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

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