Norma Rae was a lie.
Maybe lie is too strong. And maybe that reference is a bit dated. But still, watching the movie coming up on 40 years later, the message that it wants to sit with you as the credits roll feels more like a half-truth; a prettier lie, then. A piece without a realistic end—there’s not much money to be made in a film with a climax of a mill closing up shop. But Norma Rae exists as a pop-culture historical moment nonetheless, one preserved by the United States Library of Congress in 2011.
If you’ve seen the film, you remember one thing, it’s the ending. It’s Sally Field standing atop a table with her “UNION” sign while the deafening looms on the floor are switched off one-by-one in a final, victorious show of support. The union wins the vote by a narrow margin, and Norma ends her activist-organizer relationship with Reuben on a courteous and respectful note.
The ending of Norma Rae is tidy, convenient, and the incomplete conclusion to a story that actually happened in North Carolina, in real life, one that is neither tidy or convenient, but all the more necessary to hear.
Crystal Lee Sutton was born to Albert and Odell Pulley in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina in 1941, according to the book Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance. Written by New York Times editor Henry Leifermann, it was published in 1975 and turned into the feature film four years later; if you’re looking for a day-in-the-life version of events of what it really meant to be a millworker and young woman in the Old South, pick up a copy.
Sutton’s family moved mill towns when she was 14 years old, going from Roanoke Rapids to Burlington in August 1955. Two years later, Crystal Lee was given her first mill job, working the second shift (4 p.m. to midnight) at Haw River, the same mill her parents were working in. She’d get home from school, change clothes, and go straight to work. Even at that young age, Sutton was never ashamed of what she was, as illustrated by a conversation she had with a fellow employee who was also the mother of one of her classmates:
“When she found that I went to school with her son, she asked me to please not say anything that she worked at the mill. She didn’t want any of her son’s friends to know it. I told her I wouldn’t say anything. But I told her I wasn’t ashamed of my parents being cotton-mill workers.”
Before Crystal Lee had even graduated high school, her mother was subject to “coughing and choking spells.” Lung issues were extremely common among mill workers; just as common were town doctors on the mill payrolls who never informed the workers just how much long-term damage eight hours of standing in cotton and dust debris would do. In the movie, her mother’s lung disease was replaced with a hearing issue brought on by the roaring machines.
Fresh out of high school with few options, Sutton, then married to a man named Junior, was forced to accept a job as a stop-checker at nearby Glen Raven Mills. This development is important because what a stop-checker did was to manually walk around and time the weavers to see which mill hands weren’t producing at a fast enough clip for the mill managers, who would then either reprimand or fire the slower workers. Sutton hated the job. It made her feel like a weapon of the company, one aimed at the poor people inside it and not at material production.
After bouncing around a couple different mill and waitress jobs, and after she had married and moved her three children in with her new husband Cookie Jordan, Sutton ended up back in Roanoke Rapids, working at the mill owned and run by JP Stevens, the one the mill in Norma Rae was based off of.
The dramatic high points of the movie are mostly true. Sutton was one of the first white people to take an interest in the union when it came through town. She established a professional relationship with union organizer Eli Zivkovich after convincing him she wasn’t a mole for the mill. And, dramatically, she defied her bosses by copying down an internal company letter posted on the bulletin boards in the break rooms. The letter was an attempt to racially divide the newly integrated workforce by making undecided white workers believe that the union was solely the cause of the African-American workers. Sutton had the police called on her, she stood tall above the floor with her “UNION” sign, and she was physically pulled away from the mill’s front gate and stuffed into the back of a police car by two male officers.
The year she was fired, 1974, the union won a representation election. It would be another six years before they signed a contract, but come 1977, the Stevens mill was ordered to reinstate roughly 300 workers, including Sutton, and pay out $1.3 million in lost wages. (Sutton only went back for two days, in a performative display of union strength.) Soon after the book’s publication, the film rights were purchased, and by 1979 Norma Rae was in theaters. Alongside it, Sutton used the newfound publicity to push for the unionization of the Stevens mill. Like every other woman that led labor movements in the South, she was cast as a harlot, an outcast, a race-mingler, a whore, a dimwit—a woman who didn’t know her place; through it all, she persisted. (Check out Joey Ann Fink’s “The Many Norma Raes” if you want to know more about feminist labor movements in the South.)
I’m telling you Norma Rae’s success story because in a moment, I’m going to tell you a similar story, one of a battle that was hard-fought over the course of four generations by Kannapolis, China Grove, and Concord mill hands, one fought largely by women just like her. I’m telling you the story of their time with Cannon Mills because it’s the one I know best, because it’s the story of the towns I grew up in, but also because it’s a story that is not unique. The tales of Sutton and Cannon are two in the same, replications in a series of reactions to the increasing globalization and consolidation of American business, both with their own local twists. The towns that once clothed America, like the ones that kept their lights on, were gutted by the people that claimed to provide them the only option they had for halfway decent lives, all while grinding down what little they provided until, with a stomach-turning snap, there was no more.
Once we’ve finished walking through the history of Kannapolis, we’ll circle back to Norma Rae. If you’re paying attention, you’ll know how her story ends long before you hear from her again.
The education you receive on labor unions in the mill towns of North Carolina, or at least the one I received growing up in the 1990s and early aughts, has been the same one almost uniformly taught since the state’s first mill cranked its looms in 1813.
The union was not our people. They were outsiders. Carpet-baggers. Rabble-rousers. Sent in by Northern agitators aiming to sweep up the lazy and ungrateful among the townspeople, all in hopes of bringing an end to a certain way of life. Other industries, like coal, might have allowed the unions to weasel their way in, but textiles, Southern textiles, was not coal; it was a family business, or at least that’s how it marketed itself to the people it swept in.
From nearly the moment the Civil War ended, it was clear the direction the Tar Heel State was headed: What tobacco had been to eastern North Carolina, textiles would be in the Piedmont. Come the latter half of the century, mills and accompanying mill towns started popping up in droves across the state. Textile mill jobs were advertised as a reliable source of money for the state’s low-income citizens, most of them formerly farmers either plodding in from the fields of eastern North Carolina or rolling down from the mountains.
James Cannon bought the land that would later become Kannapolis and opened his first mill, a humble 4,000-spindle operation, in 1888. Cannon, along with his brother David, John and William Odell, and a group of northern businessmen invested the money and drew up the papers for the Cannon Manufacturing Company. The location was prime—close to both cotton fields and the Richmond and Danville railroads, and near the historic small town of Salisbury, which offered a population of local farmers struggling to get by in the wake of a depressed farming economy. The nearby communities of Landis and China Grove, my hometown, also provided families and workers, though the Linn-Corriher Mill employed a decent chunk of their population.
The new mill town was initially known as Cannon-apolis or Cannapolis; the mill town in neighboring Concord was named Cannonville. The name was officially changed to Kannapolis after J.W. referred to it as such in a letter to the Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners, per Timothy Vanderburg’s Cannon Mills and Kannapolis: Persistent Paternalism in a Textile Town. (The story is also backed up in a Dale Earnhardt biography. No. 3 was born and lived in Kannapolis; he has a statue there, now.)
Cannon also scooped up 1,009 acres of Rowan and Cabarrus County land, 808 of which would house Cannon’s latest mill. That mill, Cannon Manufacturing, opened in 1906; within six years, it was among the world’s leaders in sheet and towel production. By the time Cannon passed away in 1921, his single Kannapolis operation had transformed into a sprawling campus that was 165,000 spindles deep, not counting the over 400,000 other spindles he owned at various plants across the South. At the time, the operations weren’t all housed under a single company. Instead, Cannon amassed a collection of individual mills and towns that he purchased with his newfound fortune. It wasn’t until his son came along in 1928 that Cannon Mills Co. was formed and all the mills came under a single umbrella.
