Armstrong State University
On July 21, 1914, Alexander Daly and Inis Weed, investigators from the US Commission on Industrial Relations, arrived at the sight of a recent labor strike at Atlanta’s Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. Congress created the US Commission on Industrial Relations in 1912 to explore labor conditions and unrest in the country’s core industries through open investigations.Unrest at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, Atlanta’s top producer of cloth and paper bags, began in 1914. Strikers, angered by the firing of union members, unsanitary conditions, long work hours, and a strict employment contract, walked out on the morning of May 20, 1914. By the early twentieth century, Georgia’s capital city was nationally important as the hub of the South’s regional economy. Atlanta’s new national position caused tensions between the city’s traditional political, economic, and social ways, and those of modern times. This tension is easily seen in the response by Atlanta’s population to the investigation by the US Commission on Industrial Relations into the strike at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. Although several middle class groups, led by the Men and Religion Forward Movement (MRFM), supported strikers and welcomed a federal investigation, prominent business owners and Southern Democrats saw the investigation as an invasion by the federal government into their state’s industry. Southern Democrats and local business owners joined together to make the investigation at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill as ineffectual as possible, while undermining the authority of the US Commission on Industrial Relations.
Originally proposed by a group of educators, social workers, and scholars from New York State to President William Howard Taft in 1912, Congress formed the US Commission on Industrial Relations to explore labor conditions and the sources of unrest in the nation’s core industries. In direct response to the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building by brothers J. B. and J. J. McNamara, prominent social reformers gathered to discuss possible reasons for and solutions to the rising tensions in industrial relations.President Taft signed the bill creating the commission on August 23, 1914. This bill specified that the commission would consist of nine individuals who were appointed by the president and approved by Congress. Of these nine individuals, three were required to be employers of labor, while three were to be representatives of organized labor. As the presidential election of 1912 came and went, Congress could not agree to accept the members recommended by President Taft. Therefore, the president-elect, Woodrow Wilson, and his Congress made the final decision. As Graham Adams, Jr. concludes in his monograph on the Commission, Taft clearly realized that, “his own appointees would have used this authority discreetly and produced a sober, limited report without a hint of sensation.” However, “For all his care, Taft had placed this potentially dangerous weapon directly into the hands of his enemies. They now entered Washington with a promise of sweeping reforms under the banner of the New Freedom.”
In the presidential election of 1912, Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat from the South, defeated the split Republican vote and brought the Democratic Party back to the White House for the first time in decades. On June 26, 1913, President Wilson released the names of the individuals who would ultimately be in charge of investigating the nations’ industries as the Commissioners on Industrial Relations. The three individuals named to represent employers included Harris Weinstock, a Progressive businessman from California, Samuel Thurston Ballard, a flour mill owner from Kentucky, and Frederick A Delano, president of the Wabash Railroad and uncle of the future president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, one year into the Commission, Delano resigned to become vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve board. Richard H. Aishton, vice president of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, replaced the railroad executive on the commission. James O’Connell of Pennsylvania, Austin B. Garrettson from Iowa, and John B. Lennon from Illinois were chosen as the representatives of labor. Lennon and O’Connell, members of American Federation of Labor unions, as well as Garretson, President of the Brotherhood of Railroad Conductors, all survived as original appointees by Taft in 1912. However, President Wilson replaced the three individuals chosen by his predecessor to represent the public. President Wilson chose Frank P. Walsh, a labor lawyer from Missouri, Florence J. Harriman, a Democratic fundraiser from New York, and John R. Commons, a labor economist at the University of Wisconsin, to represent the public.
The highly distinguished individuals chosen as commissioners by President Wilson represented the spectrum of American society. A few boasted Ivy League college degrees, while most were self-educated and gained recognition for their work on the job. Most of President Wilson’s appointees believed in Progressive ideals, especially in comparison to the individuals chosen by Taft in 1912.Although diverse in their backgrounds and education, President Wilson’s appointees were not diverse when it came to their regional attachments. Of the nine commissioners, only one came from the South. President Wilson’s decision to limit the number of southern representatives can be explained by his contingent relationship with the South. In the election of 1912, President Wilson received most of his electoral support from the South and border states. However, it is clear that President Wilson did not want to continue to be dependent on the South throughout his administration. President Wilson’s commitment to the nation as a whole, rather than regional alliances, can be seen in the transformation of his administrative policies away from the New Freedom and toward President Roosevelt’s New Nationalism.
