On July 1, 1933, textile workers at the Harriman Hosiery Mills (HHM) plant in Harriman seized the opportunity created by Section 7 (a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act to organize a local union of the Hosiery Workers, part of the United Textile Workers of America (UTW). Over the next year, hundreds of workers, most of them women, in this East Tennessee community became embroiled in a bitter strike against the town's largest employer, which produced nationally marketed women's silk stockings. The strike tore the town apart, divided managers and workers, and revealed the fragile state of labor reform in the early 1930s.
Seeking to better their lives, hopeful workers confronted the Tarwater family, the owners and operators of both the mills and the company town. Key issues in the strike involved the firing of twenty-three union activists in July 1933; recognition of UTWL local 1757; use of collective bargaining as a new business-labor relations tool; management resistance to union recognition and substantive bargaining over wages, hours, and working conditions; and confused labor policies of the early New Deal under the National Industrial Recovery Act of June 16, 1933.
Between late July and early October 1933, union officials Floyd Johnston, Roy Gossage, and Edna Gossage tried to discuss recognition, a contract, and the rehiring of the fired workers with HHM secretary M. W. Walker and company attorney T. Asbury Wright. The company's refusal to consider union recognition, bargaining, or a contract resulted in an overwhelming union rank and file strike vote on October 3, 1933. Union organizer Fred Held, Harriman Mayor J. G. D'Armond, and local union leaders sought accommodation with managers, but company intransigence led to hearings before both the regional labor board in Atlanta in November and the National Labor Board in Washington, D.C., in January 1934.
Over the next several months, company officials fired union activists, threatened to cancel employee insurance, insisted on reapplication of all employees, hired new operatives from outside Harriman, obtained an antistrike injunction, and used Roane County sheriff's deputies as company guards. The half-hearted intervention by federal officials produced no favorable results for labor. By March 1934 the strike had been lost, and the community was divided into factions supporting strikers or owners. A management lockout on June 25 led to a last-minute resolution of the strike on company terms. The July 1934 agreement was arranged by federal negotiators, who consulted neither union officials nor striking workers.
The course of the Harriman strike suggested that the early New Deal's attempt to provide for real improvement in the lives of ordinary working people through union organization, recognition, and collective bargaining proved to be a missed chance for textile workers in the South. It also was a missed chance for enlightened management practices in a competitive industry and for compassionate government labor policy reforms in the early years of the Great Depression.
W. Calvin Dickinson and Patrick D. Reagan, “Business, Labor, and the Blue Eagle: The Harriman Hosiery Mills Strike, 1933-1934,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 55 (1996): 240-55; James A. Hodges, New Deal Labor Policy and the Southern Cotton Textile Industry, 1933-1941 (1986)