racially divided workforce that resisted nearly all efforts at biracial cooperation among unionized workers. In fact, it was a workforce that would often disappoint labor organizers with its ambivalence toward unions and union membership.
Yet even the most enthusiastic of Richmond's first female unionists often faced the cynicism and skepticism of male workers. With their ingrained tradition of "maleness," labor unions, especially the old craft unions, had long resisted the entry of women workers into their ranks. This resistance, combined with southern traditions about the subordinate place of women, both in the home and in relation to her husband or father, made it doubly difficult for southern women to find a place in organized labor. In addition, employers used every means at their disposal—the carrots of paternalism, small raises, and improved conditions, and the sticks of layoffs, speedups, and strike breakers—to discourage labor organizing among industrial working women.
Although they faced near total segregation in the workplace, Virginia's African Americans also made a place for themselves at labor's table. They often showed a far greater interest in organizing than whites, and their efforts resulted in all-black union locals representing workers in a handful of trades such as railroading, shipbuilding, and tobacco processing. Built by both white and black union organizers, these locals sometimes acted as "B units," black locals associated with all-white locals in similar trades. Others were organized by the workers themselves, in an attempt to wrest what little they could from a system designed to work against them. Labor leaders knew the debilitating effects of a racially divided society on the development of a biracial, working-class consciousness, but reality forced them to give in to the power of Jim Crow at almost every turn.
Despite the best efforts of labor organizers, most of Virginia's working people never joined a union. Although official numbers are lacking, indications are that at the height of organizing activity in the 1930s, union members accounted for less than 15 percent of Virginia's workforce. Antiunion views had a long history in the South, and many Virginians resisted unionization out of suspicion, fear, or pride. Others were simply indifferent. Of those who joined locals, many often did so for reasons as much fraternal as ideological. Banquets, summer excursions, and the annual Labor Day celebrations were often better attended than union meetings, and were much more common than strikes.
The Depression and War
The depression produced several important developments in the world of organized labor that had a direct impact on Virginia's working people. In June 1933, Congress passed, and United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt signed, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). From labor's standpoint, one of the most important aspects of the NIRA was section 7(a), which guaranteed workers' right to organize and engage in collective bargaining, backed by the authority of the federal government. It also prohibited employers from discriminating against workers who joined unions. This represented a major shift in the federal government's attitude toward organized labor, a result of Roosevelt's victory in 1932. Virginians had contributed to Roosevelt's success by awarding him 70 percent of the state's votes.
World War II (1939–1945) brought a wave of cooperation between labor and industry. Each claimed the patriotic high ground in the war effort, just as they had done in 1918. But a series of strikes that swept through American industry at the end of the war convinced many conservative businessmen and politicians that organized labor had emerged from the war both communist-influenced and dangerously powerful.
Right to Work and Taft-Hartley
Right-to-work laws were essentially voluntary union membership laws, but the choice of the label is an ironic one. "Right to work" was originally a socialist slogan associated with trade unionism, coined early in the 1800s. Opponents of compulsory union membership appear to have chosen the phrase "right to work" because it reflected what they hoped to portray as a fight between traditional American individualism and the growing power of organized labor. Especially in the South, where union-organizing seemed a particular threat, conservative politicians saw right-to-work as a means by which the political power of unions could be severely curtailed, if not eliminated, at the state level.
Right-to-work statutes attacked the problem by outlawing several variations in union membership arrangements: the "closed shop," in which employers hired only union members; the "union shop," in which workers must join the union within a certain period of time after being hired; and all other agreements that required workers to maintain union membership in order to keep their jobs. This opposition to unions was couched in arguments about the need to curtail the power of "labor czars" and the "unjust, undemocratic institution" of the union shop.