The one commissioner from the South, Samuel Thurston Ballard, reorganized a bankrupt flour mill in Louisville, Kentucky with his brother, and made the Obelisk brand of wheat and flour a household name. Ballard’s flour mill was also the first in its industry to initiate the eight hour work day. Ballard became known as a leader in Progressive labor policies in the South.For Ballard, a Republican from the upper South with Progressive ideals, a commission exploring the reasons for labor unrest throughout the country was an honorable feat to undertake. However, the Commission faced more resistance as it ventured deeper into the South.
In the decades following the end of the Civil War, southern states concentrated their energies on reviving and reinvigorating their broken economies without the benefit of slave labor. As the Progressive movement grew in popularity in other parts of the country, the South also integrated Progressive policies. Progressivism in the South took on a specific nature because of the region’s desire to stimulate their economies. Most Southern Progressives wanted to modernize the region, transforming it into the New South. This desire promoted Progressive initiatives to attract investment capital and industrial manufacturing. Therefore, Southern Progressives were forced to balance growing industrialization while supporting Progressive reforms. They responded by embracing Progressive ideals as long as they did not hurt or interfere with manufacturing and investment. In the minds of Southern Progressives, reforms such as granting employees better pay and treatment would only hinder the economic rejuvenation of the region, and therefore should be avoided.One of the most important characteristics of Progressivism in the South was its color. White supremacy was a staple of southern society, and Southern Progressives saw no harm in combining racism and Progressivism.Contradictions of this nature were seen throughout the South during this time period, and are best seen in the political career of Hoke Smith. Smith served as both Governor and Senator in Georgia throughout the first half of the twentieth century. He promoted Progressive legislation while Governor of the state from 1907 to 1909 by developing Georgia’s Department of Commerce and Labor and reducing the maximum work week for textile workers to sixty hours.Although he made his career by pursuing Progressive reforms, Smith led the fight in Congress against the US Commission on Industrial Relations, a premier example of Progressive legislation.
Resistance by Southern Democrats toward the US Commission on Industrial Relations began during the deliberations in Congress over the appointment of the commissioners. Southern Democrats were especially resistant to the nomination of Chairman Frank P. Walsh. Hoke Smith, Georgia representative and chairman of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, helped to stall the nomination of Walsh in hopes that it would languish and eventually die. Once Congress accepted Walsh’s nomination, Smith and other Southern Democrats did not end their fight. When Walsh hinted that the South was an ideal location for an investigation into unjust labor conditions, Smith led an effort in Congress in 1914 to cut the Commission’s budget by 75 percent. Walsh was a well known labor supporter who disdained capitalism solely for profit. In addition, Walsh held liberal views on race, believing that African-American workers were shorted not only by their industrial bosses, but also by unions. As a Democrat, Walsh believed the party would not accomplish any of its goals as long as it was controlled by the reactionary South.Conservative Southern Democrats like Smith did not believe Frank P. Walsh was fit to chair a commission that could possibly investigate labor conditions in the South.
An article entitled, “Anarchism!,” published on April 8, 1915 in the Textile Manufacturer, a periodical written and distributed by the Textile Publishing Company of Charlotte, North Carolina, shares this sentiment. In this editorial article, Walsh is quoted as proclaiming, “Every great fortune is a fundamental wrong. He who first gives bountifully to the poor must have first robbed them a-plenty…The root of poverty comes because the workers do not receive the full product of their toil.”For the editors of this Charlotte periodical, Walsh’s dangerous remarks meant that he would not provide adequate justice to the leaders of their industrial corporations. The article concludes by saying that President Wilson was mistaken in appointing Walsh, but they also express their continued trust in their president from the South who, “will soon realize this and fire him before he has an opportunity to do a great deal of harm.”Unfortunately for these mill owners, President Wilson did not replace Walsh as the chairman of the US Commission on Industrial Relations. Instead, he allowed the Commission to lead an investigation into a southern textile mill in the home state of Senator Hoke Smith.