Cannon Mills dominated the growing communities in Rowan and Cabarrus County from the turn of the century, and J.W. soon found himself building more than iconic brick factories and smokestacks. In buying up the land and bringing more people to the area—Salisbury, despite its long history in the state, was still relatively small—Cannon ensured that his stature in relation to the locals would be more than just employer.
The Cannon family funded construction for a lavish YMCA, multiple churches, a hospital, both police and fire departments, water treatment and sewer facilities, and a bustling town square, which would turn into a downtown area that remained under the financial control of whoever owned the mill.
Paternalism was welded to the southern industrialists’s entire business ethos; Cannon and the rest of the South’s textile men believed that society would flourish under the guiding hand of a ruling class of private businessmen. While they built and provided towns and amenities for their workers, they also created lasting financial dependency and a steady supply of labor. Young, institutionalized labor, at that.
The schools Cannon built—Melver School in 1907; Woodrow Wilson School in 1917—did indeed educate the children, but they also were used by Cannon to instill his own anti-labor, pro-individualistic ideology. The Cannon mill managers would often head over to a local school and collect children to work the spindles and looms if they were dealing with a worker shortage or union strike. The construction of the churches was also handled by the company—my childhood church, First Baptist of Kannapolis, went up in 1908, and in order to keep a hold on the workforce/congregation, the company also paid the pastors initially. The YMCA claimed to be the biggest in the nation, climbing to 10,000 members within a decade of its opening.
Again, this all came with a not-so-hidden cost: near-complete control of civil society by a single individual. In the face of a growing labor movement and criticism that his mills vastly underpaid their workers, Cannon and the other southern owners pointed to the amenities and infrastructure they provided; if the cries rose to reach their offices, they would tap the teachers and pastors to tamp it down. Of course, numbers, unlike schmucks on a payroll, don’t lie. In 1920, the national average wage for textile workers sat at 48 cents, and Cannon paid his just 28 cents, per Vanderburg. He would claim that the cost of living was lower in the South, a claim proved wrong by the National Industrial Conference Board’s 1919 review of the cost of living in mill towns in both the North and South.
According to Vanderburg, surrounding labor victories in Charlotte and South Carolina led the United Textile Workers to believe the time was right for a Cannon union effort. The Cannon workers, growing tired of the constant stretch-outs—a mill labor term for increasing your work hours or work load without being paid for the extra work—turned to the UTW organizers sweeping through Cabarrus County in 1919. This begun an 80-year effort that would encompass numerous unions and the same, frustrating model for defeat.
Unionizers were shut out from the mills initially, but the UTW, feeling confident after a powerful 1919 national convention and noting the weak economy of late 1920, made their push.
In early 1921, James Cannon, ailing from heart trouble, passed control of the company over to his son, Charles, who instantly demonstrated that the mill’s stance on unions would not be budging an inch under new ownership. The younger Cannon cut wages and shortened the work week to three days in response to a sharp dip in sales—the textile market took a hit in the second half of 1920, after the government canceled multiple contracts with the major companies and flooded the market. Seeing an opening, the Kannapolis UTW chapter gave Charles a letter on Feb. 23, 1921, demanding a 20-percent pay increase, end of union discrimination, and reinstatement of the fired union members. James, monitoring the situation, gave the following advice to Charles, per Vanderburg.
I hope none of the mills effect any compromise whatever. Just take back the help that want to work and are willing to work, and let the agitators go. I hope you will watch carefully and confer with others how important it is to weed out certain operators that are always causing trouble.
Governor Cameron Morrison, who likely won his election thanks to fixing by the Simmons political machine, spoke in Concord. That he spoke at all was against James’s wishes, but he said little of consequence. The governor reminded the town that organizing is technically legal, then reminded the workers that he’d gladly send in the state police if they got too loud. In June of that year, strikes were called in the towns of Concord and Kannapolis. Charles did not entertain a vote or even listen to their demands. Instead, Cannon waited out the 6,000 striking workers for two months before he, with the help of the Concord mayor, called in the state militia to forcibly resume mill operations.
As the workers, broke and hungry as the UTW’s support funds ran dry by August, staggered back to mills, Cannon followed through on his old man’s advice. He fired the union supporters and evicted them from their homes immediately, according to Knocking On Labor’s Door.
For decades, both Cannon’s response and the financial inability of the UTW to take care of the townspeople stuck with older millworkers, and was implanted in the brains of their children and grandchildren. As the Great Depression took its toll—Cannon actually made a profit during the first several years, unlike most mills—another failed union effort came and went in 1929. Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act, after a strong fight in the Senate, in 1933, and the law instituted minimum wage and work hour caps for the country’s operating industries Similarly, North Carolina governor O. Max Gardner, who Morrison likely cheated out of the governorship in 1920, would go on to bring the state’s labor codes into the 20th Century, passing the first North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act; the law established a minimum employment age, and even raised the corporate tax rate. (Gardner also got back at Morrison and the Simmons machine by bringing in the Brookings Institution to streamline the government, removing power from local political machines and granting more to the governor and the General Assembly, per Rob Christensen’s Paradox of Tar Heel Politics.)
Of course, Gardner was quick to lean on the Cannons when the state couldn’t pay $2.5 million in short-term bonds to a New York bank. Charles, who used the same bank for Cannon Mills, met with bank executives the day after they rejected North Carolina’s plea for an extension and threatened to pay it himself if they didn’t comply; the bank caved and Charles was granted a “resolution of appreciation” in February of 1932 by the North Carolina General Assembly. When Gardner was finished being governor, he went to work in D.C. as a lawyer and lobbyist for none other the textile industrialists.
Cannon kept quashing labor movements, this time with a fearsome and battle-hardened efficiency. When a general strike was announced for Labor Day 1934 to protest the supposedly illegal union-busting practices that were still routine among business leaders, Cannon responded by tapping the local police department—you remember, the one his father built—to close the roads and turn the 500 picketers back to Concord and Charlotte.
The ongoing union-busting efforts of Cannon and the southern mill owners, as well as northern factory heads, resulted in Congress passing the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, providing the idealistic NIRA some federal bite. It also guaranteed, as much as any piece of paper could, workers the right to organize.
Union presidents representing the nation’s industrial workers, including UTW’s, eventually grew tired of stagnating organizing efforts and craft worker favoritism. A sect of the nationwide American Federation of Labor, or AFL, believed that only skilled workers, like carpenters, deserved union protection because they possessed a specific skill; in their hierarchy, jobs like those were different from and superior to working as a loom fixer. The UTW joined seven other unions in breaking from the AFL, forming the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO. (The two factions have since made nice, merging in 1955.)
Charles combatted future union efforts foisted by the remnant of the UTW, the Textile Workers Organizing Committee, by firing unionists attempting to spark a labor movement in 1937; after they filed a complaint, Charles paid them off for $3,000 apiece.
Cannon also knew when to take a page out of James’s book and play to his audience—he added what he dubbed “G.I. town,” building 150 houses for returning World War II veterans, charging just $5 in rent every two weeks. In addition to their ability to stamp out labor movements as soon as they started, the Cannon family remained the rulers of Kannapolis by way of their commitment, for a while, to investing part of their wealth back into the community and workforce that made that wealth possible.
Every time unionists came to town, the Cannon managers painted them as outsiders and unruly communists. Many were, and either way their outsider status was to their detriment in an intensely insular southern society. Union votes were a choice between two generalized, not-quite-right options: the people could trust in the organizations that went broke and left them defenseless in 1921, or they could trust the businessman who kept the state’s banks afloat in the Great Depression. They voted according to what they perceived to be their best interest every time.