Virginia's right-to-work law initially faced several real-world limitations. In areas with strong rural representation or with weak unions, organized labor faced increasing hostility from public officials. Conversely, in industrial cities like Norfolk and Richmond, where elected officials could count on the political strength of organized labor, right-to-work amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist to union shops. While right-to-work was often honored more in word than in deed, a far greater threat to organized labor was developing in Washington, D.C. There, a conservative Republican Congress sought to curtail severely the power of unions while striking a major blow against communist influence in the labor movement
U.S. president Harry S. Truman kept his promise to veto Taft-Hartley, but the tide of anticommunist, antiunion sentiment was too strong, and Congress overrode Truman's veto. In Virginia, Taft-Hartley complemented the state's ban on union shops in intrastate commerce with a federal ban on union shops in interstate commerce. Now all of Virginia's industries would have to provide workers with the "industrial democracy" of right-to-work.
The Postwar Era
By then, however, the industrial scales had begun to tip away from Virginia. For most of the postwar period, Virginia's largest industrial employer was the textile industry. Like other employers, including apparel, tobacco, and mining, its fortunes rose and fell with the economy as the century drew to a close. And, like those others, textile manufacturing offered declining prospects for work. As the factories closed, industrial jobs ended, and union membership declined. By the end of the century it had reached an all-time low of only 5.6 percent of the work force and was expected to continue to fall.
For Virginians, far greater opportunities existed in the white-collar world of the public and private sectors. Employment statistics covering the last three decades of the twentieth century are revealing. Industrial work (as a percentage of total employment) fell to less than 10 percent of all jobs, a decline of roughly 50 percent. During the same period, the service sector nearly doubled in size, accounting for 32 percent of all jobs. Retail and government-related jobs also outpaced manufacturing. Perhaps most revealing is that, at the turn of the twenty-first century, public sector workers had a union membership rate nearly five times that of those in the private sector.
For generations, Virginians toiled in factories, shipyards, mills, assembly plants, and the various trades that keep the commonwealth running. Rarely militant, sometimes outspoken, and always independent, their individualism and pride kept them apart as often as it brought them together. Caught between their beliefs in the freedom of "right-to-work" and the sense of camaraderie and mutual support gained from union membership, and badgered by anticompany unions and antiunion companies, Virginia's workers juggled often conflicting loyalties while trying to maintain their sense of independence. Reflecting on his lost job in the wake of a factory closing, one eighteen-year tobacco factory veteran summed up not only his personal feelings but also, in many ways, southern workers' attitudes toward the world of labor. "They paid me for every hour I worked," he said. "They don't owe me a thing."
June 1913 - The Virginia Federation of Labor, Virginia's centralized union organization body, first permits black delegates, representing Norfolk's shipbuilding trades, to attend its state convention in Alexandria.
1918 - Inspired by the patriotism of World War I, black workers march with whites in Richmond's big Labor Day parade.
1920 - Women in Virginia account for 50 percent of all textile workers, 90 percent of all clothing workers, more than 80 percent of tobacco workers, and 45 percent of paper manufacturing and printing workers.
1931 - As a result of the Great Depression, Virginia's industrial output falls 17 percent, industrial employment plummets 14 percent, industrial wages drop by almost one-third, and statewide unemployment reaches nearly 150,000.
June 1933 - The U.S. Congress passes, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs, the National Industrial Recovery Act, which guarantees workers' right to organize and engage in collective bargaining, backed by the authority of the federal government.
1947 - The U.S. Congress passes the Taft-Hartley Act, which bans closed and union shops under federal law as "unfair labor practices," and prohibits unions from engaging in supportive, secondary boycotts.
January 21, 1947 - Governor William M. Tuck signs the right-to-work bill into law, curtailing the power of labor unions in Virginia.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Love, R. Labor in Virginia during the Twentieth Century. (2015, October 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Labor_in_Virginia_During_the_Twentieth_Century.
- MLA Citation:
Love, Richard. "Labor in Virginia during the Twentieth Century." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 27 Oct. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 10, 2010 | Last modified: October 27, 2015