Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Title

Perfect Harmony: the Myth of Tupelo's Industrial Tranquility

Date of Award

2012

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D. in History

First Advisor

Elizabeth Anne Payne

Second Advisor

Melvin S. Arrington

Third Advisor

Sheila Skemp

Abstract

Despite a vast amount of research on Southern labor in the 1930s, historians paid little attention to Northeast Mississippi. This predominantly rural area, though, boasted some of the largest garment factories of the period. Local businessmen established a cotton mill and three clothing manufacturing companies in Tupelo, the seat of Lee County. Town boosters boasted of harmonious relations between workers and management at each of the industrial facilities. In the spring of 1937, however, the cotton mill hands undertook a sit-down strike. Five days later, the women in the Tupelo Garment Company tried to initiate a strike. Both efforts failed. The cotton mill owners refused to negotiate. When it became clear that the operatives would not end the strike, management closed the plant indefinitely. The leaders of the strike at the garment company received little support from the majority of workers who earlier pledged allegiance. The plant manager fired the six women identified as the organizers of a local independent union. For the next four years, National Labor Relations Board hearings and organizing efforts by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union rocked the small town. The experience of the cotton mill workers and the garment company women expose Southern paternalism as a façade created and accepted by area businessmen but rejected by local workers. This study also challenges the prevailing opinion that Southern workers were bereft of class-consciousness. Without fitting into the Marxist definition of a proletariat, the farm women, who commuted to and from the factories via school buses, created a class-consciousness which related more to their rural identity than to their factory experience.

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