His antagonistic nature toward the unions was soon echoed by the state and national legislators he buddied up with. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act passed, allowing states to outlaw “closed shops,” or places of employment that required union membership to work. In North Carolina, after 1955 attempt by the Teamsters Union to organize Charlotte’s police department, the Democrat-heavy General Assembly passed General Statute 95-98—the law, which still stands to this day as a lasting vestige of the Jim Crow era, outlaws collective bargaining and striking by public employees.
The generosity of and dependency upon the Cannon family combined to let the company get away with shafting even their non-union workers. According to the excellent 2004 documentary Where Do You Stand, managers doubled the workloads of workers once they hit their late 50s, forcing them into early retirement and thus preventing them from collecting full benefits—the very benefits that the company pointed to in its PR campaigns against the union. This was the mirage of the trade-off the older generation would point out to the young workers. The constant failure to unionize was grounded in workers’s belief that the Cannon family had been good to the town out of the kindness of his heart and not financial interest.
If those workers were to cross or question Charles or the rules enforced by the mill managers, or attempt to bargain for a crumb of what had become an enormous financial pie, as the workers of a Thomasville branch did during World War II, the man who was so full of patriotic spirit and civic goodwill that he built G.I. Town disappeared. In his place was a seasoned union-buster who was fine with withholding pay from workers for 17 months before freezing them out completely.
The same year Cannon built his town for veterans, just 20 percent of the textile industry—80 percent of which operated in the South—had successfully unionized. Even and especially given all that followed, James and Charles had won.
Every town had a Norma Rae, they just didn’t all come in the same package.
Consider, for a moment, the fact that all of those failed unionization attempts at Cannon Mills were made by and on behalf of a poor, white-only working class. The free-flowing stream of anti-communist propaganda used by the right-to-work crowd in the 1950s was effective in some ways, but the people working in North Carolina’s textile mills were not notably divided. The division that defined Southern politics and culture was a racial one, and at Cannon Mills it cleaved black workers out entirely.
The African-American citizens in and around the Concord and Kannapolis area, like those in the rest of the South, were extremely limited in their options. There was little way around this, though the folks in North Carolina did their best to subvert the tight grip of Jim Crow. Among those leading the charge, Warren Coleman stood tall.
According to the 1972 book The Noble Experiment of Warren Coleman, Coleman was born a slave in 1849 and slowly rose through the black business class of Concord by opening and operating a number of stores. He sold horse buggies at one point and later owned his own general store, which was followed by a barber and candy shop.
Coleman was a proponent of black citizens being able to have options for work and worked hard to secure trains for them to attend the State Fair in Raleigh in and joined with 22 other men to found the Colored Industrial Association in 1879. But committees and fair days weren’t enough; Coleman wanted money in the pockets of his people.
After writing an 1897 letter requesting a $1,000 investment from Washington Duke, the white American Tobacco baron and Duke University namesake, Coleman led group of black businessmen mostly based out of Wilmington went in together on a plot of land in Concord—the idea was to operate a mill that was managed and staffed by African-Americans. With Duke’s funds and the statewide support from his fellow black businessmen, Coleman Manufacturing Company was born.
It took four years, but the mill was officially erected and opened in 1901, with brickmaker Richard B. Fitzgerald serving as the first president. Coleman’s was the first mill in United States history to be built, operated, and owned by a black citizens—that it existed at all at the time is a miracle and testament to their will to provide an employment option for their people that wasn’t low-paying field work. The mill employed 300 black workers and was chosen for inclusion in the 1900 Paris Exhibition for being the sole black-owned mill in the nation.
But the experiment of Coleman Manufacturing would be short-lived. The local insurance companies refused to offer Coleman a policy due to his race. While the mill hummed along during 1902 and 1903 after a shaky start, producing about 15 cotton bales’s worth of yarn per week, it was, for better or worse, Coleman’s baby.
On March 31, 1904, Coleman died at the age of 54. As he had led the efforts and kept the mill running almost single-handedly, Coleman’s death marked the end of his life’s greatest economic project. Come June 28, Benjamin Duke foreclosed on the mill for $10,000. For the next two years, the mill would sit there, unattended, a shadow of the potential progress Coleman and his group hoped to make. On Feb. 20, 1906, the Duke family sold the mill to J.L. Hartsell, who turned around and sold the mill 16 days later to none other than J.W. Cannon. The mill was then transformed into Plant No. 9, becoming the one thing Coleman hoped it would never be: a white-only workplace.
It would be 60 years before black people in Cabarrus County were welcomed back into the the Cannon family’s cotton mills. Until the passage of civil rights legislation, Cannon Mills only allowed black men to work the positions that paid the lowest wages and required the hardest labor. The homes for the town’s African-Americans were kept apart from those of the white mill workers; naturally, they were smaller, derelict, and lacked the few amenities the white workers possessed. And while their groceries and rent and clothing all ate out of their wages (wages being spent at Cannon-owned stores), their potential household income was cut in half, as black women were not allowed to work in the mills at all.
No, according to interviews in the PBS documentary Uprising in ‘35, the black women had to instead make money washing the clothes and looking after the children of the white mill workers—essentially the same tasks they had been confined to since the sun first rose over the American South.
The partial collapse of Jim Crow laws in the ‘60s was a breakthrough moment for the unions, even if they weren’t on board initially. The resulting influx of black workers took to the organizing effort with a gusto that had been depleted among white workers after repeated failures to overcome Cannon’s scorched-earth tactics. In 1962, after federal forces nudged the Cannon family and mill executives multiple times, the company finally began allowing the town’s male and female African-American population, which was roughly 18 percent of Kannapolis town population at the time, to join the workforce at-large.
But the town remained segregated, in part because of the state of the South at the time, but also because the Cannons still owned the 2,000-plus homes in the surrounding mill villages. According to Timothy Minchin’s “Black Activism, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry,” most other southern mill owners had sold the homes to the workers by this point.
As a result, the schools in Cabarrus County, around the Cannon mills, were unsurprisingly equally stubborn in their efforts to comply with U.S. law—only 18.5 percent of black students attended desegregated schools in 1966, meaning they would not meet HEW 441 requirements and would have funding cut. The same anti-union, anti-communist rhetoric that had dominated the prior decade continued, only now the mill-runners, school administrators, and union leaders could each, in their own ways, harness the divisive power of the culture’s innate racism. Every institution fought against the mixing of the races as hard as it could, right up until they realized how to use it to their benefit.
TWUA, for instance, operated segregated unions across the South, as was the case in the 1950s for Cannon union efforts—TWUA held meetings for its white members at the Concord Hotel, and the black members meeting was held at the Masonic Lodge. Rarely did they use their collective power to bargain on behalf of black workers, a trend that would stick with the union through the 1970s. This made it easier for the company to drive a stake into the heart of any union campaigns, as black workers at Cannon were twice as likely to support unionization efforts as their white counterparts. It wasn’t until the national TWUA branch published its “Recommendations for an Expanded Southern Organizing Progam” in 1970 that the full union focused its efforts on organizing the town’s black community.
But not everybody was waiting for the union to come around, and by 1970, an African-American woman and single mother named Daisy Crawford had just about had it with Cannon’s shit.
Crawford was a working-class visionary who saw through the obfuscation and cynical politicking to realize, before almost anyone else, that in order to make a sustainable change to the Cannon labor system, she would have to couple her fight for black worker’s rights with the union’s efforts. If Cannon workers were going to succeed in getting something more like what they deserved, they would have to do it as a multiracial coalition that fought for all workers, regardless of race.
