The Union Vote
On September 6, 1956, the employees of Darlington Manufacturing voted, by a margin of just eight votes, (256-248) to join the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA). The win was celebrated by cheering workers driving through the streets of Darlington, but their joy of victory was short-lived.
By the middle of October Roger Milliken announced the mill’s closure after holding a meeting with the stockholders. He blamed underproduction, stating the “decision was not made lightly.” However, skepticism over that comment came from those on both sides of the issue. He also said the price of goods had decreased by six cents/pound and the company faced its first possible loss since the 1930s—up to $240,000 for the year. He claimed the employees showed an unwillingness to cooperate with management in modernizing the plant, a move that would have made the company more profitable.
His reaction to the vote should have come as no surprise. He had railed against the union for months. Flyers were posted around the plant by management, “suggesting” the plant would close. Other flyers touted conditions at plants in Japan, where workers were required to wear skates to speed up production—implying that management at Darlington was not so bad.
So why did the workers fight for the union?
One female employee who had worked in the mill since she was 14 said, "Whenever Roger Milliken came through [the plant], he used to hold his head up so high, I know he didn't see the workers." Having started working there at age 14, she said conditions under Roger's father were better, but now "we were slaves." If a special order came in, it was not unusual to work on a Saturday, and one year they even worked on Christmas Eve day. Her mother, who started at the mill at age 9, had only one vacation during her 29 years of employment there. "Everybody was overloaded and they were always down our back about working harder." The profit sharing started by Coker ended under Roger Milliken's tenure.
But after the vote and now faced with the loss of their jobs, 400 workers, nearly 80% of the workforce, from both sides of the issue signed a petition stating they had been misled by union officials, asking for a revote and for Milliken to reconsider its closure.
Milliken stood his ground, however, stating, “This is a business decision in what the directors believe to be in the best interests of the stockholders.” He cited the decreased production as the cause, claiming the plant was going to be closed regardless.
A three-month battle to save the plant ensued, but was ultimately lost.
Effects of the closure were rapid. Early in the 1950s, the company had begun selling the company-owned mill village houses to employees, and now those who lived there found themselves unable to pay their mortgages. Many tried to find work at other mills, but were turned away because of the assumption they would cause trouble—including those who had voted against the union. Area mills even posted signs stating if a person was from Darlington, “don’t apply here." The local economy was hit hard, laying off one-third of workers in Darlington businesses, reaching as far as Sears Roebuck in nearby Florence.
A 40-year employee of the mill, Frank Kirsey, told a News and Press reporter, “Company officials told me and 40 other employees if we opposed the union in its effort to organize the workers that we would be taken care of. We fought the union. We lost the election. Now we are losing our jobs.”
TWUA wrote to Darlington’s mayor, Thomas W. Buchanan, “The union offers its fullest resources to correct the suffering which may result from the exercise of Mr. Roger Milliken’s vengeance upon the community,” but in the end they did little to help the people of the town. The mayor even made a trip to New York to see Roger Milliken, to no avail.
The Dixie Cup plant, still located in Darlington today, did hire many of the workers, but more left the state to pursue opportunities in North Carolina, and as far away as Michigan.
The mill’s closure devastated the town, and there are those who say Darlington has never fully recovered from the loss.
Coming Friday - The Legal Battle