Joe Jacobs, Lucille Thornburgh and Union Organzier Interview

Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
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CREW: (loud beeping; dialogue inaudible) All right, I’m rolling.

JAMIE STONEY: Speak.

M1: When you were saying, you know, or wondering why more people don’t believe in the union, but it’s hard to believe in what you can’t see. I mean, like, where I’m from --

GEORGE STONEY: Joe, sorry, let’s start again. Joe, you should be listening to him. OK, let’s start.

M2: (inaudible)

M1: Well, you’re talking about how -- you know, why more Southerners don’t believe in unions, but you can’t believe in what you don’t see. I mean, where I’m from in Greenville, South Carolina, the unionization rate is 1% in the city of Greenville, and in the wh-- whole state it’s, like, 3 to 4%. So, I mean, come -- of course I came from a lower to middle class background, but I never heard the word. My first exposure to union was when I was working, came out of school, and I was tired of the ivory tower, went to work as a ditch 1:00digger. And, um, I remember, you know, we always used to hop in the back of the foreman’s truck and go get, you know, a hamburger or something. And then one day, um, we all hopped in the truck at lunchtime, and we went out, but instead of going to get something to eat he went to his apartment, went inside, and came back out. And then, um, so we got back to the job, and then, um, you know, he told us that, you know, “We think there’s going to be a welder’s strike,” and so, um, I mean, this was my first real experience with --

JOE JACOBS: And you didn’t even know there was a welders’ union.

M1: That’s right. And so what happened is we were working on a oil pipeline project, in installation, in Spartenbug so, um, you know, we got back and he told us that, and he had gone home to get a pistol. That’s why he had stopped by his apartment on the way to lunch. So he said that there may well be a picket line, you know, at the -- at the gate the next morning. And so I was -- all night, you know, I was just worried. I’ve never seen a union. I’ve never -- had never met a union person at that time. I didn’t know what they were. I just know he’d gone home, and got a pistol, and that he said they might be trying to block the gate in the morning. So then on the way to work and all night -- you know, the night before and on the way to work you’re 2:00going, well, what do you do? I mean, what if they’re blocking the entrance? What do you do? I mean, do you just turn around, or do you just keep going slow, or how do you handle that, you know? So I got there, you know, like, quarter to 7:00, you know, in the morning for the seven o’clock shift and, um, there was one welding truck off to the side, a welder in front of, you know, the cab of the truck drinking coffee, and they had a little sign on the back of the truck said, “On Strike,” and that was it. (laughter) But that was my first exposure to it. The second, you know, was at [Milliken?] when as a supervisor they would, you know, teach us how to deal with the unions, how to prevent unions, how to do all that kind of stuff, which was ample pra-- part of the management training. Um, and then more recently, you know, it -- as -- with the Carolina Alliance For Fair Employment, which is the group I’m working for now, we had a lot of members who are textile workers. And, you know, talking about the ’34 strike, the only thing I knew until recently about the strike was -- and this was according to people who worked at a Dan River Plant in Greenville and --

JACOBS: Yup.

3:00

M1: -- at the [Graniteville?] Company in Horse Creek Valley in Aiken County -- was that there was some kind of big union organizing campaign in the ’30s, uh, communist inspired, and that the treasurer ran off with the money. (laughter) This identical story in Gl-- even though it’s, like, 200 miles apart -- it was the identical story that people told us about that. And that -- that was the -- that’s the extent, you know, of our knowledge about what happened in ’34.

JACOBS: You know what makes me laugh, when they -- that same story about the treasurer running off with the money, it’s amazing -- I don’t know who started it or where it got started --

F1: But they were good.

