WITH this April afternoon fresh in our memories it had not come as a great surprise when the strike was called one Monday in September and pickets were stationed beside the closed gates of all our mills. Early in the morning, before I went to my classes to resume the hours of irregular French verbs and the parsing of sentences, I rushed about to get my news. Three o’clock could not come too soon. All day long the U.P. was bombarding my home with wires which my mother received and reported on when I rushed in from school.
Already the Danville Bee was alarming with headlines and its columns bewildering in the number of calamitous rumors and predictions. Going first to the president and then to the Union headquarters at the Hotel Burton, I tried to separate fact from fiction.
Mr. Fitzgerald was visibly upset and spoke less distinctly than ever. I could not understand much of what he said and his deafness, of course, kept him from understanding me. But his prepared statement epitomized all that he wished to say.
“For forty-seven years our company has operated continuously with mutual trust and confidence between employer and employee. The responsibility for this strike and all that it involves upon our employees as well as our community rests upon those who have called it.”
Radicalism was fashionable among youths just out of college and I suppose I wanted to believe that the man was deliberately lying; but I felt certain that he was sincere. I tried to persuade myself that I was receiving his defense because I was awed by his position, as a petty bourgeois might very well be. Could it be that I ha no mind of my own? Was it true that I accepted people’s creeds too readily and did not find out what was what for myself? Suddenly I remember how mad I ha been at a family gathering when a cousin had said to me, “You listen to people just because they are successful. You are liking Russian books now because your goddess, Miss Glasgow, likes them. Next year it will be some other person you’re hanging on to. Don’t you ever do any thinking for yourself?”
Was there any truth in what my cousin had said?
Certainly, at least, I would do well in this clash between labor and capital to do my own thinking without being swayed by pretty speeches of either party Because Mr. Fitzgerald, as an executive, had Utopian ideas for his Industrial Democracy and because, as a citizen, he gave to every beggar at h is door, I need not believe too quickly that thousands of workers ha left their tasks so Mr. Gorman could draw a salary… That was what I thought when I went in the Hotel Burton lobby where the small visitor and his cohorts were as garrulous as Mr. Fitzgerald was reserved. Everybody was talking. A reporter could fill his paper’s columns with ease. The press representative for the Union was eloquent.
“The mill company owns the stores in the Village,” the amicable cigar-chewer fired away. “The mill company owns the houses. After collections are made, there’s hardly anything left in the worker’s envelope when pay day comes. In one house four girls sleep in one bed; they make $9.60 a week and pay $6 for boar. Would you and I like that? No! And neither do four thousand workers!”
The chief’s eyes flashed as he interrupted his assistant. Francis J. Gorman was an energetic, jovial, crafty little man who did not mince his words. He could argue forcefully and it might bee be that our citizens would have condemned him a shade less severely if they ever talked to him face-to-face. All they knew about him was what they read in the Danville Register and Bee and those agencies of enlightenment were not among his admirers. It was the organizer’s contention that our press was slightly biased; personally, he would not have given to volumes of our Willie Shands Meacham or G. Tetley for one paragraph of Heywood Broun.
“If this strike is lost in Danville,” he said, pausing dramatically while we might weigh his words, “workers may as well stop organizing below the Mason and Dixie line. If we lose here, we lose everywhere. This is the gateway to the South. We cannot lose, I tell you, we cannot lose! I know we have a har fight ahead of us. Your papers are owned by a mill lover, and you’ll pump us for news, and then you’ll distort the facts—”
“Leave that ‘you’ business out when addressing the local press, Mr. Gorman,” I said quite seriously. “Though I was born and raised her, I am not recognized by the Danville Register and Bee. They don’t admire me much more than they admire you. You know how much that is.”
“I apologize most humbly,” he said, while everybody laughed at his dismay. “Then maybe, you’ll give your papers some facts. This is supposed to be a free country and yet a company dismisses its employees merely because they join a union—”
“The Company says the only Union members they’ve thrown out were those who neglected their jobs in the mills by talking Union during work hours, soliciting members—”
“Of course, you and I know better. The lawful right to join a union has been unlawfully denied. If they’ll give us a chance, we’ll show that a unionized mill will make things better for employers as much as for employees. But Fitzgerald says he’ll not even speak to a representative of the United Textile Workers.”
It seemed to me that most of my conferences with labor leaders and mill executives were much alike. Mr. Fitzgerald did not like Mr. Gorman and Mr. Gorman did not like Mr. Fitzgerald. How they could ever cooperate in any way, how they could sit together at a table of peace was more than I could imagine. From the very outset of this siege efforts at conciliation were in vain. The first week Washington had rushed agents to the scene. Mr. Gorman was verbose but Mr. Fitzgerald said simply, “Why come to conciliate? There’s nothing to conciliate.” It was evident that the best of escorts could not get a union leader into the executive office of our mills. It would take more than Herbert Hoover to make Harry Fitzgerald shake hands with William Green or his ambassador, Francis J. Gorman.
The only government services desired at this time were local and not Federal. The services of policemen were more valuable, it seemed, than all the Department of Labor en masse. If the government wanted to send the army—well, that would be different. Already there were pleas for the Law. Trucks of cotton from North Carolina tried to enter the Village. “Get the hell back, you goddam Tarheel strike-breakers!” cried the pickets and more than one driver shifted his gears in reverse.
An unpopular overseer tried to enter the mills with a group of non-Union works, including several Negroes; the mission was to save some goods that were in process in the bleachery.
“We got our orders and ain’t nobody gonna pass this here gate,” said a picket.
“Orders from who?” demanded the official, trying to conceal his rage at being ordered by his inferiors.
“Who you think we get our orders from?” answered the picket who, like so many others, was drunk with power.
The superintendent beckoned to the workers to follow but they hung back timidly. The Negroes were especially reluctant to press their entrance, for they were between the devils on both sides: they were not allowed to work an yet, as “niggers” among “poor whites” they were looked down upon and not welcomed to this Union which had come to upset the bare existence which gave them at least a measure of peace, if little else.
This was one of the incidents which led to talk of an injunction to keep pickets from the Company’s gates. Already there was an appeal to John Garland Pollard, a white-haired old gentleman who had been raised from a professorial chair at William and Mary to the governor’s chair in Richmond. This entreaty led to further talk of mediation.
“I hereby offer to appoint a committee of mediation,” wired the governor. Immediately a reply went back to the prim gray house in Capitol Park. Harry Fitzgerald was not perturbed by the governors: “We believe that if you knew the mill situation and the history of our company you would realize that so far as our company and its employees are concerned there is absolutely nothing to mediate.”