Throw Out the Lifeline

Bill Sr.:  [From The Witness   (January 22, 1921)]

For the past three days I have been in Danville, Virginia, where four thousand textile workers are striking for the right to bargain collectively through an organization of their own choosing.  I run the real risk I know of making you weary with the subject, but since our Church stated in General Conventions that workers have this right it is perhaps not remiss for me to give a brief report of my findings in a Church paper.

First may I impress upon you the fact that these workers in Danville are Americans;  law abiding and church going Americans.  I was given the real privilege of addressing their meeting last Sunday afternoon.  Thirteen hundred of them were jammed into a small hall, and there were as many more on the outside unable to get in.  For half an hour before the meeing these workers raised the roof with old Gospel hymns, led by a Salvation Army officer, with ‘Throw Out the Life Line’ apparently their favorite since they sang it three times.  There was then a brief prayer meeing, followed by the addresses.  I wish I might convey to you my emotions as I stood on a chair and spoke to these men, women and children;  hundreds of them before me, their faces drawn, with deep circles under their eyes, with tattered clothing on their backs, and many of them with burlap bagging wrapped around their feet since they had no shoes.  But in spite of their misery they had the fire of devotion and determination in their eyes as they sang these hymns that they love so well.  They ended their song service by singing the National Anthem, the colors raised before them, with a gusto which ;put to shame the well-fed patriots who are using the troos and the courts of Virginias to crush these workers.  i have attended many cathedral services and great services of our Church at General Convention.  Yet I can say that I have never felt myself in a more religious atmosphere than I was in last Sunday afternoon.  It was religion with a purpose, which helps I think.


These workers have been laboring in huge textile plants which dominate the city and everything that is in it.  It is the same old story of textiles generally –long hours, low wages, rotten housing conditions–slavery.  True it has been softened somewhat in recent years by the paternalism of the management.  Nurses have visited in the homes of these workers when there was sickness.  And they were called upon by the company doctors; sometimes, so i was told, when they had no need for a doctor.  The company, you see, deducts a fee from the pay envelope for every visit.  Then there is a fine Y.M.C.A. building, in chare of a secretary, which the workers can use if they care to do so.  Whether they do or not they are taxed for its up-keep.  There is a  baseball park;  there is a band stand and various other devices to keep the workers contented and happy.

But they came to the conclusion that they did not want these things.  They decided that the self-respect they would gain through an organization of their own should take the place of this ‘master and slave’ arrangement.  So they organized a local of the United Textile Workers, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, and one of the most conservative of American unions.

But when they joined the union they were fired from their jobs.  Before the summer was ove there were fully 2,000 of them out of work and depending upon the union for relief.  The leaders, among them Miss Matilda Lindsey, a communicant of our Church, did eveything to prevent a strike.  But a strike was eventually forced upon them, though a lockout by the mill management is a more accurate description of what took place.


The strike is now in its seventeenth week.  Repeated efforts have been made by church groups, by the governor of the state, and by the federal government to settle the matter through arbitration.  The workers are willing.  Only recently through the president of the American Federation of Labor, the strikers agreed to return to work providing the management would then arbitrate the issues with the department of labor of the U.S. Government as the third party.  But the mill owners have replied to each of these suggestions, ‘These are our mills.  We are right.  We have nothing to arbitrate.’


So the strike continues.  How long it will last nobody can say.  But after a few days with these workers i know that it is only starvation that will force them to return to the mills with their union unrecognized.  And I am not at all sure that even starvation will do it.  They have been starving for four months;  some say that they have always been on starvation rations.  Doles from the union headquarters of a few beans, a little flour, and occasionally a piece of salt-pork, is all they are getting for food.  Yet when their leader asked them, ‘Shall we quit this strike and go back to work?’ the roard of ‘No’ could be heard I am sure for blocks.  I talked with scores of them and in spite of their obvious misery I heard not a single complaint about their rations.  These workers may be clrushed.  They will never be defeated.  They are native-born American Christians fighting for their self-respect.  They will eventually win.


Let me, please, give you a story or two.  I was allowed to attend the meeting of the executive committee of the union on Snday evening.  A number of workers knocked on the door and asked that they might be heard.  They were ‘scabs’ –workers who had belonged to the union but had become weak-kneed and returned to work.  One of them was a boy hardly eighteen years of age.  He came before the comittee trembling, with his head held down.  He was asked what he wished to say.  ‘Well, brothers, I went back to work on Wednesday morning.  i was wrong in going back during our strike.  I quit again on Friday.  I am here to tell you that I am sorry for what I have done and ask you to please take me back into the union .’   That is all he said.  He was asked to withdraw.  The members of the comnmittee then discussed his case and these are the facts brought out;  he and a younger brother lived in a small house with their father and mother.  The father also was a sriker.  The father several years before had borrowed money from a bank in order to buy this tiny home.  He could not meet the interest payments.  An officer of the bank, who is also an officer of the mills, told him that unless he went back to work he would foreclose the mortgage.  The father replied;  ‘Take my house.  I will not scab.’  The officer of the bank then sent for the son, told him that the house would be taken away unless the interest was paid, and urged him to return to work.  So the boy, in order to save his father’s house, went back to the mill.  The father, learning that his son had ‘scabbed,’ but not knowing of course why the boy had done so, drove him from home with the words, ‘No scab is going to sleep under my roof.’  A loyalty had come into this home that was big enough to rend apart the very household.  And there is some3thing fine and something Biblical in that fact.  That family is united again –nothing but beans to eat and yet I know it is a happy family.


There is much more that might be said.  Before me as I write these notes are the pay envelopes of number of the strikers, showing what they received before the strike.  Here is one man.  Envelopes for twenty-four weeks.  Fiflty-five hours in the mill each week.  And whsat do you suppose he received in cold cash for the entire twnety-four weeks of work?  Exactly $4.57.  N ot for one week, or for one day, but for the entire twenty-four weeks.  The rest of his meagre wage had been deducted for rent in the company house, wood from the company woodpile, coal from the company bins, groceries from the company store, visits to his home of the company doctor, a company tax for the Y.M.C.A.  A life completely dominated and controlled by his masters.


Much could be said about the state troops that are in there to break the strike.  Not to maintain law and order.  To break the strike –to eat down workers who have conducted their strike so peacefully that it will go down in history.  Of the courts where strikers are tried and fined and thrown in jail for petty offenses.  Of the churches, and the changing attitudes of these religious workers who are coming rapidly to believe the churchs are boss owned and not without some reason, in spite of one or two noble exceptions.


I’m with these people.  And I know too that you would be if you could spend a few hours in Danville.  They need money badly.  There are fourteen thousand of them depending upon you for their meagre fare.  If you can help, even with a tiny bit, send it to the Church Emergency Committee, 287 Fourth Avenue, N.Y.C., and it will be promptly forwarded to these workers –all of it.  Then they do so need clothing.  Anything, but particularly children’s clothing and baby clothing, and warm under clothing for the grown-ups, and shoes.  You must have something you can send.  Perhaps you can get some organization in your parish busy.  Make up a box and send it to the United Textile Workers, 609 Loyal Street, Danville, Va.  hen write a  note telling these workers than in the name of the Christ you do not want starvation and misery to be the determining factor in this struggle so you are sending a little something.  Sunch action on your part will be a service to the Church.  Let them know that there are fellow Christians willing to ‘Throw Out the Life Line.”

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