Labor in Virginia during the Twentieth Century


The history of labor in Virginia during the twentieth century reflects both the ever-changing nature of the workplace and the endurance of Virginians’ long-held ideas about race, culture, and work. These powerful forces profoundly affected the choices and fortunes of workingmen and -women, Black and white. They influenced hiring, wages, and seniority. They shaped the organization and evolution of companies and labor unions alike. And, like Virginia, they changed as the twenty-first century approached. One idea proved especially durable. It was the belief that the necessary maintenance of the social, political, and economic status quo depended on a combination of unorganized, low-wage labor and racial segregation, if not outright white supremacy. Employee and employer alike often embraced this antiunion, pro-apartheid approach to the age of industrialization and it shaped the development of the southern workforce. In Virginia, the vestiges of that ideology survived for most of the twentieth century.


Lewis Hines’s Photographs of Cotton Mill Workers in Danville

Early in the 1900s, Virginia was entering a new phase in its economic life. “New South” civic and economic boosterism sought to adapt the South to the modern age of mechanization and mass production. That adaptation accounted for the greatest growth in employment as Virginians rushed to fill the white- and blue-collar jobs associated with industrialization. This was especially true in urban centers like Richmond, Norfolk, and Petersburg, as well as the southwestern region adjacent to the North Carolina border. Some of these jobs, like the railroad, mining, and maritime trades, had long histories in the state. Others, especially mechanized factory and mill work, had recently arrived with the so-called low-value-added industries. These new factories turned abundant southern crops into inexpensive consumer products. In Virginia, the most important crops were cotton and tobacco. The finished products, dominating the commonwealth’s industrial sector, were textiles, clothing, and cigarettes.

To attract those mills and factories, cheap labor became as much a marketable commodity for southern developers as inexpensive raw materials. Cities across Virginia promoted the availability of low-wage labor, both Black and white. One business booster pamphlet described the white workforce as “equal to any demand, and easily adapted to most industries,” while Black workers were “tractable in temper, and in general easily taught or managed.”

Gender, Race, and Industrial Development

In the decades after 1900, rapid growth in the industrial, retail, and service sectors of the economy changed the world of “public” work. What had been a predominantly white, male enclave was poised to become a mixed-gender work place as young women were recruited into the labor force in ever increasing numbers. That transformation would require economic, social, and political leaders to change Virginians’ traditional view of wage labor.

Politicians and businessmen helped foster this transformation through appeals to racial solidarity and the promotion of wage labor as appropriate work for southern white women. They also reassured their constituents that they had taken steps to prevent the dangers women might face in the industrial work place. Those steps included racially segregated workplaces, the availability of “elevating social influences,” and the strict supervision and protection provided by white male supervisors.

Women Working in the Dan River Mills

A 1920 study highlighted the rapidly growing number of working women. Of those industrial plants surveyed throughout Virginia, women accounted for more than 50 percent of all textile workers; in clothing it was more than 90 percent; in tobacco more than 80 percent; in paper manufacturing and printing almost 45 percent of the workforce. Their pay was most often based on piece-work, rather than on a daily or weekly wage, and the seasonal nature of many industries meant that year-round work was often hard to come by. Nevertheless, factory workers generally earned more than salesgirls, and one analysis of wages found that factory operatives contributed the most to family income, while sales and office workers contributed the least.

Despite being among the lowest-paid industrial workers in the nation, white workers may have taken at least some small satisfaction in what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “psychological wage” of white supremacy. On the job, the privilege of race dictated that once manufacturers mechanized the production of textiles, cigarettes, and other products, the machine tenders would be white. So, too, would be all of the trades needed to keep an industrial plant operating. Few African Americans would ever be employed as mechanics, craftsmen, machine tenders, or any of the other “skilled” positions in Virginia’s factories. Where, in the nineteenth century, all tobacco products had been made by skilled Black hands, in the twentieth century billions of cigarettes would be turned out by machines tended by white women, supervised by white men.

African American Tobacco Workers

What skilled jobs or professional opportunities there were for Virginia’s Black citizens generally existed within the African American neighborhood itself. Separated from the community at large, Black enclaves throughout the state offered work to plumbers, carpenters, lawyers, doctors, and other skilled trades and professions. Black shopkeepers and entrepreneurs operated successful businesses. But, in the wider world of city and town, work was far more menial. For women, the earliest stages of cotton or tobacco manufacturing offered an alternative to domestic service. For men, it was whatever task required a strong back. For both, work was often demeaning, seasonal, and low paid.