On May 20, 1914, workers at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill in Atlanta walked off the job and formed picket lines around the mill. Workers were angered by the firing of union members as well as the enforcement of a strict employment contract. They hoped a strike would allow them to end the system of fines and deductions stipulated in the contract, gain better working conditions in the mill, institute a shorter work day, and increase pay.A 1915 report completed by commissioners outlined the weekly earnings of families employed by the mill. Earnings ranged from approximately twenty dollars per week to sixty-five dollars per week, depending on the number of individuals from each family employed by the mill. The McGuffy family consisted of five individuals, three of whom worked at the mill and supported their family. Ruby, age 20, Mamie, age 17, and Claudie, age 15, made a combined twenty-two dollars and twenty cents per week to support themselves as well as their mother, Pat, a 46-year-old cripple, and their younger brother James, age 12, who was listed in the report as “in school.”If one of these young women missed a day of work due to illness, their wages would be subject to fines and deductions.
As Sarah Nations, a spooler at the mill, described in her testimony of March 17-27, 1915, employees were rarely given days off from work due to illness, and were often punished by having their pay withheld. Nations explained that when she asked for days off from work to care for her ill children, her requests were often denied and she was forced to work. If her manager had enough workers for the day, Nations explained that he would grant her permission not to work, but it came with consequences. Nations was not allowed to collect her check on Saturday like the other employees if she did not work a total of at least five days in the week. Instead, she was forced to wait until Monday night to receive her pay.The testimony gathered by investigators confirm that the chairman of the US Commission on Industrial Relations, Frank P. Walsh, was correct in hypothesizing that the South and southern textile mills would prove to be the perfect location to investigate unfair labor practices. Although the Commission faced much resistance in the South, there were certain groups in Atlanta who welcomed an investigation into labor conditions in the local mills.
For the members of the Men and Religion Forward Movement, an investigation by the US Commission on Industrial Relations into the strike at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill would reveal the unjust labor practices of southern textile mills and eventually lead to better working conditions for mill workers. Evangelical Protestants wishing to increase participation in the church founded the Men and Religion Forward Movement in New York City during the early twentieth century. The newly founded movement included members of the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches. Their focus soon shifted to social justice in their local communities. Like many liberal Protestant groups at the turn of the century, the Men and Religion Forward Movement applied Christian principles to social issues. In the years leading up to the strike at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, members of the Atlanta division of the Men and Religion Forward Movement were deeply involved in community issues, including prison reform, prohibition, child labor legislation, and general labor justice. Once the strike broke out, the Movement provided leadership for the strikers and organized public meetings to discuss conditions in the mill.
On Sunday afternoon, June 28, 1914, the leaders of the Men and Religion Forward Movement held a meeting at the Grand Opera House in Atlanta to discuss their dedication to the strike and support of the textile workers. The President of the Movement, John J. Eagan, spoke to a crowd of 2,000 concerning the “great searchlight of truth” that the group had shone on the various evils of prostitution and excessive drinking facing the great city of Atlanta in the past. The crowd broke out in applause as Eagan turned his attention to the strike and promised to turn that great searchlight of truth on the current controversy and “hold it there unflinchingly and persistently, until under the light of God’s word and the teaching of Jesus Christ truth shall be seen and justice shall be done.”Reverend John E. White spoke to the packed crowd about the importance of mediation to resolve industrial disputes. White believed in mediation over strikes and lock-outs because these actions by workers damaged not only labor and capital, but also public opinion. According to White, the principal barrier to mediation was the continued belief in superiority of the employer over the employee. White concluded that if the employer would realize “that there is no question of superiority or inferiority, but that equality is given to the situation, then mediation will have no difficulty in its path whatsoever.”By emphasizing the Christian nature of the southern community, White expressed his hope for conciliation between employer and employees without continued disagreement or conflict.
