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“A Shocking Instance of Brutal Employer Aggression”: Antiunion Violence in a “Union-Free” Town

In the late 1940s, large labor unions and major corporations worked out an accord that guided labor-management relations for the next quarter century. During this period, unions benefited from high wages and relative stability, while relegating company decision-making to management. Many workers in certain geographic areas and sectors of employment, however, were not affected by the accord. In “union-free” Gainesville, Georgia, union representatives had started to organize a predominately female workforce in a large poultry plant. In the following statement to a House subcommittee on labor-management relations, these representatives related a violent mob attack led by company officials. They called for legislation to repeal a clause in the Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947 by a Republican-led Congress over President Harry S. Truman’s veto. The clause, the union representatives argued, encouraged employers threatened with union organizing to encourage citizens groups and local authorities to undertake vigilante actions against union organizers. In September 1951, one month after this hearing, a trial examiner for the National Labor Relations Board held the Jewell Company liable for instigating the riot described in the statement.


This subcommittee is familiar with the pattern of employer opposition to self-organizational activities of employees in industrial establishments throughout the South. In this case, the committee will consider a shocking instance of brutal employer aggression calculated to destroy a peaceful self-organizational program of a group of employees in Gainesville, Ga., seeking the benefits of collective bargaining pursuant to the laws of the United States. Few cases have ever been presented to any congressional committee in which the guaranteed rights of employees have been flouted under more brazen circumstances. This is a case involving mob violence callously instigated, authorized, encouraged, ratified and condoned by officials and supervisors of J. B. Jewell, Inc. The mass assault described by union witnesses was inflicted on union members and representatives as they were leaving the employer’s premises, where officials of the National Labor Relations Board had just concluded the counting of ballots in an employee representational election, conducted under the auspices of that Government agency. The attack occurred late at night, on March 15, 1951, in the city of Gainesville, Ga., on and in front of the premises of the company. The union men were viciously attacked and beaten by a mob wielding blackjacks and rubber hoses. Participants in the mob included top level company supervisors and company employees, acting by permission and with the approval of company supervisory representatives.

The entire sordid story of the mass attack on union representatives is a logical but tragic culmination of the entire chain of events which commenced when the union came to Gainesville to aid the employees in their self-organizational activities. Mr. Jewell has openly stated his antagonism toward the union and his opposition toward the unionization of his plant. During his testimony at a Labor Board hearing, Mr. Jewell stated that he would consider it fortunate if the union could be induced to leave Gainesville. The mad attack on the night of March 15, was calculated to drive the union out of Gainesville. The basic tragedy in this case lies in the fundamental fact that mob violence has been used as a weapon to destroy the fundamental rights of American workers. The acts of mass violence which occurred in Gainesville are recognized as the most universally condemned form of antiunion conduct, because they constitute outright physical interference with the rights of employees under the labor law of the land. In considering the social tragedy inherent in this fact situation, the members of this committee will agree that their first concern must be the adequacy of the Federal laws under which remedial relief is available. The root of conflict in this case is the commendable desire of employees to engage in collective bargaining for the purpose of improving their terms and conditions of employment. Long ago, congressional policy declared that collective-bargaining activities must be protected. In Gainesville, the collective-bargaining activities promoted under the auspices of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America were inspired by the desire to alleviate the oppressive economic status of the workers employed in the poultry industry there. The family budget necessary to maintain a modest standard of living is as great in Gainesville as in any other city of the United States of comparable size. The goods which workers are required to buy for themselves and their families cost as much in Gainesville as in many other cities throughout the United States. There is no sociological justification for the maintenance of depressed wage conditions in the southeastern section of the United States. The workers there are entitled to a standard of living equal to that enjoyed by organized workers in other parts of the country. For this reason, it is appropriate for this committee to inquire into the adequacy of the laws designed to protect the integrity of the collective-bargaining process.

The workers in the Jewell plant were being paid 75 cents an hour for all types of work, regardless of the length of experience of the employees. The poultry industry is the largest industry in Gainesville and the greater portion of the city’s workers must earn their living in the city’s poultry plants. The Jewell Co. is the largest of these plants in what is known as the second largest broiler-producing area in the world.

The union believes that the National Labor Relations Board will find the company guilty as charged in the complaint issued by the Board. The testimony introduced during a hearing conducted before a trial examiner of the National Labor Relations Board showed conclusively that the company instigated and encouraged and condoned and ratified the outrageous mass attacks on union men on the night of March 15. Any reasonable man reading the record in that case must agree that top-level company supervisors conspired with company truck drivers in a concerted plan which was effectuated by the mob assault. The collective acts of violence were proven to have been instigated and carried out with supervisory consent and condoned and ratified by authority of the president of the company. In the fact situation presented in the case before the National Labor Relations Board, there is no room for doubt as to employer responsibility. However, the aspect of the case which is of utmost significance to the members of this committee deals with the problem of employer motivation. The union charges that underlying responsibility for the incidents occurring on the night of March 15, must be ascribed to the change in the Federal law under which the employer could believe that he could escape responsibility for the very acts of violence which he encouraged. Under the former Wagner Act, the employer was made responsible for the acts of those who were acting in the employer’s interest. Under the revisions effectuated by the Taft-Hartley amendments, the employer is now liable only for the acts of his agents. Under section 2 (2), this limitation is specifically spelled out. A typical and revealing example of the impact of this change in the law on labor relations was seen during the hearing in this case. The facts of the assault were not denied. The presence of the supervisors and company officials was not controverted. The failure of the company to make any investigation to fix responsibility was conceded. The failure of the company to repudiate responsibility for the attack was also admitted.