Employers were, for the greatest part, willing to accept local custom and accede to the desires of the dominant culture. For their part, white supremacy and segregation produced a racially divided workforce that resisted nearly all efforts at biracial cooperation among unionized workers. In fact, it was a workforce that would often disappoint labor organizers with its ambivalence toward unions and union membership.

Organized Labor

Time and Place of Meeting of Locals; Lynchburg

Virginia’s white workers, from railroaders to typographers, had organized union locals in a variety of trades in the antebellum period. The early twentieth century brought labor organization to factory workers, utilities employees, machine tenders, retail clerks, firefighters, and office workers. It also brought women in large numbers to the rank and file for the first time. From typists to factory workers, they joined union locals both old and new. Labor leaders highlighting the changing face of organized labor offered the hope that office workers would come to depend on close cooperation with those on the factory floor in order to gain the benefits of seniority and better living standards.

Yet even the most enthusiastic of Richmond’s first female unionists often faced the cynicism and skepticism of male workers. With their ingrained tradition of “maleness,” labor unions, especially the old craft unions, had long resisted the entry of women workers into their ranks. This resistance, combined with southern traditions about the subordinate place of women, both in the home and in relation to her husband or father, made it doubly difficult for southern women to find a place in organized labor. In addition, employers used every means at their disposal—the carrots of paternalism, small raises, and improved conditions, and the sticks of layoffs, speedups, and strike breakers—to discourage labor organizing among industrial working women.

Although they faced near total segregation in the workplace, Virginia’s African Americans also made a place for themselves at labor’s table. They often showed a far greater interest in organizing than whites, and their efforts resulted in all-Black union locals representing workers in a handful of trades such as railroading, shipbuilding, and tobacco processing. Built by both white and Black union organizers, these locals sometimes acted as “B units,” Black locals associated with all-white locals in similar trades. Others were organized by the workers themselves, in an attempt to wrest what little they could from a system designed to work against them. Labor leaders knew the debilitating effects of a racially divided society on the development of a biracial, working-class consciousness, but reality forced them to give in to the power of Jim Crow at almost every turn.

Despite the best efforts of labor organizers, most of Virginia’s working people never joined a union. Although official numbers are lacking, indications are that at the height of organizing activity in the 1930s, union members accounted for less than 15 percent of Virginia’s workforce. Antiunion views had a long history in the South, and many Virginians resisted unionization out of suspicion, fear, or pride. Others were simply indifferent. Of those who joined locals, many often did so for reasons as much fraternal as ideological. Banquets, summer excursions, and the annual Labor Day celebrations were often better attended than union meetings, and were much more common than strikes.

Union News

Many workers, including union members, worried that organized labor might threaten the racial and economic status quo. That fear was realized in June 1913. For the first time, the Virginia Federation of Labor (VFL), Virginia’s centralized union organization body, permitted Black delegates, representing Norfolk’s shipbuilding trades, to attend its state convention in Alexandria. Unalterably opposed to the inclusion of Black workers, most of the commonwealth’s oldest, all-white union locals left the VFL in angry protest. The seating of a few African American delegates so angered white unionists that it would be five years before they rejoined the Federation. By then, the VFL had eliminated Black delegates. Yet there were rare instances of biracial cooperation. In 1918, inspired by the patriotism of World War I (1914–1918), Black workers marched with whites in Richmond’s big Labor Day parade. One white writer remarked that “the colored unions had their bands too and they made a good showing for the crafts represented by them.”

The Depression and War

Mining Scrip and the Company Store

Protected to some degree by Virginia’s diversified economy and conservative fiscal policies, Virginians suffered the effects of the Great Depression less than many others across the country. Most of Virginia’s farmers, although lacking in material goods, grew enough food to feed their families. White-collar workers in cities and towns suffered pay cuts but, for the most part, managed to keep their jobs. On the other hand, miners and others in the coal industry had seen tough times since the 1920s. Virginia’s industrial workers, especially in major cities, felt the most severe effects of the depression as manufacturers cut production and jobs. Even cigarette manufacturing, Richmond’s “depression-proof” industry, fell on hard times. By 1931, Virginia’s industrial output had fallen 17 percent, industrial employment was down 14 percent, industrial wages dropped by almost one-third, and statewide unemployment reached nearly 150,000.

