home | many pasts | evidence | www.history | blackboard | reference
talking history | syllabi | students | teachers | puzzle | about us
search: go!
advanced search - go!

“We Don’t Know What Will Happen to Our People”: A Mill Worker Describes Effects of Layoffs on a Virginia Mill Town

Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) on June 25, 1938, the last major piece of New Deal legislation. The act outlawed child labor and guaranteed a minimum wage of 40 cents an hour and a maximum work week of 40 hours, benefiting more than 22 million workers. Although the law helped establish a precedent for the Federal regulation of work conditions, conservative forces in Congress effectively exempted many workers, such as waiters, cooks, janitors, farm workers, and domestics, from its coverage. In October 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed into law the Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1949, raising the minimum wage to 75 cents hour and extending coverage, but still leaving many workers unprotected. In the following statement to the 1949 Senate subcommittee on FLSA amendments, Shirley Hall, described as a “typical cotton-textile worker,” discussed material and psychological concerns over layoffs from her town’s main source of employment: a large cotton mill. She also argued that an increased minimum wage would increase consumer spending and boost the economy.

Statement of Miss Shirley Hall, Textile Workers Union, Danville, Va.

Miss HALL. My name is Shirley Hall, and I am a member of the textile workers union and work in the Dan River Mills, in Danville, Va. I have been working in the mills, not all the time at Danville, but the mill in Danville is organized and the minimum wage is 87 cents an hour. In our joint board we have another mill that is organized, a small knitting mill, seamless hosiery, and they have a minimum of 73 cents an hour.

All the people in the union would like for them to make as much as the workers in the cotton mill, but we can’t go to the company say, “You have to raise it to 87 cents.” There is too much competition.

We want this company to stay in business. They have to stay in business because our people get their living from them.

In the last couple of weeks we have become more concerned than usual about this whole thing because of the unemployment situation in Danville. The mills are just now getting back to normal. They are cutting off a third shift. In the last 2 weeks 1,500 of our people have been laid off work completely. In Danville the Dan River Mills are really the only source of employment. We have a few other factories, a little tobacco factory with a minimum wage of 65 cents an hour, an overall factory with a minimum wage of 65 cents an hour, a flour mill with a minimum wage of 40 cents an hour, and a small fertilizer factory paying 40 cents an hour, a laundry paying 35 cents, I believe, and a bakery with a minimum wage of 60 cents.

Our people in the last couple of years have got just a little bit used to making more money than that. They have paid off bills that they have owed for years and years, and when somebody comes to the door now instead of sending the kid to say, “Mother isn’t home,” the head of the house can answer the door because he is not afraid.

We don’t know what will happen to our people. The only way that much hardship could be avoided is for the minimum-wage law to go into effect so our people will get 75 cents or more. I have been trying to think how the people who made 40 and 50 cents an hour got along, and in Danville I don’t see how it could be done, because the Danville mills are the biggest thing and most of the people work there. Most of the prices in stores have been geared to what our people could pay, or maybe more than our people could pay, and now that so many of our people are out of work, the ones that have money aren’t spending it, they are scared stiff, business in town is suffering already.

A friend of ours on the council has a super market, and he told us that in the last 2 weeks his business has gone down 25 percent. Most of our people make, I am sure our average wage is $1.17 an hour. That looks like a pretty good amount of money, but since Christmas we have been on very short time. Some of our people would get 10 hours a week. I think a very few of them are still working 6 days a week. The majority of us are working 4 days a week. The people who were making that weren’t living well.

The man of the house would make $39 a week if he is lucky. I have a friend who has three children that go to school, and they buy milk and shoes and all that, so she does sewing on the side, and she had saved enough money to buy herself a suit for Easter, but she couldn’t do it because her little girl’s toes had gotten infected around the nails, they were coming off, and I reckon she figured it was more important to take her child to the doctor at $5 a trip than to have a new suit. It was lucky she had that money on hand.

Our people are desperately afraid we are going back to the days when I was growing up. When I was a child my mother worked in the mill and my dad worked in the mill, the older kids took care of the younger ones and cooked supper. It wasn’t a good way to live, and I think we were trying to forget about it, but now it has been forced back on us, and we can’t forget.

I know that last week or last month the time came when we had to buy a license for our dog we have at home. It is a dollar, so that wasn’t so bad. When I was about 10 years we got a little dog, we found him on the railroad. He had been hit by a train. We lugged him home and took care of him. Along about February we had to buy a license. Daddy didn’t have a dollar. We fastened the dog under the house when we left for school, and we rushed home from school to make sure the game warden hadn’t gotten him. It was very serious to us, although it may seem kind of silly now. I don’t want my kids or my sister’s kids to be worried about things like that.

I think if this law is passed raising the minimum wage, that the buying power of this country will pick up immediately. I work in a sheeting mill in Danville. Half of the people I know don’t have enough sheets. If somebody gets sick, they have to wash sheets every day or go to the neighbors and borrow some.

I suppose half the people in the country don’t have a lot of things they need. They have the necessities, but not the luxuries, but if this bill is passed, the buying power will pick up immediately and people in New York can buy the sheets we are making in Danville and maybe we can buy the shoes they are making some place else, and the only thing I think now that will eliminate this fear that all our people have is that.

A few of them have bonds. A man I know has some bonds and he needs some money. He is trying to sell his car. He is not going to sell his bonds.

That is all.

Source: Fair Labor Standards Act Amendments of 1949, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, United States Senate, 81<sup>st</sup>Congress, 1<sup>st</sup> Session, on S. 58, S. 67, S. 92, S. 105, S. 190, S. 248 and S. 653, April 11–14 and 18–22, 1949. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949.