Her efforts to organize would draw in help from across the state, including, for a short time, the assistance of Sandy Smith, a former Cannon Mills employee and the only black citizen among the six people killed in the Greensboro Massacre. In an exclusive interview with the Burlington Daily Times-News in July 1982, Crawford said a pair of FBI agents stopped by her Salisbury home to question her about Smith and five other communist leaders—this line of questioning came a week before the very same group of six would be murdered during the Greensboro Massacre by the far-right activists supporting the KKK, leading to suspicion that the local and federal governments were aware the attack was imminent, which as it turned out they were.
Crawford also realized, again earlier than most anyone else, that in order to bring about change in a sector as stubborn and well-connected as textiles, only the federal government could really do much to effect change. When Crawford was denied a mill house and a job as a weaver due to her race, she penned a letter to President Lyndon Johnson. After that complaint wound its way through the bureaucracy, the Nixon administration filed the United States vs. Cannon case in 1969.
Federal attorneys argued that Cannon had violated the 1968 Fair Housing Act, as it had been outright refusing to rent mill houses to black single mothers; the mill houses Cannon did make accessible to black workers were dilapidated and rented at a higher price than what the white workers paid for their housing. Nite Town, the poorest section in one of the black neighborhoods, was infamous for its high crime rate and subpar mill houses. The company also routinely assigned black women larger workloads without increasing their pay, fired black workers for stealing with no evidence, and intimidated them out of pursuing promotions.
According to the book Knocking on Labor’s Door, Crawford started out at a low-level job—black women were given the sanitation jobs that had previously been done by black men—before she worked her way up to the position of weaver, a position she had to claw and fight for before her white superiors finally relented.
This was common at Cannon, and in mills across the South—in 1971, even after the federal intervention, 25 percent of Cannon’s black workers held the company’s lowest-paying jobs; just five percent of white workers occupied the same positions. That disparity would lead to Crawford joining the 16-person class-action lawsuit with the help of the NAACP. In a letter to a judge presiding over the case, a worker named Mary J. Black wrote the following, per Minchin:
“We are over worked. One person is during [sic] enough work for three people. Some have had strokes, heart attacks, and some have even died. We need help very badly.”
The suit was settled by Cannon Mills, which agreed to pay the workers $4,000 in addition to back pay. Cannon made sure to flash defiant middle fingers at the black workers, though, issuing a statement denying any systemic racism or wrongdoing whatsoever, per Vanderburg:
Cannon denies that practiced discrimination in any form prior to the commencement of the suit. Cannon is confident that it would ultimately prevail at trial, however, in order to avoid further unreasonable expenditures of manpower, money and time necessary to continue the litigation, the company has decided it is best to settle the issue.
Crawford’s 10-year run as a weaver at Cannon would quickly come to a close once the settlement terms were drawn up and after the company had issued a PR statement that dripped with faux-reassurance that black workers would be afforded a fair shake. If Cannon thought it was getting rid of her, though, they were mistaken. Crawford only further cemented her legend in the incident that ultimately got her fired. Nancy McLean’s Freedom Is Not Enough, lays out the incident as follows:
Crawford was at work one day in the middle of showing pictures of her daughter’s wedding to a pair of white co-workers. While she still had the pictures out, a white loom fixer lumbered toward them. The man made “racially disparaging comments” when he saw the picture—per MacLean, he said he couldn’t tell anyone apart because “all of you look alike.” Attempting to the put-down, he elbowed Crawford in her breasts as he walked past her. So she slapped the hell out of him.
She was fired and blacklisted immediately without ever being able to explain her side of the incident; the man received a five-day suspension. She later received back pay for her wrongful firing, but she wasn’t rehired at the mill. Her legal stand, and her willingness to sacrifice her livelihood for a drop of personal respect, paved the way for future black workers.
Although Crawford wouldn’t get to enjoy the fruits of her labor, she at least helped give the federal government’s Civil Rights legislation some fangs, though those incisors have since been whittled down to nubs.
The 1970s, in retrospect, were the beginning of the end for the American textile industry as the South and the country had known it.
The globalization of the textile market has it roots in the 1960s but it kicked into gear the following decade. From 1975 to 1984, the nation’s textile imports tripled, which led to closures and consolidation and still more stretch-outs at the mills that made it. It was in the midst of this uncertainty that another labor movement took hold in the town.
The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) started a union drive in 1974, with Bob Freeman being a one-man show as the union’s main organizer. Freeman was able to pull together the coalition Crawford had fought for, combining the large swath of pro-union black workers with the under-30 white workforce, 44 percent of which was in favor of the union, per Knocking on Labor’s Door. Freeman, like Crawford, realized something important before his peers did—that “we will never organize the South with organizers.” He believed that labor movements, to truly take hold and win the community’s backing, had to come from within those communities.
But Freeman’s attempts to build a grassroots caucus still wouldn’t be enough to overcome the older white crowd employed at the factory. The union lost the vote count, held at the iconic GEM Theater, by a final tally of 8,473 to 6,801. It was yet another defeat for the workers, but Freeman succeeded in reviving the town’s interest in fighting for their rights. The Cannon family, having lost Charles in 1971, ultimately decided that enough was enough, despite their deep ties to the town and the mill. When you know all that comes next, it’s hard not to look back at this as their last twist of the knife.
In 1982, the Cannon heirs sold the mill to David Murdock.
A California investor and the CEO of Dole Foods (a pineapple empire built on indentured Hawaiian slaves in the 1920s), Murdock was a far cry from the man-about-town persona put on by the Cannon heirs. This was a different kind of wealth.
In addition to the looms and bricks that came with the mills, Murdock also secured 660 acres of real estate in the deal, including the downtown business district and 1,600 of the mill houses. At the time of the sale, the average family paid $36.83 per month in rent for those mill homes; the average pension was $47.15 per month, payable following 35 years of employment. Within two years, Murdock raised rent from $40 to $320 per month; he also moved the Cannon’s G.I. houses to make way for a new park and YMCA.
The changes drew the expected uproar, but Murdock was capable of leading the company’s efforts against another ACTWU drive—by then, the national union membership had dipped by 25 percent since 1979, and in Kannapolis, the unified black workers of 1974 were split by company fear tactics, giving Murdock all it needed to win the vote. Billboards proclaiming, “Cannon cares about people” went up around town, and Murdock even flew in to shake some hands and deride the “outsiders” and “carpetbaggers,” per the New York Times. The vote wasn’t even close, with the union being crushed by a margin of over 2,000 votes.
But Murdock did more than displace a neighborhood and casually crush a union drive—he was there to bleed as much profit as he could from his investment. The investment, in this case, amounted to nothing more or less than the towns of China Grove and Kannapolis, two places I claim as my hometowns.
According to accounts and film footage shown to employees as revealed in Where Do You Stand, a 2004 documentary covering the Cannon unionization efforts, Murdock brought in Industrial Engineers—known as IEs by the workers—who would time the millworkers at their craft to determine whether they were being paid too much. Murdock put a stop to funds set aside for an employee cancer screening program. Murdock fired 2,000 workers.
Most egregiously, Murdock cut the pension plan and cashed in the interest that the plan had earned—a full $39 million out of the total $102.8 million. The money that had been set aside as a promise to take care of these towns’ retired workers was instead spent paying the debts the billionaire’s other companies had accrued, with Murdock reasoning that the remaining $66 million would be plenty to take care of the workers. It might have been, had Murdock not burned the remaining $66 million on annuities from Executive Life Insurance, Co.