The depression produced several important developments in the world of organized labor that had a direct impact on Virginia’s working people. In June 1933, Congress passed, and United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt signed, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). From labor’s standpoint, one of the most important aspects of the NIRA was section 7(a), which guaranteed workers’ right to organize and engage in collective bargaining, backed by the authority of the federal government. It also prohibited employers from discriminating against workers who joined unions. This represented a major shift in the federal government’s attitude toward organized labor, a result of Roosevelt’s victory in 1932. Virginians had contributed to Roosevelt’s success by awarding him 70 percent of the state’s votes.

John L. Lewis

Two years later, a major shake-up occurred in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In 1935, eight unions under the leadership of John L. Lewis broke away from the nearly fifty-year-old labor federation and formed the Committee (or Congress) of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The new group conducted union-organizing drives of mass-production workers in the steel, automobile, rubber, electrical, and maritime industries. Prior to commencing a drive to bring industrial unions to the South, Lewis approached Lucy Randolph Mason, General Secretary of the National Consumers League, to be the CIO’s public relations representative in the Southeast. For the first time, there was competition in some industries to see which organization would represent workers, Black and white. The CIO endorsed powerful industrial labor organizations for all workers regardless of race, creed, color, or nationality. This was, however, a position that essentially doomed the CIO in its attempt to unionize the South. Efforts to organize labor and use the strike as a weapon failed to increase substantially union membership or the power of organized labor in Virginia.

World War II (1939–1945) brought a wave of cooperation between labor and industry. Each claimed the patriotic high ground in the war effort, just as they had done in 1918. But a series of strikes that swept through American industry at the end of the war convinced many conservative businessmen and politicians that organized labor had emerged from the war both communist-influenced and dangerously powerful.

William M. Tuck

In Virginia, labor’s actions bolstered an antiunion campaign already underway in the immediate postwar period. A strike against the Chesapeake Ferry Company caused the state to seize the company and then operate it as a public service. Threats of a walkout by utility workers were met by Virginia governor William Tuck‘s promise to take over the power plants and draft the workers into the state militia. Strikes at Virginia’s coal mines, and the resulting gas rationing, rail service cutbacks, electrical brownouts, and job layoffs, cost organized labor the respect of most Virginians. More significantly, these events prompted the General Assembly to act quickly on newly proposed legislation, the so-called right-to-work laws.

Right to Work and Taft-Hartley

Right-to-work laws were essentially voluntary union membership laws, but the choice of the label is an ironic one. “Right to work” was originally a socialist slogan associated with trade unionism, coined early in the 1800s. Opponents of compulsory union membership appear to have chosen the phrase “right to work” because it reflected what they hoped to portray as a fight between traditional American individualism and the growing power of organized labor. Especially in the South, where union-organizing seemed a particular threat, conservative politicians saw right-to-work as a means by which the political power of unions could be severely curtailed, if not eliminated, at the state level.

Right-to-work statutes attacked the problem by outlawing several variations in union membership arrangements: the “closed shop,” in which employers hired only union members; the “union shop,” in which workers must join the union within a certain period of time after being hired; and all other agreements that required workers to maintain union membership in order to keep their jobs. This opposition to unions was couched in arguments about the need to curtail the power of “labor czars” and the “unjust, undemocratic institution” of the union shop.

Harry F. Byrd Sr.

Those opposing the proposed legislation came from the state’s mining districts, where the United Mine Workers exercised significant influence and power, and Norfolk, a stronghold of unions in the shipbuilding trades. With the support of Harry F. Byrd Sr.‘s powerful Democratic machine (the Byrd Organization), rural lawmakers, the governor, and the business community, however, right-to-work had little to fear from the opposition. In the end, only one senator, representing the union stronghold of Norfolk, spoke in opposition to the bill. On January 21, 1947, Governor Tuck signed the right-to-work bill into law.

Virginia’s right-to-work law initially faced several real-world limitations. In areas with strong rural representation or with weak unions, organized labor faced increasing hostility from public officials. Conversely, in industrial cities like Norfolk and Richmond, where elected officials could count on the political strength of organized labor, right-to-work amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist to union shops. While right-to-work was often honored more in word than in deed, a far greater threat to organized labor was developing in Washington, D.C. There, a conservative Republican Congress sought to curtail severely the power of unions while striking a major blow against communist influence in the labor movement

Charges of Communism Made Against CIO Union

That blow came with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. The act banned closed and union shops under federal law as “unfair labor practices,” and prohibited unions from engaging in supportive, secondary boycotts. Cold War anxieties led to the demand that union leaders sign affidavits proclaiming their anticommunist convictions. Communists were active in a number of the CIO unions, and several unions were expelled from the CIO when officers refused to sign the mandatory affidavits. Richmond’s CIO-affiliated tobacco workers, members of the Food, Tobacco, and Agricultural (FTA) Union, found themselves without representation when the FTA dissolved after it had been exiled from the mainstream of organized labor.