With calloused indifference, company officials merely shrugged their shoulders as they indicated that lack of knowledge and lack of specific authorization or specific condonation under the new law gave the company immunity from Federal prosecution. Unfortunately for the company, the evidence produced by the Board clearly established company responsibility even under the more rigorous requirements of the new law. Thus, it was established that the company was responsible for the proven participation of its supervisory agents in the planned mass assault on the union representatives. The failure of the company’s defense arose out of the ability of the union and the Board to prove direct participation by company supervisory agents in the events which occurred on the night of March 15. It is obvious that the company never expected the union nor the Board to be able to make such proof. The company built its case on the basis of its contrived neutrality. The company sought to show that it “cooperated” with the Board in arranging for an election and that there was no overt public hostility demonstrated by the company toward the union. In this way, the company sought to show that there was no motive and that the entire fact situation failed to show the existence of a common law agency.

In view of the company’s desperate efforts to escape liability, it can be assumed that the mob attack of March 15, would never have been instigated or encouraged under the Wagner Act. Under the state of the law as it existed prior to the amendments, the company would have known that it could not possibly have escaped responsibility. While this is conjecture, the union submits that the inference is a reasonable one to be drawn on the basis of the irrefutable logic inherent in the fact situation. If the National Labor Relations Board absolves the company from responsibility in this case, then it must be proclaimed that this union and the workers in Gainesville are a casualty of section 2 (2), of the Taft-Hartley Act. At any rate, the union contends that these amendments in the Taft-Hartley law promoted violence in the labor-management relations picture because of the fact that antiunion employers have come to the conclusion that they can be made responsible only for the acts of their common-law agents. In this connection, it is well to remember the principal precepts of the infamous Mohawk Valley formula. Under that doctrine, employers were told that vigilante action should be mobilized on an undercover basis and that employer responsibility could be hidden under the guise of purportedly spontaneous community action. If the strictures of section 2 (2) of the Taft-Hartley law are rigorously effectuated, it can only result in a reactivation of this phase of the Mohawk Valley formula above described. An increase in vigilante action secretly promulgated by antiunion employers will be the price which America will be required to pay for this unfortunate amendment in the Taft-Hartley Act.

Another phase in this situation which must be considered by this committee is the inability of the union to procure a meeting place for its membership meetings in the city of Gainesville. During the early stages of the organizational campaign, the union was able to obtain use of the municipal community center (known as the Civic Center), a Federal courtroom, a room in the Dixie Hunt Hotel, and a church. One meeting was conducted in each of these places. However, further meetings in all of these places were prohibited, and on the basis of various excuses further use of the courtroom, the hotel, and the church was denied. Additional efforts were made to obtain further use of the municipally owned community center for the purpose of conducting a union meeting on the night of March 6. A rental arrangement had previously been completed on March 2. However, on March 6, the union was advised by the city manager that the community center would not be available for any union meetings. Upon protest to the city manager, the union was advised that the action was taken by the three city commissioners. The municipal community center is available to all citizens and groups of citizens for all kinds of meetings and gatherings. The J. D. Jewell Co. used the center for an employees' Christmas party in December 1950. However, by action of the city commissioners, the community center is not available for a meeting by citizens of the city who propose to conduct a meeting under the auspices of their union.

This discrimination against residents of the community is obviously designed to interfere with the self-organizational activities of employees in the community. It is in line with the announced boast of the local chamber of commerce that “there are no unions in Gainesville.” The local chamber of commerce has advised prospective industrialists that Gainesville is union-free and that the only union which exists in Gainesville is a small carpenters local. . . .

The union urges this committee to fully investigate the deprivation of civil rights for which the city officials of Gainesville are responsible. The refusal of the city officials to grant meeting-hall privileges to union member residents of Gainesville is an antiunion act. This municipal cooperation with antilabor forces in the community has occurred in various cities throughout the South and, unless curtailed, will become the basic pattern in the campaign of antiunion aggression throughout the area. . . . It is fair to say that the constitutional guaranty of the right of assembly is being subverted by the municipal managers of Gainesville at the behest of the antiunion employers. Fair play in democratic America dictates the need for remedial action in this fact situation.

In conclusion, the union urges that the members of this committee devote their earnest attention to the violent antiunion conduct revealed in this case. Full responsibility for the outright physical interference with the guaranteed rights of American employees must be fixed and the violations of law must be rectified. Such responsibility and rectification constitute the minimum program of law enforcement in industrial America. If the basic rights of American workers are to be preserved in accordance with the basic guaranties of the Bill of Rights, antiunion employers must be effectively prevented from escaping the consequences of their own wrongdoing.

Source: Congress, Senate, Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, J. D. Jewell Co., 82nd Congress, 1st Session on J. D. Jewell Co. and Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, A.F.L., August 9, 1951 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1951), 2–5.