It was a bad bet. Executive Life Insurance had wasted billions and had just been taken over by California regulators after they over-invested in the “junk bonds” peddled by Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. As a result, Fieldcrest Cannon was only able to pay workers 70 percent of what the pension plan had been prior to Murdock’s flipping of the company. He pulled same trick elsewhere, at Beacon Manufacturing in Swannanoa and Wiscossett Mills in Albemarle. The executive tried to keep the uproar down by paying an initial $800,000 in pension money to 9,000 workers, even having then-Senator Terry Sanford trot out next to him at the press conference in Kannapolis. But the pension checks for the current generation of workers never came, and the ones that made the cut would receive a fraction of what they deserved. All this while rent shot through the roof thanks to Murdock’s real estate dealings. As one Cannon worker would tell the New York Times in 1991, the workers could do nothing but holler.
“I was angry but what can one angry man do?” said Morris Johnson, who retired three years ago after 45 years with Cannon. “I’d wind up in jail if I tried to take my gun and go get it.”
As you can imagine, this prompted an immediate response. On the part of the townspeople, a vote was called and Kannapolis, formerly the largest unincorporated population in the nation, was officially chartered in November 1984, with 64 percent of the citizens voting for in favor of forming their own government. The ACTWU was similarly motivated, going on a 15-month campaign, one that would end in another failure in October 1985 thanks in part to an internal company video recorded by Murdock and shown to all 10,000 employees. That video contained the following not-so-veiled threat to doom the town:
“If I determine that Cannon can’t operate competitively, I can and I will cease to operate Cannon.”
Really, the workforce’s unionization should have happened in the previous decade, when it was clear that America’s imports would ratchet up in the face of new exposure to Asian markets. But between the Cannon family’s unending fight to counter union efforts by flexing their political influence and the anti-Communist ravings of Jesse Helms and his flock, fear—both real and unfounded—carried the day.
So, rather than greet their new owner as a group of unified managers and a group of unified workers, the factory workers focused instead on an union election, one that end in a 5,982 to 3,530 loss; you’ll note the drop in voter/worker numbers election to election.
Watch the following video through the 7:45 mark.
Taking advantage of a vulnerable, disorganized town and working population, Murdock sold the remaining portions of the company to Fieldcrest Mills, a Massachusetts company, in 1985.
Fieldcrest would be the second of three companies to follow the Murdock route of ripping and stripping the mill and its assets. Although the union already repped nearly 4,000 Fieldcrest employees, those benefits would not extend to Cannon workers. With no protections or collective bargaining agreement in place, Fieldcrest went the stretch-out route, adding work, cutting overtime, and instituting 12-hour shifts. This, it turned out, was the final straw—the indignities and ugliness of the Murdock sale and the continued lying by the Fieldcrest executives finally turned out to be enough to drive this small Southern town to unionize.
Behind workers like Pauline Pearson, ACTWU’s push crescendoed in a 1991 election, one that Fieldcrest worked its ass off to crush. The company hired B&C Associates to help fight the union efforts, which they did by encouraging black pastors in the area to discourage their congregations from supporting the union. Fieldcrest held anti-union meetings that were closed off to any pro-union workers, passed out and forced some to wear “NO UNION” t-shirts, and paid off the building funds of local churches; an anti-union rally was held on the lawn outside the church I attended for nearly 10 years, which is situated about 100 yards from the main plant.
This time, instead of Murdock, it was CEO Jim Fitzgibbons that cut his own internal threat video, promising workers that, “we will work to keep this union and union trouble out of our plants.” The intimidation video included clips of U.S. Marshalls arresting people at a “violent union strike” (what turned out to be a West Virginia coal miner’s strike) that were followed with a message from Ozzie Raines, the company’s VP of human resources, who told workers “what you just saw can happen at your plant.”
Watch the following video through the 7:22 mark.
When Elboyd Deal—a clerk for the mill who had worked at Cannon for over 30 years without ever earning a single write-up—was found participating in union affairs, he was fired. Deal was not just handed a pink slip or given a firm handshake, though, according to Where Do You Stand. When the time came, two Fieldcrest guards corralled Deal at his desk and brought him outside, where they had him sit on the back of one of the plant’s small, yellow three-wheel, three-seat gas cars, used to navigate the plant’s massive grounds. The guards drove Deal around the entirety of the Cannon plant, displaying the latest casualty in the union battle to any workers that remained on the fence about the vote. The message from Fieldcrest was clear. It was the same hostility as had preceded it, and it was roundly heard. (Deal, along with 12 other workers, was reinstated six years later after filing a complaint, with the company tossing him some backpay.)
The ACTWU lost the election 3,034 to 3,233, but quickly filed charges with the NLRB, pointing out what they claimed had been illegal practices on the part of Fieldcrest. The regional court agreed with the union, and ruled against the textile company. When an appeal took the case to the federal board, it ruled Fieldcrest had committed over 150 unfair labor practices during the 1991 campaign, a decision upheld by the 4th Circuit Court. Chief Judge Wilkinson’s decision stated: “Fieldcrest simply adopted a scorched earth, take-no-prisoners approach to stop unionization without regard to statutory limitations.”
Of course, had anyone been listening to the workers, they would have known this.
Watch the following video through the 5:29 mark.
Then ... the exact same thing, all over again. In August 1997, the union UNITE’s effort failed 2,194 to 2,563. By that time, it was crystal clear that the federal government had little interest in actually seeing to it that the workers could actually unionize; by simply listening to their complaints and wagging their finger at Fieldcrest, the NLRB was all bark with no bite, and the executives knew it full well. Fast forward through another round of the NLRB telling Fieldcrest to cut the shit, and the union finally, finally, had a chance at legitimate, fairly campaigned unionization vote.
But before the Cannon workers would ever be able to consider themselves a collective unit capable of standing in a room with managers and demanding their fair share in an unreliable marketplace and uncertain world, the company was sold again, this time to Dallas-based Pillowtex. Their CEO, Jim Hansen, rolled out the same internal videos, assuring workers, “This time is different.”
The workers were done trusting management.
In a fair election, UNITE won the right to unionize Pillowtex in June 1999, with a final count of 2,270 to 2,102. (Again, note the combined total.) That night, with news station crews filming a rightfully joyous occasion, the workers danced. They cried and held each other tight and screamed and hollered, proud of the seemingly impossible task they had finally accomplished.
Documentary and news footage from that night shows the workers clapping together, singing the old hymn “Victory Today Is Mine”—a fitting selection given all that followed.
A four-part series run by the Charlotte Observer in July 2004 still serves as the clearest look at what has happened to small American manufacturing towns over the years.
It tells the story of a company town in which the money townspeople once spent at locally owned businesses made possible by mill owners—men far too conservative and clever to allow a union to nibble at their bottom line—was now in the hands of businessmen who neither lived in or cared about Kannapolis. The mill had simply been, to Murdock and then Fieldcrest and then Pillowtex, a mis-timed investment. If they understood that the fate of a town and entire generation of retirees and uneducated workers were wrapped up in the fate of the mill, they didn’t seem to care. The owners consistently lied to the workers and the townspeople, and bled both dry to pay off their other bad investments.
The company was sold to Pillowtex for $700 million because the director of Fieldcrest Cannon, Duke Kimbrell, said he thought the offer was the best one for shareholders. That fact was evident from the minute he signed it over to a man named Chuck Hansen. Here’s what Hansen is like:
“Would it be better if I drove a Chevrolet?” Hansen asked the Observer. “If you’re jealous I drive a Ferrari, great. That’s your business.”
After quadrupling his debt by taking on the Fieldcrest mill, Hansen started his reign off by axing 300 administrators while simultaneously spending $74 million for an Ohio towel company and another $334 million modernizing his plants. Department store business, which propped up the mill’s sales for decades, was now going to Wal-Mart and Target, and Pillowtex was sinking, but nobody would say it out loud. Hansen was a bumbling dipshit all the while, telling a K-Mart representative, in the middle of a business meeting, “I feel like pounding your head in right now.” Shortly after, the company ended its multi-million dollar deals with Pillowtex.
