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“Treated Like Slaves”: Textile Workers Write to Washington in the 1930s and 1940s

The 1934 textile strike failed to bring the transformation in work conditions and social relations that the strikers had hoped to win and was widely considered a devastating defeat for Labor. An important window into the persistence of poor conditions in the mills is the letters that the mill workers (both male and female) wrote to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and other government officials describing their plight. These letters provided compelling evidence of the discontent that lingered after the 1934 strike. Included here are five letters from textile mill communities in Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina, which were written to Washington between 1937 and 1942. The letters testified not only to the difficult work conditions but also to the pervasive fear the workers felt if they tried to organize or complain publicly. One person who signed himself “just a worker” puts it simply: “I will have to be nameless or lose my job.”

Knoxville, Tennessee, January 20, 1937

Dear President:

I am addressing this letter to you, because I believe you will send it to the proper department for right consideration.

The labor conditions at the Appalachian Cotton Mills here are worse than miserable—they are no less than slavery. The mill has only two shifts, day and night shifts, and each of them 10 hours long. The scale of wages is very low, and the mill is a veritable sweatshop. None of the women workers know what they are making, until they draw their pay check at each weekend, and their wages is not sufficient for them to live on.

The mill should have 3 eight hour shifts, or two 8 hour shifts with a considerable increase in their wages. The women and men too, draw from $4.00 to $12.00 per week. Mr. Roosevelt, men can not live on such wages as this, and feed even a small family. Such conditions as these are worse than coercion, it will force men and women to steal, and it surely is not good Americanism. Am I to think that this great big civilization is going to stand for such intolerable conditions as these I have mentioned above. I believe sir, that they are worse than criminal. Such conditions bring sufferings to the unfortunate poor, that have to reek out a miserable existence without even a slaves opportunity to attend worship on the Lord’s day. It will take sharp detection to get the facts from this mill, but someone should see to it, that the long hours and short wages be put to an end. If the workers were to rebel against these unfair, and unamerican conditions, then the authorities would pronounce them Reds, or communists. The women have asked me to write this letter to you, because they believe you would remedy the conditions, and lighten their burdens. Now that I have wrote it I have used the fifth chapter of St. James in the N.T. [New Testament] as a base for the letter, which is literally fulfilling every minute.

Let us hope for the best.

R. H. O.

Burlington, North Carolina, March 4, 1937

Dear Mr & Mrs. Roosevelt:

I just had a great desire to write and tell you something that I hardly know what to say for I am a poor widow woman with 4 children and uneducated and don’t know how to word a letter but in my simple way am going to try and explain what I am about to write we poor working people love you and Mr Roosevelt our President and we done everything we could do to make him our President again now what I am about to say is this the firm we all work for works us all just as long as they want to and pay us just as little as they please to which we poor people can not live on never do we have a dime for Doctor are medicine are any thing else and it sure looks hard and it is hard please Mr. Roosevelt in the name of our Lord isn’t there something that can be done about it if we get sick we have to die are get well the best we can for the Doctors have got so they won’t treat people without money and that is something the working class of people don’t have since the NRA was killed down at Raleigh the senate have passed a law to work men 55 hours a week and more and women 48 hours are more even if we worked that many hours we couldn’t make a living with the wages we all get it really isn’t fair for the poor working class of people to be treated like slaves never have a showing in this world just toil and worry day in and day out with half enough to eat and half enough to keep warm.

God Bless you Both.

Please give this to our President Mr. Roosevelt am sending you a clipping out of the paper of what they are doing down at Raleigh for us we don’t think it is fair please do something about it if you can for our sake do.

Mrs. L. B.

South Carolina, May 3, 1937

Dear Miss Perkins:

Wonder if you could get the men in Washington to do something for the laboring people. Here where I work we have 40 hours a week but in the weave room they start from 15 to 20 minutes before 7 o’clock in the morning and same at noon they do not force us to be there then but we have the batteries to catch up so you see we do about 2 1/2 hours a week without any pay.

When the NRA came on spinners were running around 8 sides two weeks after NRA they had to run 10 sides to get $12.00 they speed up so much it makes it so hard, and now they are adding more to the frames and not adding much to wages of course they have raised our wages a little twice in the last few months.

