September 2011

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77 Years After Bloody Mill Strike, Remembering the Slain

The roof of the Chiquola Mill in rural Honea Path, S.C., has almost collapsed. The once-sturdy fa├žade is slowly falling apart, littering the unkempt grounds with chunks of brick and mortar. Soon the old textile facility, which was shuttered in the 1980s, will be completely torn down.

But what some residents overlook as a rotted relic was the site of a heated worker strike September 6, 1934, when a standoff pitting a group of police and deputized citizens against 300 striking mill workers turned fatal.

After a fitful skirmish, six workers were shot dead and many more were wounded. A seventh was shot in the back and—as local legend has it—crawled to his home in the nearby mill village and collapsed on his porch, his final words to his wife being, "They died for the rights of the working man."

"Bloody Thursday," as it became known, was no isolated incident. The textile strikes of that year saw 400,000 workers from the South, New England and the Mid-Atlantic walk off the job for 22 days to demand better wages and working conditions.

Charlotte, N.C., Local 379 member Nick Brown works in the local's satellite office 115 miles away in Greenville, S.C. The 51-year-old assistant business manager and organizer is studiously familiar with the history of the strike and massacre at the Chiquola Mill, and how its aftermath has been either ignored or championed by area residents—depending on where their sympathies lie.

"When they tear the mill down, a part of our labor history is also going to be ripped away, and people will forget what once happened here," Brown said.

That's why he organized a service project in April to nearby Dogwood Park in Honea Path, where a modest but dignified stone memorial listing the names of the slain strikers sits in a quiet, meditative area of the park. Etched across the top are those solemn words: "They died for the rights of the working man."

Brown was joined by Local 379 Business Manager Bob Krebs; Guy DePasquale, executive director of the Local 379 Historical Society; John Murphy, lead organizer for many local unions in the South; as well as local activists and various family members. Many of the volunteers traveled about three hours south from Charlotte, N.C.—the local's charter city. The volunteers spent hours pressure washing the stone, trimming hedges around the site and spreading new mulch in the area.

Afterward, the volunteers walked to the nearby mill site where the event unfolded 77 years ago this month. Though only about a quarter of the structure remains, Brown said he always feels a deep sense of reverence when he sees the Chiquola Mill, which he's visited several times over the past few years.

"Before an organizing blitz in the area in 2008," he said, "I brought all the IBEW activists out to see it. Starting there brought us a spirit of unity and strength. It reminded us that we're doing what we're doing for a good reason. It gave us more passion and sense of purpose for that week."

The Local 379 volunteers took photos and video of the April cleanup and reported back to members at the next local union meeting. Local leaders also made a presentation to the state's AFL-CIO executive board. DePasquale said events like Bloody Thursday contributed to shaping life in modern-day America's workplaces.

"It's critical that people from the area and beyond understand," DePasquale said, "that the violence from the Chiquola incident would help inspire the passage of the Wagner Act a year later"—formally known as the National Labor Relations Act, which dramatically strengthened workers' rights on the job. "It also prompted President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938," which established a national minimum wage and outlawed many forms of child labor.

Brown said efforts like the monument cleanup help members understand and preserve union history. "We need to talk about the challenges of the movement and the sacrifices that people made to move forward. If we don't talk about it, the other side defines us. The people at the Chiquola Mill—these were not bad people. These were working people."

Krebs, the business manager, said the volunteers may make the cleanup effort an annual event. "It's one thing to go and fix up a monument, but the history behind it is what really counts. These guys put their lives on the line and paid the ultimate price. Some folks today don't realize just how bad people back then had it, and how hard they had to struggle. But you see something like this, and it hits home."

The aftermath of the national textile strike in 1934 was a blow to unionism in the South. Union density in South Carolina, which has right-to-work laws on the books, remains below 5 percent.

Still, Brown and his colleagues remain undeterred.

"There are a lot of people who would love to see a growth of the movement in the area—we just run up on challenges to get a lot of things moving forward. There are still people here who are afraid to organize, people who are told that if they talk union they'll lose their jobs."

"John F. Kennedy said, 'Any dangerous spot is tenable if brave men will make it so,'" Brown said. "This summarizes to me the willingness of the labor movement to continue defending the rights of working people from the very beginning. And seemingly small gestures—even helping maintain a memorial—can carry a lot of meaning.

"The challenge isn't over by a long shot," he said. "It goes on."

Members of Charlotte, N.C., Local 379, alongside family members, spruced up a memorial honoring striking textile workers who were killed September 6, 1934.

The stone commemorating the slain strikers