By the end of October, Hansen was out, retiring and replacing himself with his English CFO, Tony Williams, who had no textile background and was loathed by the company’s board. In no time, they booted Williams and brought in hotshot Reebok executive David Perdue to helm the ship. Unfortunately, by the time the former shoe salesman got a crack at running his own company, the pension plan was underfunded by at least $41 million. He spent less than a year as CEO, drawing up and throwing away a plan to move the labor to overseas factories before resigning in the spring of 2003. The same year, four years after they’d won the union vote, UNITE finally got Pillowtex to sign the union contract they’d drawn up for the 4,800 covered workers.
Perdue was replaced by an executive he’d hired away from the bread company Sara Lee, who didn’t realize as quickly as Perdue that the walls had already fallen in. Come 2005, the textile import limits expired between World Trade Organization members, opening America fully to foreign imports.
Pillowtex wouldn’t live long enough to see itself broken by the World Trade Organization, sadly. Humbled, broke, and out of white male executives to task with postponing the inevitable, the company opened talked with Spring Industries to liquidate its assets and go belly-up. On July 21, the Pillowtex board accepted the offer—after approving the sale, the final CEO, Michael Gannaway, took home a $500,000 salary and a $300,000 bonus for three final month’s work.
On July 30, 2003, Pillowtex announced its liquidation—the shutdown was the largest single mass layoff in North Carolina history.
Bipartisan photo shoots and speeches ensued. Governor Mike Easley and Senator Elizabeth Dole both met with Cabarrus and Rowan County workers reeling from the loss of their longtime source of income.
Per the 2004 paper, “Community Response to the Pillowtex Textile Kannapolis Closing,” the state politicians brought in $20.6 million in the form of a National Emergency Grant in August 2003—$13 million went toward retraining services like expanding and updating the local community colleges with remaining $7.6 million going to health care payments for the jobless workers. Surrounding doctor’s offices, like Grace Medical Clinic, offered free coverage to laid off workers that still needed their prescriptions filled and ailments tended to.
The cracks in the piecemeal American healthcare and economic systems were on full display. The same paper lays out the demographics of the Pillowtex workers in 2003 as follows: at least 40 percent didn’t finish high school; 42 percent had a relative working at the mill; within a month of Pillowtex closing, 43 percent of people admitted to being behind on their rent; and 93 percent said they couldn’t afford health insurance.
The community had remained close as it expanded over the decades, and it pulled together to soften the blow best it could. Local churches poured their resources into helping their neighbors, handing out school supplies, running clothing drives, and providing information on how to apply to the state government’s temporary relief programs. Throughout August, the state held meetings with affected citizens, with meetings drawing 300 people per session; this was followed by multiple job fairs at the nearby NASCAR track.
While the workers were still sweating how to pay next month’s rent, David Murdock was operating from the shadows, looking to finally cash in on the Sim City experiment that got started before he assumed control in 1982.
In the 1970s, seeing how the Cannon family had consolidated power over the town by way of industry, real estate, and political connections, Murdock figured he could do well enough with the first two and assumed the local connections would come in time. After owning a small share of the company and observing the Cannon empire for several years, he bought the company outright and quickly gutted what he could. He burned the pension once and for all and sold the mill off to make a quick profit. All the while, Murdock maintained his downtown real estate control and upped the rent on the erstwhile mill houses, slowly pricing out workers who saw their retirement funds either cut or dropped completely. Once Fieldcrest and Pillowtex bled the company dry, further devaluing the mill property, Murdock made his move.
Liquidation consortium GGST LLC bought Pillowtex for $121 million in October 2003. According to the Salisbury Post, Murdock attended an auction in New York in late 2004 and bought the abandoned Plant One for $6.4 million—remember, he still owned most of downtown Kannapolis. He offered to buy back the land, knock down the famous stacks, and construct a biotech research hub in its place. A health freak who wants to live to be 125 years old, Murdock belittled the owner of the wrecking company he hired to demolish Plant 1, D.H. Griffin, per the Wall Street Journal:
“Mr. Griffin, you’re fat and you’re going to die. You aren’t going to live the 18 months to finish this project and your son is going to have to buy a bigger casket to bury you.”
Thanks to his partnering with the state’s leading politicians, both the press and the town rolled out the red carpet when Murdock returned after the mill shuttered. Murdock committed to a 525-employee processing plant in Gaston County in 2005 and the state and county flexed their business-friendly policies right back at him in the form of a $12-million tax cut in addition to 125 acres of free land. In Kannapolis, the N.C. Research Campus was erected where Plant One once sat.
In a way, the man that had been the first to push the community towards its eventual end somehow came out the other side playing savior. It was as if this wasn’t the same profiteer who initiated the company’s long, painful three-decade spiral into liquidation; no, this was a new man, a different man, a smart businessman who saw one opportunity and then another, snapped up real estate at the bottom of the market, and built a sprawling brick research campus filled with jobs that neither helped nor funded the lives of those who had given decades to the mill. He applauded himself, and the community clapped in turn.
In 2009, Oprah gave him a glowing spot on her show, covering only his Research Campus work. In the time since, he’s contributed millions to different health-related projects across the state, but his direct interest in Kannapolis, outside an annual contribution to the Research Center, has waned. A comment in the same Journal article best captures his attitude toward the project:
When the plant went bankrupt, he says he felt bad for the town, but also worried about the impact on his property. “I didn’t want that land to fall into somebody else’s hands, because it was right next door to my land,” he says.
In 2015, after he sold 46 acres of downtown properties to the city for $8.75 million—the assessed price was $5.55 million—Murdock was awarded the Charlotte Regional Partnership’s Jerry Award for economic development; you can read about it in my hometown paper, the Salisbury Post. In an update on the Research Campus, the Post breezed through his time as mill owner with this sentence:
Ownership changed, but the mill facility kept chugging along until 2003.
At the time of the layoffs, the fired workers were allotted an average of $260 per week in unemployment checks. In 2006, Pillowtex agreed to pay the 7,650 workers it employed across the nation $13 million, an average of $1,699.34, though the money was distributed in different amounts based on position and seniority. Four years later, the union that represented the Cannon workers announced that roughly 5,550 workers would receive a combined total of $475,000 from the remnants of Pillowtex’s bankruptcy, according to the Indy Tribune.
That amounted to about $86.36 per worker.
Kannapolis was not alone.
NAFTA arrived with the stroke of President Bill Clinton’s pen on Sept. 14, 1993. The results of the bill, along with a number of other international trade agreements, are now the stuff of nightmarish legend for America’s manufacturing towns. The jobs and companies that served as the foundations of their communities vanished slowly and inevitably, all while any protections or wages for future workers in these communities were kept at a minimum. Thus, your Wal-Marts and Amazon fulfillment centers.
This was a bipartisan effort, mind you. Before Clinton’s pen sealed the deal, NAFTA was delivered to his desk with the bipartisan support of North Carolina’s House members—the vote’s party split was 5-3 Democrats; 3-1 Republicans. In the Senate, the two conservatives, Lauch Faircloth and Jesse Helms, both voted no.
Not to dive into the weeds too deep, but the United States and Canada had already operated under a free trade agreement similar to NAFTA since 1989, which in part made possible Cannon Mills’ ordeal on the Murdock-Fieldcrest-Pillowtex carousel. But the effects were heightened by looping in Mexico, which gave American companies new access to cheaper labor. The textile industry was hit hard by NAFTA and GATT, but the majority of its business was shipped to countries in Asia, where the trade agreements had been completed in a piecemeal over the last three decades.