JACOBS: But they must’ve been awfully good at putting out propaganda. And the reason I say that is, because in my mind’s eye I can still see a visit that I made to Griffin, Georgia, the Dundee Mills, with a man from the Jewish Daily Forward, who was a newspaper reporter, and he wanted to write part of the story --and Judy had gotten some of their papers here from 1934 that tell about that 4:00strike -- and we rode down to this Dundee Mill, and as we got close to it we saw this long single line of people lined up for, oh, two, three blocks, and we rode -- finally rode up to it, and there at the head of the line -- or the end of it -- there were two crates, crossways this way, and one crate on top, and a man sitting there writing receipts for $1 for everybody to join the union, and there were thousands who put that $1 up. But their one dollars went to feed the people. They went to take care of the people that were being evicted from the strike. It went to take care of human needs, and here they talking about stealing the money. There was no money to steal. Nobody had any money to steal and it was a revolution then. Here were people who had never one day thought 5:00that they would be lining up to join a union, and here they were joining. And when they signed up, gave the dollar, they turned around and there was this (inaudible) that was walking around the mill there, the Dundee Mill, American flag in the front. That like communists? Course not.

M1: No.

JACOBS: Walking around the plant, singing, “We shall not be moved. The union makes us strong,” going round and around, and you could hear the machines, you know, how they flop in the mills. And in those days we didn’t have air conditioning like you got now with all the windows closed up. You could hear the mill when the -- the -- the -- the machine room running, and the spinning room, and in the weaving room, and little by little you hear one of ’em close off and a few people come running out down the steps, get into line, and (inaudible) (chuckle). And after a while, (clap) quiet. Couldn’t hear a sound. Course, that’s when we all started yelling. We knew everybody was 6:00out. These were people who had joined. What did we do then? Went to the next mill, did the same thing. And here we get this story about people running off with the money. There was no money to run off with. Just like they said, “Oh yeah, the union got us out on strike. After they got us out on strike they walked off and left us.” No such thing.

JAMIE STONEY: No such thing.

JACOBS: For months, and months, and months afterwards, we were getting statements, we were getting affidavits to submit to the Winant Board, the board that President Roosevelt had set up on the promise of the textile barons that owned these, they turned around and promised him that they would take everybody back with no discrimination. That was in the papers --

JAMIE STONEY: Mm-hmm.

JACOBS: -- in English, in Yiddish, in every language --

JAMIE STONEY: Mm-hmm.

JACOBS: -- it was in the papers, and they didn’t do that. They turned around, they discriminated against our people. Those who were active on the picket line were the first thing. We even had people where we went to hearings after we filed complaints -- and this is the union trying to get ’em back. We thought the law would help us, and it didn’t help us, just like it don’t help you 7:00today. You got to do it yourself.

M2: (inaudible)

JACOBS: They would say, “Oh, Mary Jo, she’s immoral.” Why would they say she was immoral? Now, it happend that Mary Jo ran around a little bit before the strike. She didn’t run around after the strike, that wasn’t the reason they fired her, but they knew that she’d been running around before, so they said she’s immoral. “We ain’t gonna take her back.” But she was good enough all the time to work in the mill. People that they fired who were drunk, people who they fired because they went to jail, and they took ’em back as strike breakers, they kept them on. Now you know why we were raising hell. They kept them on, but wouldn’t take our people back -- people with 20 years of service, 30 years of service, all their lives. They turned their backs on them and hired people who had never been in a cotton mill.

M2: Right.

JACOBS: They were run-- they were running the mills with more people rather than less people, because they didn’t know how to run the machines like we do. 8:00Part of our trouble though is that I think we are in a measure to blame about the fear. Why? Because so many times we’d take the union for granted -- those of us who are in a union. I used to say that if each day you told somebody -- somebody -- your neighbor, your postman, your grocer, your doctor -- “I belong to the union. This is what it did for me,” that might get some of the fear out. But we don’t do it. We don’t do it. We’ve -- so many of us, and especially you say unions haven’t changed, unions have changed, son. Let me tell you why.

M1: Hope so.

JACOBS: A lot of people join the union now and they figure when they pay their dues it’s like a jackpot union. You drop your dues in, you pull that handle, and the jackpot’s supposed to drop, and it’s supposed to solve all your problems. Supposed to solve your problem with your grocer, with your car payment, with your rent payment. If you got trouble with your wife, it’s 9:00supposed to help you solve your trouble with your wife, and it can’t do it. And if you got a child that’s misbehaving, it’s supposed to solve it. Union don’t do that. Union can only do so much. But the main thing is that those of us who believe in unions, do we spread the word? Do we say we’re proud of it? Not enough. If we did it, I think we would be able to overcome this business of the media, and the newspaper, and the power structure, and everything else.

