July 12 Dangers of Organizing in the South in 1937

July 12, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1937.

That was the day newspapers throughout the South announced the return of Ida Sledge to Tupelo, Mississippi.

The ILGWU organizer had been leading unionization efforts at three area mills.

Twice she was driven out.

Prominent businessmen “invited” her to leave town just days earlier, warning her not to return under threat of violence.

Earlier that spring, workers held a sit-down strike at the Tupelo Cotton Mill.

They demanded higher wages and shorter hours in the town’s first labor action ever.

The mill’s stockholders responded by voting to liquidate.

Sledge immediately filed charges with the NLRB against the mills for violating the Wagner Act.

Now, newspapers reported a tense atmosphere in Tupelo with Sledge’s return.

She stated, “I don’t mean to cause any trouble.

I intend to organize the garment workers and don’t propose to be scared away.”

The citizens committee soon declared victory, claiming they had organized 1000 workers at five plants into ‘independent,’ ‘home’ unions.

Sledge condemned these as company unions.

By the end of the month, Democratic Representative of Mississippi, John Rankin thundered, “these representatives of the so-called Labor Relations Board boasted they were going to close every factory in the city before they quit and that when they got through with it, there would be no Tupelo left.”

The following spring, local organizer Jimmy Cox was taken outside of town and flogged by 15 men. Sledge was again threatened and driven away permanently.

The mill owners finally relented in August as the NLRB trial loomed.

They disbanded their company unions, reinstated fired workers with back pay and posted notices they would not interfere with organizing efforts.

But the ILGWU never gained much from their organizing efforts.

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