According to a 2004 UNC study, the average hourly pay for a textile or apparel worker in Mexico in 1994 was between $1.50 and $2.00, compared to U.S. average hourly wages of $8.59.
The effects immediately spelled the death of American manufacturing, at least in textiles. The American economy siphoned off 544,750 jobs between 1993 and 2000, per the Economic Policy Institute. By sheer numbers, textiles weren’t even hit the hardest, as electronic machinery and automobile manufacturing were shipped en masse. California lost 82,354 jobs; Michigan lost 46,817; Texas lost 41,607; Ohio lost 37,694.
The South, especially the towns most affected by these changes, were small, compact, insular towns, with the mills interloped with their economic DNA. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found North Carolina lost nearly 350,000 manufacturing jobs from 1994 to 2015—43 percent of the state’s overall manufacturing positions. When GATT went through in 2000, North Carolina’s furniture workers dropped in number from 80,000 to 35,000, per the News & Observer.
The story of Kannapolis is unique only because of the scale of the layoffs—what happened to those workers happened to workers across the entire nation. It left communities that had been told to pursue exactly one thing for financial stability with little recourse. Retraining sessions were held across the state and public tax dollars were sent in to slap some band-aids on the gaping mill-sized wound, but for a large portion of the nation, the continuity of a paycheck and benefits was gone.
Fifteen years later, Kannapolis and towns across North Carolina have charted out their rebuilding process, though success comes at varying degrees due to limited options.
The Research Center continues to open new labs, attract new community college projects, and provide a limited number of slots for summer interns. It’s also been on the receiving end of state funds—the General Assembly carved out $23.5 million in annual funding while throwing another $4.4 million at a new food processing center. The effort has been noble, but it hasn’t come close to replacing the number of jobs lost in the 2003 shutdown.
In April 2018, the City Council released its long-hyped Kannapolis 2030 plan. It set out the city’s steps to crafting a new Kannapolis prepared to handle the growing suburbs of Charlotte. Here’s the good stuff: In an effort to create a more walkable community, they’re going to put bike lanes on Lane Street and completely revamp the downtown area with apartment complexes, a shopping center, a parking deck, and a new stadium for the minor league baseball team, the Kannapolis Intimidators (all hail Dale). And the city is going to continue to finance the GEM Theatre, which admittedly rocks.
But the execution of this plan depends heavily on the decision to continue to invest public dollars in stadiums for private sports teams, which has time and again been a pretty package filled with false promises of sustainable economic boon.
The thinking goes that with the population inside city limits expected to hit 50,000 by 2019, the city needs to capitalize fast, but at the moment, a Single-A baseball team is their biggest entertainment draw.
The City of Kannapolis has been footing the bill for the old stadium along with Rowan County for years, though upkeep hasn’t exactly been a priority. In 2011, the city bought the stadium’s equity, but the location doesn’t work with their current plans. Wanting to cash in on its big redevelopment plan, they spent $26,000 in studies to figure out if they wanted to finance a downtown stadium—the current one is a 10-minute drive. Then, another $2.4 million on stadium designs before finally agreeing to a stadium construction project that comes with a price tag of $37 million.
To complete the various development projects, they’ve turned outwards. The Kansas City firm Populous will handle the stadium. Meanwhile, the new housing projects went to to Birmingham, Al.-based Corporate Realty and Florida-based Lansing Melbourne Group, per Business Today NC. LMG’s project is pulling $12.6 million in public funds.
The City Council also, on page 32 of their 2030 plan, appear to call for de-regulating the real estate market for developers to be able to put up apartment buildings and homes faster, which if that feels a little like deja vü, then just wait.
The plan hinges on downtown taking off, on people having the money to go spend on the new shops and baseball stadium and flocking to it for a good time out. For that to happen, their jobs have to be close enough for folks to consider downtown a convenient post-work and weekend option—presently, 17.6 percent of families in Kannapolis are living below the poverty line. That’s where small town governments in a Post-Recession world have had to get creative. Or dependable.
The Research Campus is growing but is still far off from its stated goal of 8,000 employees. The remaining options for pillars are limited. As of now, Amazon fulfillment centers appear to be the hot-ticket item cities and towns are willing to contribute public dollars to in the form of incentives. In October 2017, the Kannapolis City Council agreed to set aside $624,700 for an economic development incentive grant to bring a 600-person Amazon plant to town, and called on the state government to provide an extra $2.7 million.
There is a reason Amazon opened its fourth such center in the Charlotte region. The plant is looking mostly to hire manual laborers, and per Capital At Play, it wasn’t trying to make a fuss over the announcement. That’s because it is believed the center’s “average wage may not meet threshold” to make it eligible for any state incentives and or the city’s “job-creation awards.”
I probably shouldn’t have to spell it out, but Amazon centers are 21st Century textile mills. They squeeze every ounce of productivity out of their floor workers while leaving them no routes for addressing the effects of timing bathroom breaks or denying people breaks or paying people retail rates to work jobs requiring intensive labor. Amazon does this in part because that’s how you become the richest man America, but also because it’s simply following along a path carved out for it over the past decade.
Throughout the multiple Cannon union drives, through the Recession, the nation’s union membership rates dipped and dipped and dipped, until the last remaining union workers had their feet planted firmly on the bottom of the barrel. When the jobs were gone, the wealthy responsible for their disappearance would be as far away from the approaching bill as possible. That was always the plan.
The Tar Heel State is presently next-to-last in terms of unionized workforces, as conservatives will happily tell you while they point at a magazine business ranking. A 2018 Bureau of Labor report showed that just 3.4 percent of North Carolina workers are unionized, ranking next to last in the nation, trailing only South Carolina at 2.7 percent.
This means a lot of folks staring up at management during hard times with little options for recourse. North Carolina teachers, who have been routinely shafted by their legislature, can’t take the steps of the teachers in Arizona or West Virginia and strike because of the aforementioned state law prohibiting public employee unions. So, for instance, during the Recession, when Democratic governor Bev Perdue signed legislation in 2009 that jacked up every state employee’s health insurance premiums by 17.8 percent, all they could do was sit on their hands and frown, or, as they did this past April, march on the state capitol and hope for the best.
The private sector has been attacked just as hard—most recently, North Carolina lawmakers went after FLOC, a union that represents Mexican workers here on H2-A visas, ruling that the union has to go around to each farm to collect its dues and that the option of unionization can no longer be included as a stipulation in workplace lawsuits.
The open hostility North Carolina legislators and industry leaders inflicted on the working class have real consequences, as in the case of Cannon and Kannpolis. With no long-term protections in place for those that make up the backbone of the economy, the workers, when the economy dips or a bubble bursts, are the ones without proper legal and financial protections, meaning they won’t be going to Intimidators games or movies at the GEM.
The age-old solution for politicians has been to stand atop a table and scrawl “JOBS!” on a piece of cardboard. North Carolina technically has a lower unemployment rate than it did eight years ago at the height of Recession to pair with an influx of jobs entering the state. That does not equate to a better lifestyle for its citizens. Lower and middle class wages have stagnated compared to university and housing prices, meaning average indebtedness has skyrocketed.
Workers being held at 39 hours to circumvent healthcare benefits is the norm while the money is hoarded in a top-heavy system. Since 1965, the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio has increased 15 times over, to 312:1. CEOs at the largest 350 American firms increased their annual compensation 17.6 percent from 2016 to 2017, per the August 2018 EPI study. Compare that to the average worker’s wage rising just 0.3 percent during the same time.
All these numbers add up to an economy built on an insecure foundation, one that doesn’t have the public at large in mind.