M1: Well, while you’re clearing up the record, what did the union organizers do -- and -- and there was only about a handful, relatively speaking, for the entire South at that time, right? What happened after the strike?

JACOBS: Let me tell you what happened. After the strike they were supposed to put our people back on the jobs. Those who were organizers, if we could pay, we’d pay. Those we couldn’t volunteered. We would go to each of our local unions, and we had ’em all over the South, and everybody had a little card, 10:00volunteer organizer, who would do any work. We tried to help these people. For example, in Atlanta, we -- there were grocers who belonged to an organization called the Workmen’s Circle. We used to have a route -- a route, where we would go each week to these grocery stores, and they’d give us big bag of groceries.

M1: Mm-hmm.

JACOBS: We’d give it to our people, we’d try to help ’em do it. This was a revolution of 500,000 people.

M2: Yup.

JACOBS: How do you feed 500,000 people? How do you find houses for 500,000 people? We couldn’t overcome it. That’s why I get so mad when they say that we walked off and left ’em. We didn’t walk off and leave ’em, we sweated blood --

M2: That’s right.

JACOBS: -- trying to take care of ’em. We couldn’t. And the people who suffered, instead of being mad at the boss, because he wouldn’t take ’em back, the propaganda was, “You see what happened? The union got you out on strike, and now they walked off and left you.”

11:00

M1: It was a lie.

JACOBS: We had people that we kept on the payroll ‘til the union was busted. Other unions gave us money and the papers that we have here, in the forward, it show -- it’s a story, they have $100,000 being given by the Lady Garment Workers’ Union, who were not part of the textile strike here, but who were part of the textile strike, because they had people in Patterson, New Jersey, who were in the weave shops up there and then furnished those woven things to the industry that made men’s and women’s garments. Other unions helped us, but how many -- how can you help a half a million people, who were in debt when they came out?

M2: They didn’t have anything.

JACOBS: Who were in debt when they came out. Who owed money to the company. You know the song.

M2: Right.

F1: Right.

JACOBS: Sixteen hours and what do you get? One day older and deeper in debt. (laughter) That’s what we used to sing in the mines over there. You talk about going to work in a textile mill, I went to work in a mine when I was 12 12:00years old, ‘cause there wasn’t a law against it.

M2: Right. Right.

JACOBS: Seven and a half cents an hour. Paid in money? No. In script that was only good at the company store. When we went to the company store, we paid double the price. You wanted to get cash for it, you’d give the installment collector, who would be lined up at the pay window, you’d give him a dollar, he’d give you back 90 cents. Then he’d take that dollar in script, give it to the company, they’d give him 95 cents and the company would make another nickel on it. You want to know where power is? The textile mills did the same thing.

M2: That’s right.

JACOBS: They had these villages, they had these company stores, you paid twice the amount. The only thing you got low in a textile village was 50 cents a room for the place you lived, and that was because they were paying you 7, $8 dollars a week to work.

M2: Right.

JACOBS: And when we appeared before congress to raise the wage from 30 cents to 40 cents, they said that we wouldn’t know what to do with the money. That 13:00would be more money we -- (laughter) that’s right. And if you want to look at the congressional records you’ll find that. And if you want to see it, you will see in the Hatteras Plant in Atlanta that that’s how we organized. When we said to the -- the man that ran the plant came in there and said that he was paying his people 30 cents an hour, and if they pay them 40 that they wouldn’t know what to do with it.

M1: That’s somethin’ else.

JACOBS: And the next day all of ’em signed up. There was some 30-odd people in the plant. And that’s the way it was. But part of it is our trouble. We’re either proud of being union people or we’re not.

M1: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

M2: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

JACOBS: And if we’re proud of it we do something.

