The Ghost Shirts
The Ghost Shirts
As mill owners appealed frantically for injunctions, tear gas, and the National Guard, a vast, peaceful army of textile workers demolished the image of Southern labor as culturally servile and unorganizable. With voices honed to spare beauty in the choirs of mountain Baptist churches, they sang, instead, powerful hymns of solidarity.
And they were robustly answered (often in Portuguese, Italian, or French) by the mill workers of
Now, seventy years later, with only a handful of moist-eyed veterans left alive to remember the heroism and heartbreak of the Great Textile Strike, the cotton spindles in
Textile manufacture in the
Thus, another large segment of the American industrial working class is being fast-forwarded to that brave new world that Kurt Vonnegut predicted with such eerie prescience in his 1952 novel, Player Piano: a society of discarded laborers whose only option is enlistment in the imperial legions fighting wars for oil and other resources on distant frontiers. (Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 -- particularly scenes of Marine recruiters trawling for Flint, Michigan's unemployed youth -- is, of course, Player Piano in real time.)
This almost invisible tragedy -- who talks about plant closures on Fox News or CNBC? -- is part of a larger global jobs catastrophe that follows in the wake of trade liberalization. The final quota barriers protecting American textile and garment jobs will be dismantled next January. Since
China's chief comparative advantage, as the AFL-CIO argued last March in a petition asking the U.S. trade representative to promote the rights of Chinese factory labor, emerges from the government's "unremitting repression of workers' rights" and the ruthless exploitation of an estimated 100 million rural migrants. Indeed, a recent article in Monthly Review claims that economic inequality in
The Bush administration, not surprisingly, rejected the AFL-CIO appeal to enforce the (non-binding) core covenants of the International Labor Organization; nor can labor expect much more solidarity from a Democratic Party that prides itself on NAFTA and the WTO. Certainly, John Edwards may strike some heroic poses outside shuttered textile plants in his home state of
In the eyes of most leading Democrats, the epochal achievement of the
In the face of this free-trade juggernaut, unionized textile and garment workers (since 1995 fused together in a single union called UNITE) merged this summer with HERE, the dynamic hotel-workers union. Although UNITE HERE promises to devote half of its budget to new organizing, it may be too late to save the jobs imminently imperiled by trade liberalization. Edna Bonacich (coauthor of Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry) is both a leading academic expert and a respected activist. I asked her for a frank view of the situation. "UNITE," she said, "will likely lose a big chunk of its membership. Already the union has shifted focus from garment workers, believing it is hopeless to organize them because of the potential flight of the industry offshore."
In Player Piano, the remnants of the skilled working class (like the last of the Plains Indians) form a millenarian resistance movement, the "Ghost Shirts," before final defeat and disorganization. On the forgotten anniversary of an epic strike, Vonnegut's cautionary tale has a new meaning.
Copyright C2004 Mike Davis
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]