U.S. president Harry S. Truman kept his promise to veto Taft-Hartley, but the tide of anticommunist, antiunion sentiment was too strong, and Congress overrode Truman’s veto. In Virginia, Taft-Hartley complemented the state’s ban on union shops in intrastate commerce with a federal ban on union shops in interstate commerce. Now all of Virginia’s industries would have to provide workers with the “industrial democracy” of right-to-work.

The Postwar Era

Tobacco Workers

The race- and gender-based work hierarchies that developed within Virginia’s trades and industries showed a remarkable staying power. By the 1960s, they had survived mechanization, the Great Depression, a New Deal, communism, unionization, and two world wars. Decades into the postwar era, management, labor, and union alike ensured that white men’s jobs and white seniority would be protected. Not until the 1970s did the courts begin to mandate changes intended to eliminate and redress the damage done by workplace segregation aimed at African Americans and women.

By then, however, the industrial scales had begun to tip away from Virginia. For most of the postwar period, Virginia’s largest industrial employer was the textile industry. Like other employers, including apparel, tobacco, and mining, its fortunes rose and fell with the economy as the century drew to a close. And, like those others, textile manufacturing offered declining prospects for work. As the factories closed, industrial jobs ended, and union membership declined. By the end of the century it had reached an all-time low of only 5.6 percent of the work force and was expected to continue to fall.

For Virginians, far greater opportunities existed in the white-collar world of the public and private sectors. Employment statistics covering the last three decades of the twentieth century are revealing. Industrial work (as a percentage of total employment) fell to less than 10 percent of all jobs, a decline of roughly 50 percent. During the same period, the service sector nearly doubled in size, accounting for 32 percent of all jobs. Retail and government-related jobs also outpaced manufacturing. Perhaps most revealing is that, at the turn of the twenty-first century, public sector workers had a union membership rate nearly five times that of those in the private sector.

For generations, Virginians toiled in factories, shipyards, mills, assembly plants, and the various trades that keep the commonwealth running. Rarely militant, sometimes outspoken, and always independent, their individualism and pride kept them apart as often as it brought them together. Caught between their beliefs in the freedom of “right-to-work” and the sense of camaraderie and mutual support gained from union membership, and badgered by anticompany unions and antiunion companies, Virginia’s workers juggled often conflicting loyalties while trying to maintain their sense of independence. Reflecting on his lost job in the wake of a factory closing, one eighteen-year tobacco factory veteran summed up not only his personal feelings but also, in many ways, southern workers’ attitudes toward the world of labor. “They paid me for every hour I worked,” he said. “They don’t owe me a thing.”

June 1913
The Virginia Federation of Labor, Virginia's centralized union organization body, first permits black delegates, representing Norfolk's shipbuilding trades, to attend its state convention in Alexandria.
Inspired by the patriotism of World War I, black workers march with whites in Richmond's big Labor Day parade.
Women in Virginia account for 50 percent of all textile workers, 90 percent of all clothing workers, more than 80 percent of tobacco workers, and 45 percent of paper manufacturing and printing workers.
As a result of the Great Depression, Virginia's industrial output falls 17 percent, industrial employment plummets 14 percent, industrial wages drop by almost one-third, and statewide unemployment reaches nearly 150,000.
June 1933
The U.S. Congress passes, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs, the National Industrial Recovery Act, which guarantees workers' right to organize and engage in collective bargaining, backed by the authority of the federal government.
The U.S. Congress passes the Taft-Hartley Act, which bans closed and union shops under federal law as "unfair labor practices," and prohibits unions from engaging in supportive, secondary boycotts.
January 21, 1947
Governor William M. Tuck signs the right-to-work bill into law, curtailing the power of labor unions in Virginia.
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APA Citation:
Love, Richard. Labor in Virginia during the Twentieth Century. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/labor-in-virginia-during-the-twentieth-century.
MLA Citation:
Love, Richard. "Labor in Virginia during the Twentieth Century" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 30 May. 2024
Last updated: 2024, March 14
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