LUCILLE THORNBURGH: You started out here -- uh, or we started a few minutes ago talking about how did the people the courage to do what they did in that 1934, uh, strike. Uh, I don’t think I had any particular courage. Mine was anger.

M1: Anger, that’s it.

THORNBURGH: That was real anger. I thought that there -- there -- there must be a better way, uh, to live. Course, we were in the throws of the Depression. 14:00You know, Roosevelt had been elected, but in 1934 we were still very much in the Depression.

JACOBS: And we had bread lines too.

THORNBURGH: We had bread lines. You bet we had bread lines in the soup kitchens. And I thought there must be -- I wa-- I was mad --

M2: Mm-hmm.

THORNBURGH: -- because I had to stand on my feet 10 hours a night at that winding machine and getting $8.40 a week. So when this union organizer -- when one of the weave shop men got a union organizer to come to Knoxville, he was a railroad boilermaker. I suppose they didn’t have any textile organizers then.

M2: Mm-hmm.

JACOBS: That’s right.

THORNBURGH: And while he didn’t know anything about our mill, he could tell us all about the union.

M2: Right.

THORNBURGH: And to me it looked like, well, this is one way out. Uh, something, anything could be better --

M2: That’s right.

THORNBURGH: -- than what we have. Just anything. So with that, of course, I started reading and learning about the union, and I had plenty of capacity to learn, ‘cause goodness knows I didn’t know anything about it at the time. 15:00But then I thought, well, this is a way to make a better life for people, and I was even sorry for the people that -- that were working around me -- older women and, of course, I was just 16 years old, and not in excellent health at that time. And I was so mad, because I had to work like that, and I did have to work like that to help support my family. Also we mentioned blacklisting here a while ago. Uh, that blacklisting is really something very dangerous that people are afraid of.

M2: That’s right.

THORNBURGH: Now, I am a blacklisted textile worker and will be as long as I live. Well, after that strike in Knoxville, my family needed for me to go to work. You know, I needed my job. OK, there was no place I could find a job if the TVA hadn’t just started there and I got a job there as file clerk, otherwise I -- I -- I -- I couldn’t find a job. So that is something to make 16:00-- make people, uh, fearful of.

M2: That’s right.

THORNBURGH: But I wasn’t as, uh, faith-- uh, fearful or courageous as I was mad.

M2: Right. (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

THORNBURGH: I was just plain mad about the whole situation. And even after I (clears throat) -- I started working for TVA, I’ll never forget the newspaper on a Saturday afternoon -- we -- our paper was the afternoon paper then -- OK, we got that paper about three o’clock in the afternoon. There it was, a blazing headline across the front there with my picture saying, “TVA employee involved in communistic activity.” (laughter)

M2: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

M1: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

M2: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

THORNBURGH: You can -- you can imagine --

M1: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

THORNBURGH: You can imagine my neighbors. You know, they sort of looking, well, you know, they don’t have too much, and they were another one of those groups that didn’t know communism from rumor-tism.

JACOBS: That’s bad as having AIDS. (laughter)

THORNBURGH: That’s right. That was as bad. And people would look at me, you 17:00know, like, well, you know, I even lost friends over it. They might call me on the telephone, but they didn’t want to be seen in public with me.

M2: Right.

M3: Well, you know, you said earlier about we need to change the (inaudible) what we need to do, we are partially responsible for the image that and that’s still portrayed, you know (inaudible). I have a dear friend that were sitting in the back, and spoke all last night, and, you know, she (inaudible) those words, you know, some years ago. I do it the plant every -- every night that I worked, that for the most part many of us hold that because I joined the union, you supposed to solve all my problems.

M2: Right.