The number of temporary workers in the state grew 52 percent from 2009-2014, according to a June 2018 PolicyLink study. In rural North Carolina, unemployment sits two percentage points higher than their urban and suburban counterparts—for black workers, its double the rate of their fellow white North Carolinians. These are problems a union could work to address, if unions were welcome anywhere outside of Durham and Chapel Hill and their various grad schools. But they aren’t, and without a counterweight to the forces of greed and revanchism, the state’s most powerful parties were free to do whatever they wanted and convince the folks hurt the most that they should direct their anger outwards; the progress that the state had made proved much more illusory than the process of attrition that invariably clawed it back.
Nowhere is the gap between what is and what should have been made clearer than in the case of Crystal Lee Sutton.
In February 1980, Sally Field took home the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sutton.
In her acceptance speech, she said Norma Rae was a “real gift for me.” Sutton did not garner a single mention in the two-minute speech. Field instead listed the normal crowd of actors and behind-the-camera staff, concluding her speech by referring to her director, Marty Ritt, as the “real Norma Rae” for working hard in the film industry. Field and Sutton met in Hollywood, where Sutton was being honored by the AFL-CIO; at the time, Field told her to call her if she needed anything.
According to a July 1985 Washington Post article, Sutton’s stardom was short-lived and short on cash. She did not receive any money from Leifermann’s book; she had to sue to receive a $52,000 sum from the movie based on her life that grossed $12.5 million. For a short time, she worked as an activist organizer for the union, but was let go by the mid-1980's.
In the years after the movie was released, she sent out 250 letters offering to lecture and received just three bookings. She was fired from a job inspecting women’s underwear in a non-union mill just before Christmas 1984 and was working a part-time job when the Post caught up to her. When Sutton reached out to Field in May 1985, she didn’t make it past her publicist, who told her she was busy packing for a trip. Still, as the people that profited off her life story prospered, Sutton was adamant about one thing: She was always proud of her union.
“If necessary, I’ll sell every piece of furniture in the house, so long as we have a roof over our heads,” Sutton said. “I don’t care. People are going to long know where I’m coming from: I believe working people need to join together, and the only thing they got going for them now is a union.”
The following 25 years were more of the same for Sutton. She would give a speech at a college or at a union rally, but in a country in which unions had a pillow stuffed over their faces by the government and corporatists, there was little work to be had invigorating a decreasingly left-behind workforce. Needing a paycheck, she went to Alamance Community College and earned her CNA. She lived in Burlington for the final stretch of her life, working as a nursing assistant and running a daycare out of her home after being registered.
In January 2007, she received the diagnosis: Brain cancer. Naturally, the weakness of the average American laborer would come back around for one more go-round with the real-life Norma Rae. After undergoing two surgeries, Sutton’s insurance lapped for two months, which, when trying to pay for brain cancer treatments while paying off the surgeries, is a nigh-impossible task for anyone not raking in $100,000-plus, with benefits.
The same year she was diagnosed, Sutton donated her letters and union-related papers to Alamance Community College saying, per the Burlington Times-News, “I didn’t want them to go to some fancy university; I wanted them to go to a college that served the ordinary folks.” Sutton was an activist until her dying day. Her best friend, Carrie Price, told the Plain Dealer’s Connie Schulz that Sutton never stopped battling for the working class.
“I’ve never seen any woman fight cancer as hard as she did. She was in a wheelchair in the last few months, and she wanted me to push her to a protest about a school’s teacher cuts.”
Crystal Lee Sutton died on September 11, 2009. In one of her final interviews, with the Burlington News-Times, she said the following when asked how she hoped to be remembered:
“It is not necessary I be remembered as anything, but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the U.S. and the world.”
At times, it’s hard to accept how your home came to terms with, and learned from, particular elements of its history.
The reason, or at least one of the reasons, that union hate has stuck so consistently in the South is the resistance to proper labor education in the South. Kids there don’t grow up learning about Daisy Crawford or Pauline Pearson or Crystal Lee Sutton, and if they do, they certainly aren’t portrayed as heroes by most. They are rabble-rousers and outsiders, still, because that is simply the easiest way for the folks in power to remain in their chairs.
Fear, usually of change, be it from a union or integration, drove the neighbors of these women and countless others to sit in silence rather than take the necessary risks. This same manifests itself outside of the workplace. Poor people don’t vote in America, or at least not in the numbers of the people on the rungs above them—according to Census Bureau data, 75 percent of people who made under $10,000 and about 69 percent making under $30,000 didn’t vote in the 2014 elections; just 35 percent of people that told the American National Election Study they voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election earned less than $50,000.
The reasons for this vary: economic displacement, restrictive voting laws, active and ingrained discouragement from a system that seems to grind on heedlessly regardless of who sits in the White House, and so on. This particular voting bloc can help in state elections, and North Carolina’s politics reflect this. The Tar Heel State’s numerous rural counties, where generalized state and national pride runs deepest and thoughts like “North Carolina was the best Southern state” can be heard, historically vote for whichever party is most socially conservative.
The belief that America or North Carolina was great but is no longer has found its most recent iteration in the “Make America Great Again” phenomena, but it is nothing new. This backwards-looking sentimentality has played itself out countless times before—20 years ago, when the jobs that propped up the small-town communities floated overseas, leaving behind silent textile and saw mills and anti-Mexican sentiment. Or 30 years before that, when the same sentiments were expressed as a reaction to the integration of public schools. Another 65 years before that and the sentiment found its expression in a rebuke of North Carolina’s bi-racial state legislature formed after Reconstruction. Thirty years before that and you’ve got the Civi...you get it. You are never quite as far removed as you think from what you slept through in history class. This is true everywhere, of course, but it feels truer than ever in North Carolina right now.
The preset divisions of class and racial politics have long stood in the way of solidarity among the state’s most vulnerable populations. A working person in North Carolina—black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian, or otherwise—has rarely been helped by state government, which is not the same thing as saying they have been ignored. The white portion of the state’s working class has certainly been listened to and pandered to in response; they have had their more xenophobic tendencies tirelessly exploited. It’s just all been done to the material and political benefit of a comparatively small number of businessmen and politicians, on both sides of the aisle, for as long as the state’s history has been recorded or reported. The con has been convincing the people of these towns they raided that they had a say in the matter.
I wrote about this after the 2016 presidential election: The nomination of Trump by both the wealthy and the countless communities looking for economic stability was never as far-fetched as it was portrayed on college campuses or in national newspapers, at least to those of us that hailed from towns that would go on to overwhelmingly support him come November. His politics and his way of playing up economic distress for political points are not new to the South, and their responding to it with resounding support isn’t a fresh concept, either. Petey Pablo said it best: “It’s been the same ol’ North Carolina it’s been bein’.”
The situation in North Carolina is a familiar one to working folks across the nation. The union membership of workers in the United States as a whole dipped to an all-time low of 10.7 percent in 2017, with only 6.5 percent of private sector workers being represented by a union. Instead of building an economy on the base of a strong united working force, North Carolina legislators chose for decades to mine the ground from beneath its workers; the federal government merely finished the job. The textile workforce could have been one that actually had the power to take a stand, as Germany’s industrial unionists did in January 2018 or West Virginia teachers did in February.
North Carolina very well could be a very different place—one where more people live longer and are not constantly on the edge of sickness and poverty, where a job didn’t come with an impending cloud of looming labor debt, where education was financially feasible for everyone. It could be a place where race, which has divided the state for its history, no longer has that power. One where workers didn’t have to work multiple jobs to scrape by and still be a fountain of innovation in the South.
It could be, and some folks even wanted it to be. Right now, it’s not. Not yet, anyway.