I am sure they use as much cotton and make as much cloth in the 8 hours as they did in the 10 before they speeded up so much. The S.C. law makers never do any thing to benefit the laborers. We are stretched out. So even the young people are complaining that it is too hard for them. Where will it end? If some one does not do something I notice where wages and hours are to be taken up next week if we get shorter hours and more money please see that there is no more speed up or stretch out for it is bad now. Thank you.

I will have to be nameless or lose my job.


Greensboro, North Carolina, April 19, 1938

[Dear Miss Perkins]:

My purpose in writing you is that you ought to know some things are going on in Rayon industries especially at Carter Fabrics corporations. We think a larger percentage of workers are from near by towns and cities and the people in and around Greensboro stand little or no chance. As proof of this the public service co. made a survey with end in view to put a trolley car to said plant. But found as stated above a larger portion of workers at said plant were from Riedsville, Highpoint, Burlington, Randlman and other places. Of course you know why they do this and it’s this. Should there be labor trouble it would not be centralized. Help are brought in by car loads from places mentioned above. We have known help to be laid off here that lives in Greensboro without any cause and people from elsewhere to be put in their place in fact the basis of the whole job is run on friendship. Overseers came from elsewhere. We want to mention too the stretch out system. We do not see how they can hardly stand it anymore. It seems something could be done about this. This is a new plant started up last year. We have heard the plant cost completed 70,50000 [sic]. Women on standing jobs have no rest stools. N.C. [North Carolina] Law says they must have. H. C. is Supt. He is a young man recently married. I don’t guess he would want his wife to work eight hours without resting some. Remembering Mr. Roosevelt’s opening speech to Congress in Jan. they stretched out the same day. Their wage scale is less than other smaller plants. We want to speak of the union briefly. This writer does not belong to any union. We know of one man laid off on account of union activity. But he was told that his work was not satisfactory.

I’m withholding my name. Drop this letter in waste basket after having it typed off for Greensboro News if you will. Would be glad of any thing you can do to help in this matter. This Co. says they are not making any money. But surely they must be because the help is not getting very much pay for their labor. Wish you would see that it is put in sunday’s news. Do not send this letter back to any one as I am an employee and have only stated some facts you being head of our Labor department. Maybe you can bring about some adjustments.


Greenville, South Carolina, January 22, 1942

U.S. Department of Labor

Dear Sirs:

I am writing you for my benefits of work I am working at Judson Mill Spinning Room I am laying up roping for the spinning room the job has stretched me out until I cant hardly make it to save my life it is awful the way we have to work in this spinning room and I work on saturday and I am sent out one day through the week to keep me from getting six days or 48 hours and time and half time for eight hours I have been working like this for over a year and I don’t think it is right and I would like to know what to do about it I need the job for I have to work to make a living I only had 104 frames to lay up roping on and they put in 30 more frames up in the old spinning room and have got 24 of them running now and I have to take roping up there for the 24 frames and the 104 frames downstairs is more than a job. More than a year or two when C. M. was Boss Spinner some of us boys was sent out for two or 4 hours each day and had to go back in and finish working until stopping time to keep down the expense we was running our job in 4 and 6 hours which we should have had 8 hours for the job and this was not right so I hope you can till me what to do. If you will send some one to my house I can tell you more than I can write but I don’t want my name mentioned to any of the mill officials for I would not have any job at all if they even knew I wrote to you but I guess others have wrote you many letters nor does Judson Mill pay the wages that the other mills pay for the same job but I know it is my privilege to go to another mill but I don’t want to change jobs because I might have to take another shift I go to work at 4 o’clock and quit at twelve at night. It is hard for this mill to keep hands here for the way they treat them. I think it is awful and I have to work for I am poor. Of course some people would not tell you anything about this now way if you send a man to my house I will give him all the information he wants about the spinning room at Judson Mill some of the other hands would tell you if they was not afraid to talk see the hands and talk to them for they are afraid to say much but I am not afraid to tell you if you came to me about my work but I don’t want my name mentioned to them.

So I will close for this time

T. W. B.

Source: Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Slaves of the Depression: " Workers' Letters About Life on the Job, (Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1987), pp. 76–80.