By Amanda McCrary Smith
In 1929, the Tennessee city of Elizabethton in Carter County became the site of one of the largest organized labor strikes in the country. Textile workers, mostly women, came together to fight for better wages, equity in promotions, and their right to union representation. What began as a worker’s walkout in a small Tennessee town grew to influence a vibrant movement for worker’s rights across the Southeast’s textile factories. Home to both American Glanzstoff and Bemberg plants, Elizabethton was part of an early twentieth century boom in rayon production throughout the United States.
The History of Rayon
Though we often think of rayon as a synthetic material, it is more accurately something in between a natural and artificial fabric. Rayon is made from wood pulp or cotton linting put through a multi-step chemical process that produces a soft filament that is then woven into cloth. The invention of rayon goes back to the late 18th century when chemists sought a way to make an artificial silk. Europeans faced a silk shortage caused by the combination of insatiable consumer demand and a disease that killed silkworms.
First patented in 1885, early forms of rayon were not as soft as natural silk and had dangers, such as being highly flammable. Then, in 1899 the German textile manufacturer Glanzstoff invented a new method of rayon production that used a copper alkali solution process. It resulted in a material that was the closest to an artificial silk yet. In short order, another German company, Bemberg, perfected the method, and both the Glanzstoff and Bemberg rayons became the new miracle material. It was affordable, durable, washable, and by the 1920s, the most sought-after material for clothing manufacturers in the world.
Bemberg Rayon Plant at Elizabethton, Tennessee, October 1, 1950, Tennessee Department of Conservation Photograph Collection, 1937-1976 (Tennessee State Library collection, RG82)
Rayon Comes to Tennessee
In 1925, Bemberg chose Elizabethton, Tennessee as the location for their first American manufacturing plant. Glanzstoff followed shortly thereafter in 1928. Between the two plants there were over three thousand employees in Elizabethon’s rayon mills. Almost half of those employees were women.
In the 1920s the American Labor Movement already saw many instances of violent clashes between striking workers, union representatives, and company management resistant to the demands of workers. Better working conditions, higher wages, the right to organize, and fair treatment amongst workers were some of the many reasons workers in the 1920s took to the picket lines. In the Elizabethton rayon factories, female workers, who worked the same number of hours (fifty-six hours a week) and did the same work, were paid less than male workers. Women were not promoted as frequently as their male counterparts and were often subjected to harassment and lewd remarks on the job.
Corporate Housing Leads to Strike
All workers, however, faced the unfair practice of pressure to rent housing provided by the Watauga Economic Development Corporation that held an agreement with Glanzstoff and Bemberg. Company housing was a common way that large corporations took advantage of their workers. These living quarters were close to the plant and therefore convenient, but often rented at exorbitant rates, and the possibility of eviction always loomed as punishment for insubordination. In response to these grievances, on Monday March 12th, 1929, supervisor Margaret Bowen led over 500 female textile workers out the Glanzstoff rayon factory in a massive walk out. Before the week was over, hundreds of both Glanzstoff employees and Bemberg workers joined the strike in solidarity.
Resistance to Unionizing
The workers began their strike with no formal union representation even though Bemberg workers tried to form a chapter of the United Textile Workers Union (UTW) several years prior to 1929. As the strike grew larger, and more workers became involved, the strike organizers revisited the possibility of forming a union and activated local chapter 1630 of the UTW. However, the plant’s president, Arthur Mothwurf, did not recognize their right to representation and would not negotiate the terms of the striking workers. Mothwurf’s animosity toward the strikers caused what was initially a peaceful walk out to become a violent and much publicized event with news coverage that reached far past the small town of Elizabethton. Tennessee’s governor at the time, Henry Horton, attempted to end the strike by demanding that Mothwurf negotiate with a state appointed mediator, but Mothwurf refused. Instead, he put both plants back into production with newly hired workers and continued to ignore the strikers’ demands for better conditions and union representation. Mothwurf then asked Horton to send more than 800 troops from the National Guard to the town of Elizabethton.
The National Guard
The arrival of the National Guard met with anger and frustration from the strikers and the other residents of the city of Elizabethton. The troops arrested many of the strikers, used tear gas to break the strike line, and positioned themselves on the roof of nearby buildings with their guns pointed at the rayon plants. Fed up with the clash between factory workers, plant management, and the military, local business leaders and politicians petitioned Governor Horton to remove the National Guard from Elizabethton, but he would not withdraw them. Mothwurf finally agreed to meet with a labor mediator to quell the violence. On May 25th, 1929 after two and a half months of protests, organizing, and unrest, the workers of American Glanzstoff and Bemberg came to a tense agreement with Mothwurf, who agreed to recognize worker’s grievances and to a non-discrimination policy regarding unionized workers.
Film from North American Rayon Strike in Tennessee, 1927-1932. Marching Strikers begins at 6:30. The National Guard on rooftops at 8:35.
Despite what appeared to be a small victory for the workers of Elizabethton’s rayon factories, none of Mothwurf’s promises ever came to fruition. Striking workers were blacklisted by management never to be rehired, and UTW 1630 was never recognized as a union by plant management. As the Great Depression loomed in September 1929, the efforts of the textile workers in Elizabethton, Tennessee, unsuccessful in most regards, proved to be the motivating factor for a series of strikes in the textile mills of the Southeast. One of the more notable strikes influenced by the Elizabethton strikers came later in 1929 at the Loray Mill of Gastonia, North Carolina. That strike resulted in the formation of the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) which became one of the most influential groups fighting for worker’s rights. Soon, textile mills all over the country saw a robust and well-organized movement for demands such as a forty-hour work week, better pay, better conditions, and collective bargaining gain momentum. The abandoned ruins of the Bemberg rayon still stand in Elizabethton, Tennessee as a testament to the boom and then bust of American textile mills of the early twentieth century. But the real legacy of Elzabethton is the bravery, steadfastness, and solidarity that Margaret Bowen and other female workers showed the country on that day in March 1929, when they walked out of Bemberg and into a movement that changed the world.
Amanda McCrary Smith is the Tennessee State Museum curator of textiles and fashion
Sources and further reading:
Marie Tedesco, “Elizabethton Rayon Plant Strikes of 1929,” The Tennessee Encyclopedia. See http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entry.php?rec=1277
James A. Hodges, “Challenge to the New South: The Great Textile Strike in Elizabethton, Tennessee, 1929” Source: Tennessee Historical Quarterly, December, 1964, Vol. 23, No. 4 (DECEMBER, 1964), pp. 343-357.