M3: On the other hand, you feel that by being associated with the union, where you got this -- this negative, uh, connotation of what a union is, but, uh, we have so much today at our disposal, mainly to leave. Uh, we have community 18:00projects that we can get involved in to change the outlook of the image, because, like Roy had said earlier about the media, in all of the writings that I have seen in the paper concerning the unions, I’ve only seen one complete article written by a professor at Auburn University, and it did not appear in a national newspaper. It appeared in the Auburn newspaper. And he spoke diligently about the negative image that union, uh, have today versus yesterday, and how it is constantly being portrayed that unions are the worse thing on the face of the earth. He said, but in reality, this is what union does for the community, and he listed point A through, you know -- and I said, well, this was 19:00a great article. Too bad that it’s not in the bigger papers. But then I got a chance to really digest what I read, and I took it back into the plant, and I began trying to, you know, write articles through our newsletter to let our workers know what a union is. Uh, there are plenty people that feel that, well, I pay my dues, you know, I can grab anything I want. I -- see I’d explain to them in the article this is what your union dues do. You know, a union is not something that you take advantage of, and too many of us have taken advantage of it, and sometime I feel that I’ve not done enough. I even ask myself, “What else can I do?” I’ve asked my, um, the manager here, you know, “What else can I do?” You know, what can we do to change the image that we have of the union? Plenty. But we have to first, you know, make that commitment.

20:00

THORNBURGH: I think what he has said there, uh, is very good. I was anxious to come here today, uh, because I wanted to learn what the organizers and what the unions are doing today, and to see how different it might be from what we had in 1934. Frankly, most of your problems are the same problems (laughter) that we ha-- that we had in 1934. But I wondered about your organizing tactics now. When we were organizing -- well, after I became an organizer, uh, I was just paid part time and very little at that time. But our Central Labor Council there in Knoxville had a -- an organizing committee, and we went around in peoples’ homes at night and talked to ’em about joining the union. We would go in different neighborhoods and we really worked at it back then. Well, so like my sister said, who had been an organizer later, she says, “You can’t do that now. The television interferes with you.” You know, people would be glad to see us. They didn’t have anything -- most of ’em didn’t even have 21:00a radio, and they didn’t have anything to do, and they just soon sit there and talk to us as anything. Uh, but I’m -- I’m certain that that part of it, that you don’t go into their homes at -- at night and visit them like we did. But --

M1: Mm-hmm. (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

M3: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

F2: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

M2: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

THORNBURGH: -- that was our -- (overlapping dialogue; inaudible) OK, good, good.

F2: Miss (inaudible), um, I’d like to go back to a earlier comment you made about even if a union organizing a community and loses, the -- the actual, um, unionizing of a plant or a factory, that there’s still some victory in that. And I’d like to basically, um, um -- also, Tom, something you said about, um, the unity of, you know, your courage to come out, because you weren’t alone; there were people there with you, um, standing with you. I -- my earliest recollection of union activity in Kannapolis at Cannon Mills was somewhere around ’74, somewhere in there, when there was a -- a union, um, attempt to -- to, um --

JACOBS: (inaudible)

22:00

F2: Right. And, um, probably there was probably 12,000 employees and there probably was something like 10,000, you know, against the union, or 10,000 for the company and 2,000 -- that’s just a ballpark figure, just -- just to make my point. It was pretty lopsided. It was pretty much like this. And, um, I was working part time in the plant at that particular time and, um, you know, to say the word, you know, “union” was totally taboo, I mean, it was, um, you know, corruption, the whole nine yards. So that was in ’74 and then there wasn’t another -- and -- and of course the union, it wasn’t ACTW but they lost the election, um, there at -- at Cannon Mills. And then again around ’84 or ’85, somewhere in there, um, the-- there was another -- I think it was ACTW this time -- there was another, um, um --

JACOBS: Election.

