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In New Economy, Textile Workers Hang by a Thread

September 05, 2004|Mike Davis | Mike Davis teaches history at UC Irvine and is the author of "Dead Cities: And Other Tales" and the forthcoming "Planet of Slums," among other books. This piece first appeared on

On Sept. 1, 1934, millions of cotton spindles stopped spinning. Across the South, mill whistles blew but workers didn't come to work. The most exploited industrial workers in the United States -- the "lint heads" of the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama -- were on strike.

As mill owners appealed frantically for injunctions, tear gas and the National Guard, a vast, peaceful army of textile workers demolished the image of Southern labor as culturally servile and unorganizable. With voices honed to spare beauty in the choirs of mountain Baptist churches, they sang powerful hymns of solidarity.

And they were robustly answered (often in Portuguese, Italian or French) by the mill workers of New England who joined what became the first industrywide general strike of the 1930s. It was quickly and violently suppressed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, more concerned about appeasing the "lords of the loom" than liberating their slaves, cajoled the national textile union to call off the strike -- but not before thousands had been beaten, tear-gassed and arrested. Thirteen workers, mostly in the South, were shot dead.

Now, 70 years later, with only a handful of moist-eyed veterans left to remember the heroism and heartbreak of the Great Textile Strike, the cotton spindles in Dixie have again stopped spinning. But this time they've stopped forever. The American textile and clothing industries are dying. Since the inauguration of George W. Bush, 350,000 textile jobs -- almost a third of the total -- have been lost. And 400,000 more jobs are expected to disappear by the end of the decade.

Textile manufacture in the South, today as in 1934, is largely a monoculture, and as mills close, towns die with them. Already too many Main Streets are populated only by thrift stores, drug counseling services and military recruiters. The decline of the clothing industry is likewise eroding the survival economy of recent Latino and Asian immigrants in the tenement districts of downtown Los Angeles, New York and Miami. Soon even sweatshops will be remembered with nostalgia.

Thus, another segment of the American industrial working class is being fast-forwarded to that brave new world that Kurt Vonnegut predicted with such eerie prescience in his 1952 novel, "Player Piano": a society of discarded laborers whose only option is enlistment in the imperial legions fighting wars for oil and other resources on distant frontiers.

This almost invisible tragedy -- who talks about plant closures on Fox News or CNBC?-- is part of a larger global jobs catastrophe that follows in the wake of trade liberalization. The final quota barriers protecting American textile and garment jobs will be dismantled next January. Since China's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, its soft exports to the United States have doubled, and the Financial Times predicts that China will grab the greater share of the global market in a rapid restructuring that will eliminate millions of jobs worldwide.

China's chief comparative advantage, as the AFL-CIO argued last March in a petition asking the U.S. trade representative to promote the rights of Chinese factory labor, emerges from the government's "unremitting repression of workers' rights" and the ruthless exploitation of an estimated 100 million rural migrants. Indeed, a recent article in Monthly Review says that the level of economic inequality in China, once among the lowest in the world, has now risen to "near Brazilian and South African levels." The Bush administration, not surprisingly, rejected the AFL-CIO appeal to enforce the (nonbinding) core covenants of the International Labor Organization; nor can labor expect much more solidarity from a Democratic Party that prides itself on NAFTA and the WTO. Certainly, John Edwards may strike some heroic poses outside shuttered textile plants in his home state of North Carolina, but that doesn't mean, to quote an absurd campaign slogan, "help is on the way." The dominant party line, as argued on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times by William Gould IV (President Clinton's chairman of the National Labor Relations Board), is instead to "keep labor standards out of trade agreements." In the eyes of most leading Democrats, the epochal achievement of the Clinton years was bringing the wealth and glamour of the "New Economy" into the party. No chance then that a Kerry-Edwards White House would risk biotech's intellectual property rights or Hollywood's lucrative royalties in the new capitalist China for the sake of some "lint heads" in Georgia or undocumented immigrants in Los Angeles.

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