Union Blood

cotton mill workers 1902

 

Union Blood
“Where trade unions are most firmly organized, there are the rights of the people most respected.” Samuel Gompers

We were a union family – from 1900 to current. My grandmother along with her two older sisters (orphaned when the oldest was 15 and my grandmother was 10) got work in the old Erwin Cotton Mills in Durham, NC. The two sisters went to work with my grandmother looking after them until she went to work in the mill at age 12. They lived in a boarding house. Life was good though. The Erwin Mills community took care of their workers providing medical treatment and a store for the workers. They also provided housing – identical row houses along about a dozen streets, abutting the Duke University East campus. The Boarding House was a tall gothic style house along Carolina Avenue.

My father when he got out of the Army, went to work at Dan River Cotton mills in Danville Virginia. He met my mother and moved to Durham. He had his first major heart attack standing at the weaving machine. Cotton Lung Disease.  The Erwin Mills community, by then Burlington Industries, took care of him and his family. They provided his medical care and nurses and everything, at Duke University Medical Center – one of the premier medical facilities in the world. He died finally after a septupal bypass. As was the custom, the mill closed for the funeral although my father hadn’t worked for several years at the mill.

I escaped that world when I was 18, going to university where I obtained my BA, BS. MS, and PhD degrees. My aunt, another overeducated southern woman, obtained her BS, MS, PhD, and MS in Nursing and MS in Hospital Administration.  Burlington Industries paid for our education until we went into higher than BS or BA. I remember the picnics they had for the employees, the barbecues, the fish fries. At Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter every family was provided with turkeys, hams, fruit baskets, several bags of special holiday groceries. Workers worked hard but they played harder and always ate well.  Growing up in a tight mill, union community was a privilege. I am still a union believer although I haven’t worked in a union shop for many years. I will argue vehemently for the trade and industrial unions.
seasons come and go –
lungs become muddy with cotton lint –
union pays for all

Durham NC aerial view of Erwin Mills, Duke University, surrounding homes ca. 1930

25 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. sarahsouthwest
    Sep 02, 2019 @ 15:16:27

    The Unions were so important, they seem to be much less part of people’s lives these days. Fascinating piece.

    Reply

  2. Björn Rudberg (brudberg)
    Sep 02, 2019 @ 15:18:18

    I have always believed in unions, especially these days when they balance and work together with the company to make it as good as it can be for everyone.

    Maybe unions today needs to shift a bit, but in Sweden almost everyone is a member… me in a union for academics

    Reply

  3. kim881
    Sep 02, 2019 @ 15:27:27

    My father was a union man, Toni, and I have been a member of several unions in my life. They don’t seem to be so popular these days, but still very necessary to uphold workers’ rights and maintain good working conditions. As always, I enjoyed your autobiographical haibun very much. It’s interesting that your father worked in the cotton mills and Lill visited a cotton mill museum.

    Reply

    • kanzensakura
      Sep 02, 2019 @ 15:33:41

      Yes it is interesting. But that was a mill up north. Conditions apparently very different. Unions are still prominent here in the States thank goodness. So many different types! They do look after the workers.

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  4. Grace
    Sep 02, 2019 @ 15:30:58

    In my industry, we have no unions but we have a very robust employee benefits and communication channels with top management. We have a weekly pulse/feedback and you can write directly to your big bosses anonymously on issues you care about. I do believe though in some industries, unions can be very good, looking out for the welfare of the employees.

    Reply

    • kanzensakura
      Sep 02, 2019 @ 15:35:38

      I belonged to such an organization when I worked for the State. I believe in all segments of labor such organizations/unions are necessary.

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  5. lillian
    Sep 02, 2019 @ 15:46:59

    Oh my……did you read my post? We are sympatico here in terms of writing abou the mills….although we visited the ones in Lowell, MA. The Mill Girls were some of the first to strike. Interesting also that the demand for and mass production of cotton in the very early days of the mills had a direct correlation with the increase of slavery in the South.

    Reply

    • kanzensakura
      Sep 02, 2019 @ 15:51:56

      I don’t know about the issue of slavery regarding this. I only know about the history of tbe mill community in 1900+. Well after slavery. The mill folk in our neck of the woods had no need to strike. The union made sure of it. Like I said, mills up north were more akin to mills in Great Britain. In our Mill Coomunity the races got akong well and were treated equally

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  6. Misky
    Sep 02, 2019 @ 15:55:50

    What a fascinating family history

    Reply

  7. Frank J. Tassone
    Sep 02, 2019 @ 16:05:09

    My newphew, a Teacher’s Union Coordinator, believes that the health of the middle class in American correlates directly with the health of the unions. I believe he’s right.

    What a wonderful witness to the role labor–and unions–play in our lives, Toni! 🙂

    Reply

  8. Glenn A. Buttkus
    Sep 02, 2019 @ 16:56:43

    Yes to labor unions–no to corruption; ditto for government and the police. I really enjoyed your biographical sharing, slice of Americana.

    Reply

  9. Xan
    Sep 02, 2019 @ 18:05:57

    Sadly, personal connections to unions are becoming rarer and rarer, and the propaganda that has vilified them for a generation has become a powerful force to overcome. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Reply

  10. msjadeli
    Sep 02, 2019 @ 19:53:05

    We need unions, and your family has been blessed by a strong union. In the north there has been a relentless campaign to destroy unions.

    Reply

  11. rothpoetry
    Sep 02, 2019 @ 21:31:08

    What an interesting story! Seems our country was built on the backs of the immigrants. It still seems to be that way. Well done!

    Reply

  12. lynn__
    Sep 03, 2019 @ 10:47:22

    Thanks for sharing your family history and the positive impact the union had at that time and place. When management truly cares about workers’ welfare everybody benefits.

    Reply

    • kanzensakura
      Sep 03, 2019 @ 10:50:33

      Yes ma’am they do. Hence the quote at the beginning of the haibun. It shows the right minded union and its impact.

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