The history of unionization in North Carolina is one of small advances and dramatic, sometimes violent, setbacks. In 1946 the Textile Workers Union of America, as part of “Operation Dixie,” targeted cotton mills across the southeast for organizing. In most places, such as Cannon Mills in Kannapolis, where memories of the 1929 Gastonia strike and the 1934 regional strike were still fresh, they were rebuffed. The TWUA met with success at the Harriet-Henderson Mills in Henderson, where workers had voted for the union in 1944.
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Harriet-Henderson was an anomaly. Brothers David and John Cooper organized the Henderson Cotton Mill on the north side of town in 1895. In time profits permitted them to open the Harriet Mills on the south side. In the 1930s competitiveness led to productivity demands and worker dissatisfaction, presenting opportunities for labor organizers. Profits shrank and mills closed. The 1,000 union members in Henderson accounted for one in seven of all union members in the state. With failure to reach a new contract, locals 578 and 584 called a strike on Nov. 15, 1958. Negotiations between John Cooper Jr., son of the co-founder, and the union broke down. On Feb. 15, 1959, the company reopened with replacement workers. Only 5% of the strikers returned.
A wave of violence swept Henderson in 1959. Windows were shot out at mill headquarters. Strikers pulled a truck driver from his cab. Organizer Boyd Payton was injured when rocks were thrown at his car. Dynamite blasts damaged a strikebreaker’s house and the boiler room at the Harriet Mills. On Feb. 15, Gov. Luther Hodges, a former textile executive, assigned 150 Highway Patrolmen, ¼ of the state force, to the scene. With escalating violence, he sent in National Guard units. An agreement was near in April but management balked at rehirings.
In July Payton and seven others were indicted on conspiracy, convicted, and sentenced to six to ten years. The judge declared, “Fear has run rampant in Henderson and Vance County. It must end right here.” The company returned to a full work force in July and full production in November. Organizers did not call off the strike until June 1961. Gov. Terry Sanford in 1961 shortened sentences and later granted clemency to Payton and others after appeals from Billy Graham, Harry Golden, and others. Historian Daniel Clark described the union defeat as the “stomping out of an isolated ember from a nearly extinguished regional brushfire.”
Daniel J. Clark, Like Night & Day: Unionization in a Southern Mill Town (1997)
Boyd E. Payton, Scapegoat: Prejudice/Politics/Prison (1970)
Brent D. Glass, Textile Industry in North Carolina (1992)
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)—entry by Maurice C. York
William A. Link, North Carolina: Change and Tradition in a Southern State (2009)