In July 1914, the Men and Religion Forward Movement, along with members of the Evangelical Ministers Association and the Atlanta Federation of Trades, sent telegrams to President Woodrow Wilson and Georgia senators requesting that the US Commission on Industrial Relations investigate the situation at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. In these telegrams the members of the Movement explained the issues surrounding the strike: “A strike is now in our largest cotton mill. The striking workmen are pleading for arbitration and offer to submit the entire settlement to a disinterested committee. The mill owners refuse. The conditions are such as to demand investigation, and we earnestly urge that the commission meet in Atlanta at the earliest possible date.”As this telegram bluntly reveals, the owners of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill were not interested in resolving the strike through mutual discussions. The trust Reverend White showed in the shared Christian beliefs of employers and employees did not resolve the issue as he had hoped. Consequently, the Movement reached out to the federal government for assistance. This appeal to the President of the United States by a group of middle class religious leaders in Atlanta, Georgia, on behalf of working class textile workers shows the changing relationship between the federal government and industrial workers. A transformation occurred in American legal culture during the Progressive Era. Responsibility for workers’ injuries shifted from the individual to the corporation. The federal government assumed a new role as the advocate of the worker by apportioning responsibility and consequences to corporations for workers’ injuries. In Atlanta, the mill owners were no longer seen as unchallengeable. Instead, the members of the Men and Religion Forward Movement saw mill owners’ power as ultimately controlled by the federal government.
In the months leading up to the request for a federal investigation, the Men and Religion Forward Movement and the mill owners of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill were involved in a struggle for public support. On June 3, 1914, the strikers paraded through the streets of downtown Atlanta, hoping to inform the public of their cause. Owners of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, apprehensive that the public was not receiving the entire story, took out a full page advertisement in the Atlanta Constitution to express their views on the situation. The ad emphasized that the majority of mill employees were not participating in the strike; rather, only 5 percent of the mill’s work force, aided by “strangers,” were responsible for the disruption at the mill. Fulton Bag and Cotton mill owners also stressed the otherness of those they believed were leading the strike by pointing out that “Some of these strangers have never been in our employment, and are not citizens of this State.”These statements by the owners of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill show their attempt to gain public support by presenting themselves as the true citizens of Atlanta and describing the strikers as outsiders.
The Men and Religion Forward Movement also used the Atlanta Constitution to sway public opinion in Atlanta away from mill owners and toward the strikers. On June 17, 1914, the members of the Movement printed a bulletin in the newspaper that disputed the number of striking employees provided by mill owners only two weeks earlier. This bulletin claimed that “between seven and nine hundred workers are out [of work] because of unbearable conditions in the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills.”The bulletin also asserted, “No harm can come of an impartial investigation of conditions in this mill. Much good can be accomplished by it. If conditions are causing women and children to suffer, they can be – they will be corrected.”These three powerful sentences were not only meant to help garner public support for suffering women and children; they also introduced the people of Atlanta to the idea of an investigation by the US Commission on Industrial Relations. As members of the Movement pointed out, an investigation by an impartial reviewer would cause no harm for mill owners who have nothing to hide. The changing understanding of the federal government’s responsibilities concerning the social justice of workers, and an Atlanta population who increasingly came to identify with and support mill strikers, created the perfect conditions for an investigation by the newly created US Commission on Industrial Relations.
Although members of the Men and Religion Forward Movement, along with help from the Evangelical Ministers Association and the Atlanta Federation of Trades, invested immense time and effort to enlighten the public on the goings on at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, mill owners worked just as hard to pull support away from the strikers and stall the investigation. Mill owner Oscar Elsas reached out to Hoke Smith for assistance on July 9, 1914. In a telegram to the Senator, Elsas claimed that the statistics published about the strike by the Men and Religion Forward Movement in the Atlanta Constitution were exaggerated, and he asked for the cooperation of Smith in helping to prevent the investigation into his textile mill.Elsas also reached out to other national figures to explain what he saw as unjust attacks on his mill. In a June 3, 1914 letter from Elsas to James S. Alexander, President of the National Bank of Commerce in New York City, Elsas claimed that the Men and Religion Forward Movement members were unjustly targeting him and his mill. Elsas explained that the Movement had insisted on mediation to dissolve the dispute, but he contended that there was no dispute to be resolved. He claimed, “Their effort has been merely to gain more notoriety and power, and the effect is to probably foment discord between employer and employees.”As late as March 1915, Elsas continued to use his national connections to help his case in the investigation. In a letter to Supreme Court Judge Richard Sloss of California, dated March 18, 1915, Elsas expressed his concern to Judge Sloss that the “labor element” may “sway public prejudice or distort the facts” when it came to the public hearing scheduled by the US Commission on Industrial Relations to discuss the situation at the mill with the Atlanta public.Elsas emphasized that he was being unfairly attacked and that his mill was being used as an example by union members who wanted to attack conditions in all southern mills.
