Keeping the Memory of Working-Class Struggle Alive in Philadelphia

Jake Blumgart

A textile worker in 'The Uprising of '34.' (YouTube)

On Tues­day, as the rest of the city pre­pared to watch the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Pres­i­den­tial debates, a hand­ful of Philadel­phi­ans trick­led into the Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege of Philadelphia’s Win­net Stu­dent Life Build­ing. Even the spec­ta­cle of Bernie Sanders decry­ing cap­i­tal­ism in front of a live tele­vi­sion audi­ence could not wrench them from the biweek­ly rit­u­al of the Philadel­phia Unem­ploy­ment Project’s (PUP) instruc­tion­al film series on the his­to­ry of class war in America.

PUP is a decades-old advo­ca­cy group that has attempt­ed to com­bat the city’s chron­ic jobs short­age since the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor began to shrink dra­mat­i­cal­ly decades ago. The orga­ni­za­tion is led by John Dodds, whose grey hair is slicked to the back of his head, who has worked in the trench­es since the oil reces­sions of the 1970s. The Amer­i­cans in Strug­gle film series is his idea of a reminder that change does not come with­out ter­ri­ble suf­fer­ing and cost­ly con­flict. Piz­za is also served.

The Winnet’s room S23 sports audi­to­ri­um-style seat­ing and the kind of col­lapsi­ble wood­en chairs that are usu­al­ly only forced upon stu­dents. Judg­ing from the pre­dom­i­nant hair col­or in the room — grey, like Dodds’ — the crowd prob­a­bly hasn’t need­ed to grap­ple with such remorse­less­ly uncom­fort­able seat­ing for over half a century.

There are plen­ty of younger spec­ta­tors too, despite the debate-thinned crowd. (Tuesday’s film only attract­ed 25 guests, but PUP’s Amer­i­cans in Strug­gle series usu­al­ly wins an aver­age crowd of 45 and the total has at times reached 80 heads and filled most of the seats, accord­ing to Dodds.) A cou­ple of the orga­niz­ers of Philadelphia’s branch of 15 Now sit in the back of the room, nib­bling at the com­pli­men­ta­ry pop­corn and pep­per­oni piz­za. North Philadel­phia res­i­dent William Dav­en­port, who works at a nurs­ing home and some­times vol­un­teers with PUP, sat near the front, a cou­ple cans of Sprite arrayed at his elbow for the movie ahead.

The best one so far was [the Ver­non Johns Sto­ry], that was a pow­er­ful movie,” says Dav­en­port, refer­ring to the first screen­ing of a 1994 movie about the man who has been described as the father of the civ­il rights move­ment (James Earl Jones por­trays him in the made for TV pro­duc­tion). This year’s sec­ond show­ing, Har­vest of Empire, a doc­u­men­tary about U.S. poli­cies in Latin Amer­i­ca and how they affect immi­gra­tion to our bor­ders, made an impres­sion as well.

It showed how [dif­fi­cult] life is in Mex­i­co, and now you have peo­ple like Trump say­ing we should build walls and all this,” says Dav­en­port, shak­ing his head. But things are so bad that if peo­ple can’t go over [the bor­der], they’ll go under it.”

This week, the film in ques­tion was The Upris­ing of 34, a PBS doc­u­men­tary about the mas­sive tex­tile work­ers strike that rocked sev­er­al South­ern states dur­ing the ear­ly New Deal. The film is not nar­rat­ed pro­fes­sion­al­ly; instead, the entire sto­ry is told by the work­ers, mill own­ers and their children. 

It was on Labor Day of 1934 that I wit­nessed the clos­et thing this coun­try ever had to a rev­o­lu­tion,” one man says at the open­ing of the film. The gen­er­al tex­tile strike was one of the largest strikes in Amer­i­can history.”

To the strains of ban­jo and fid­dle music, the doc­u­men­tary describes the tight-knit but oppres­sive con­di­tions in the mill towns. Own­ers exert author­i­tar­i­an con­trol over their work­ers, kick­ing them out of their jobs and homes (which the com­pa­ny owned) if they drink whiskey, don’t attend church or try to orga­nize a union.