F2: -- election. But my point is, from ’74, um, to ’85, this -- there was a -- there was a small shift. And -- and -- and during, uh, ’85, I’m the organizer for the Piedmont Peace Project. And, um, what I -- the point I want 23:00to make is in that area at the Piedmont where I organize in, uh, there’s about 12 different counties in a congressional district. And the -- the, um, the size is about the state of Massachusetts. In that area, besides the Ku Klux Klan, the Moral Majority, and the very conservative church, there’s been little organizing efforts done on a grassroots level, particularly not in the progressive community. What Piedmont Peace Project, um, came in to was that climate that was very violent. Um, we had interests of -- of Cannon Mills against you. You had, um, the, um, the Ku Klux Klan, and you had the -- the Moral Majority. We’re considered -- I live in the -- in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Well, those were the early days at PPP, and if we even use a union bug -- and you know when something is a union bug -- on -- on -- on leaflets, people would absolutely freak out. I mean, just -- just the image -- just the imagery of something that was considered union was totally out of the question, and we had to stop doing that. And -- and so during the organizing, um, what 24:00happened was we -- we created climate where people really, really -- another word, empowerment, it has been really overused in terms of us finding our collective voices, the working class of people. And, um, what has happened since then, since ’85, and then to August ’91, there has been a revolution of changing in terms of how people see the union --

M2: Perception, that’s right.

F2: Exactly. And -- and in terms of tactics that unions who -- who are considered outside agitators coming into a community, they even changed, um, you know, their strategies in terms of involving the Piedmont Peace Project. One of our staff people took a leave of absence and worked in the community. Um, even finding churches, um -- of course, you know, there were a lot of ministers who came out for the company, but then there were a lot of ministers who came out for the union this time. Um, but the point is, in ’85 you couldn’t use a -- a union bug, and the people who were for the union were in the closet. In 25:00’91, I mean, our place was just as hot almost as the union hall. And I’d like to take some credit for that as being a organizer in that area, because we helped to create a climate where union is not such a dirty word, where we could -- basically the negative narrative that the companies and the -- and the churches, and the -- well, they’re all related --

M2: Monopoly (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

F2: -- yeah -- were able to, um, to get -- we were able to, um, circumvent some of that.

M2: Mm-hmm.

THORNBURGH: To put that into layman’s language, you sowed the seed there.

M2: Mm-hmm.

F2: Exactly.

THORNBURGH: And the seed grew from what (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

F2: To the point where now there was a 7,000 people vote and --

THORNBURGH: You probably thought as one individual that you weren’t doing anything very influential, but you did.

M2: Mm-hmm.

THORNBURGH: And you see the results of it now.

F2: Yeah, the company, um, you know, um, 199 votes out of something like 7-- that was the margin of -- of -- of voting for the union.

JACOBS: Course it’s more complex than that too.

M2: Mm-hmm.

26:00

JACOBS: And the reason it’s more complex is because from the time of the last election they had to the time of the new election, there was change in the ownership.

F2: Exactly.

JACOBS: There was the issue of the pension.

F2: Yeah, there -- exactly.

JACOBS: There was the issue of a lot of other things that came. I have said over many years that the best organizer does not organize the people. The best organizer is the one who is there when the people are ready to be organized, and that organizer then helps them --

M2: Channels.

JACOBS: -- to know where to go.

F2: Mm-hmm.

JACOBS: You can g-- I can tell you mill after mill that we tried to organize and we lost the election. And th-- we disappeared for a while. We tried to take care of people who got hurt; some we could, some we couldn’t. We’d come back when there was something else wrong. We’d come back when some other change in circumstance happened, but when the people were ready, they organized themselves. The big problem right now is that when they get ready they don’t 27:00know the laws that we have, one of the problems we have, they stretch it out. They fire the leaders.

F2: Mm-hmm.

JACOBS: They decimate your leadership. They bang away at you. They scare you to the extent they can.

F2: They conquer and divide.

JACOBS: Remember what -- conquer and divide. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself said Roosevelt? That’s it.

M2: That’s right.

JACOBS: Fear. And the laws are no good, so as a result, we lose so many of ’em. If we could get them when they were ready, we would win them. That’s the reason why they send the [Hudson Thompson?] and that crowd, they’re out of Atlanta originally, and we’d see them all the time. Their job is to have what they call a union-free society, where they don’t have to deal with unions, where the boss can run it like he wants --

M2: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

JACOBS: -- nobody can question it. That’s why --

HELFAND: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

JACOBS: -- when they talk about working like --