Fortunately for Elsas, the Commission eventually called off the full-scale public hearings in Atlanta. As the strike wore on and the investigation by the US Commission on Industrial Relations came to a close, public support began to wane for the strikers. In addition, their biggest defenders, the Men and Religion Forward Movement, no longer held up the issues at the textile mill as the greatest evil in Atlanta. Instead, the Movement moved on to their next reform in movie censorship. The Movement began putting their efforts elsewhere once they felt their duty to the workers had been accomplished. Public opinion also began to diminish as strikers came to be associated with more radical union members who were engaged in what many citizens of Atlanta considered to be distasteful behavior. In May 1915, one year after the strike officially began, it was called off, and Democrats in the South began leading a fight against publishing the testimony gathered by the Commission in Atlanta.According to Hoke Smith, the findings of the Commission were totally unreliable and not worthy of publishing. Smith predicted that if the testimony were published, no one would give it shelf space, let alone read the publication.In the end, Congress voted to restrict the publication of the Commission’s material to the final report. Despite efforts by labor organizations in proceeding years, the entire testimony gathered in Atlanta was never published.
The US Commission on Industrial Relations published its final report in 1916. It consisted of eleven volumes and included conclusions and recommendations concerning labor unrest across the country. Commissioners concluded that the causes of industrial unrest in the nation’s industries were a result of the unjust distribution of wealth, the denial of opportunities to earn a living, the denial of the right to organize, and the denial of justice. Commissioners asserted, “The evidence before the Commission shows that organized labor has no desire, nor has it attempted to control the business of the employer. It insists that it has a right to a voice, and a potent voice, in determining the conditions under which it shall work…This country is no longer a field for slavery, and where men and women are compelled, in order that they may live, to work under conditions in determining which they have no voice, they are not far removed from a condition existing under feudalism or slavery.”Although the publication of the testimony gathered at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill was restricted in Congress, this pointed declaration by the commissioners applies directly to the South. Commissioners directed their comments at industrial capitalists in the South by likening the treatment of workers to the treatment of slaves. They also directly confronted the power of business owners in the South, who held their employees under direct control by claiming that organized labor was not a privilege, but a right of employees.
When the US Commission on Industrial Relations arrived in Atlanta to investigate the strike at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, they received mixed reactions from the public. While the Men and Religion Forward Movement welcomed the investigators to Atlanta, mill owners and local Democrats in the Senate worked to inhibit the effects of the investigation. The investigators gathered extensive research and testimony at the mill, but the Commission faced opposition from Southern Democrats in the Senate who blocked the publication of the testimonies gathered. Opposed to the mere creation of the Commission, Democrats in the Senate, as well as local business owners, were concerned not only with the repercussions of a public examination of labor in the South, but also with the intrusion of the federal government into their burgeoning industries that were in the process of reviving the southern economy. Although the opposition to the investigation was able to stem the immediate effects of the examination into the strike at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, working conditions at southern textile mills gained national attention, and several of the recommendations made in the Final Report of the US Commission on Industrial Relations were put into law in the years following the investigation.
About the author
April Longworth is a senior History major at Armstrong State University. She is a member of the Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society and Phi Alpha Theta History Honors Society. She has been on the President’s List at Armstrong since 2007.
April Longworth, “Behind the Strike: How Atlanta Responded to the Investigation of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no. 2 (Summer 2011).