As con­di­tions in the indus­try change and a tex­tile glut devel­ops, com­pe­ti­tion among the firms ratch­ets up to unbear­able lev­els. Work­ers are forced to do the jobs of three peo­ple at once, one old union­ist recalls. The new min­i­mum wages set by the Nation­al Recov­ery Admin­is­tra­tion are not being paid. The hor­ri­ble con­di­tions in the mills end up inspir­ing between 300,000 and 500,000 work­ers to go on strike across the South and in some North­ern states. Fly­ing squadrons dri­ve from town to town to ral­ly sup­port, bring­ing the indus­try to a standstill.

The images in the film seem to come from some pre-civ­il rights move­ment, with long columns of white peo­ple bear­ing plac­ards (“Do We Look Like Out­laws”) march across the coun­try­side singing We Shall Not Be Moved.” (Black work­ers are rare in the mills at that time and they fear being lynched if they are con­sid­ered pro-union.)

It was a damnable out­rage that some­thing like this could hap­pen in a civ­i­lized coun­try,” one mill owner’s son recalls his father say­ing, as his work­ers take over the plant and shut it down. The mill own­ers get local author­i­ties to dep­u­tize rough­necks, one of whom is seen load­ing a shot­gun. South­ern gov­er­nors glee­ful­ly ral­ly the Nation­al Guard and deploy the sol­diers against the strikers.

Machine gun­ners are sta­tioned at the entrance to the mills. At least sev­en peo­ple are killed, many shot in the back as they flee. One man is chased into his own home and stabbed to death with bay­o­nets. The strike is soon bro­ken in all but name, as the union lead­ers — who do not have the funds or infra­struc­ture to sup­port the hun­dreds of thou­sands of sud­den­ly wage-less work­ers — agree to a set­tle­ment that sup­pos­ed­ly allows all the work­ers go back to their jobs. In actu­al­i­ty, many are Refused Re-Employ­ment” by their vin­dic­tive boss­es and expelled from their homes and communities. 

After the doc­u­men­tary clos­es, a mid­dle aged African-Amer­i­can man in the back of the room responds to the call for ques­tions or com­ments. I just sat back here are and almost cried a lit­tle bit. … I’m wip­ing the tears from my face and look­ing at a bunch of white peo­ple I don’t know, but I just felt an emo­tion­al attach­ment to them because of the strug­gles they were going through,” he says.

The room soon devolves into a back and forth about the role of the state in labor dis­putes. Isn’t the law sup­posed to be neu­tral, one woman asks. Anoth­er dis­cours­es on the his­to­ry of the Nation­al Guard as a strike break­ing force.

In the crowd is Lance Haver, a long­time Philadel­phia activist and now city council’s direc­tor for pub­lic engage­ment. He dis­miss­es the idea that the tex­tile strike was a failure.

The human cost of this ends up giv­ing FDR the votes he need­ed,” argues Haver. The arc of his­to­ry is long. If you expect suc­cess in every strug­gle, in each moment, you’ll be dis­ap­point­ed. It’s real­ly not that simple.”

Dodds stands at the front of the room, look­ing bone weary. Strik­ers may not be get­ting bay­o­net­ed to death any­more, but that’s at least part­ly because there are bare­ly any strik­ers left any­more. The state, and the boss­es, seem to have found qui­eter ways to keep peo­ple unor­ga­nized and vulnerable.

There’s a whole his­to­ry of the gov­ern­ment and the states and the Nation­al Guard sid­ing with the boss­es,” says Dodds. The boss­es are very often in cahoots with the politi­cians. That was a pret­ty amaz­ing attempt [in 1934], but that’s what we’re up against. Even today we have the same thing where the wealth con­trols every­thing. The peo­ple with mon­ey con­trol everything.”

Class dis­missed.

Jake Blum­gart is a free­lance reporter-researcher based in Philadel­phia. You can fol­low him on Twit­ter here.
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