The Truth That Can't be Spinned

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On 1 September 1934 millions of cotton spindles stopped spinning.

Across the Southern Piedmont mill whistles blew, but workers didn't come to work. The most exploited industrial workforce in the US - the 'lint heads' of the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama - was on strike.

As mill owners appealed frantically for injunctions, teargas and the National Guard, a vast peaceful army of textile workers demolished the image of Southern labour as culturally servile and unorganisable. With voices honed to spare beauty in the choirs of mountain Baptist churches, they sang powerful hymns of solidarity instead.

And they were robustly answered (often in Portuguese, Italian or French) by the mill workers of New England who joined what became the first industry-wide general strike of the 1930s. It was also the most violently repressed.

Before Franklin D Roosevelt (more concerned to appease the 'lords of the loom' than to liberate their slaves) cajoled the national textile union to call off the strike, thousands had been teargassed and arrested. Thirteen - mostly in the South - had been shot dead.

Now, 70 years later, with only a handful of moist-eyed veterans left alive to remember the heroism and heartbreak of the Great Textile Strike, the cotton spindles down in Dixie have once again stopped spinning. But this time they've stopped forever.

The US textile and clothing industries are dying. Since the inauguration of George W Bush in January 2001, 350,000 jobs - almost a third of the total - have been lost. Another 400,000 jobs are expected to disappear by the end of the decade. Textile manufacture in the Piedmont, today as in 1934, is largely a monoculture, and as the mills close towns die with them. Already too many main streets in the upland South are populated only by thrift stores, drug counselling services and military recruiters.

The parallel decline of the clothing industry is likewise eroding the survival economy of recent Latino and Asian immigrants in the tenement districts of downtown Los Angeles, New York and Miami. Soon even sweatshops will be remembered with nostalgia. Thus another large segment of the US industrial working class is being fast-forwarded to that brave new world that Kurt Vonnegut predicted with such eerie prescience in his 1952 novel Player Piano - a society of discarded labourers whose only option is enlistment in the imperial legions fighting wars for oil and other resources on distant frontiers.

This almost invisible tragedy - who talks about plant closure on Fox News or CNBC? - is part of a larger global jobs catastrophe that follows in the wake of trade liberalisation. The final quota barriers protecting American textile and garment jobs will be dismantled next January. China's soft exports to the US have doubled since its accession to the WTO in 2001, and the Financial Times predicts China will grab the greater share of the global market in a breathtakingly rapid restructuring that will eliminate millions of jobs worldwide, from Danville to Dhaka.

China's chief comparative advantage, as the AFL-CIO argued last March in a petition asking the US trade representative to promote the rights of Chinese factory labour, grows from the government's 'unremitting repression of workers' rights' and the ruthless exploitation of an estimated 100 million rural migrants.

The Bush administration, not surprisingly, rejected the AFL-CIO appeal to enforce the International Labour Organisation (non-binding) core covenants. Nor can labour expect much more solidarity from a Democratic Party that prides itself on Nafta and the WTO. Certainly John Edwards may strike some heroic poses outside shuttered textile plants in his home state of North Carolina, but that doesn't mean, to quote a stupid campaign slogan, that 'Help is on the way'. The dominant party line, as argued in the New York Times recently by William Gould IV (Clinton's chairman of the National Labour Relations Board), is instead to 'keep labour standards out of trade agreements'.

In the eyes of most leading Democrats, the epochal achievement of the Clinton years was bringing the wealth and glamour of the so called 'new economy' into the party. No chance, then, that a Kerry-Edwards White House would risk biotech's intellectual property rights or Hollywood's lucrative royalties in the new capitalist China for the sake of some 'lint heads' in Georgia or undocumented immigrants in Los Angeles.

In the face of this free trade juggernaut, unionised textile and garment workers (since 1976 fused together in Unite) merged this summer with Here, the dynamic hotel workers' union. Although United Here promises to devote half of its budget to new organising, it may be too late to save the jobs imminently imperilled by trade liberalisation.

Edna Bonacich (co-author of Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry) is both a leading academic expert and respected activist. I asked her for a frank view of the situation:

'Unite will likely lose a big chunk of its membership. Already the union has shifted focus from garment workers, believing it is hopeless to organise them because of the potential flight of the industry offshore.

'Certainly Los Angeles, as an apparel centre and magnet for immigrants, will suffer severe consequences. The victims will tend to be the newest and poorest of immigrants. Whatever of the industry remains in the US is guaranteed to operate at the lowest levels of worker protection.'

Bonacich believes that heroic but localised fights against plant closure are doomed to failure: 'This is too big an issue to handle on a piecemeal basis.' She concedes that a recipe for globalised worker resistance to global capital - 'the political question of our times' - remains elusive.

In Player Piano the remnants of the skilled working class (like the last of the Plains Indians) form a millenarian resistance movement, the 'Ghost Shirts', before final defeat and disorganisation.

On the forgotten anniversary of an epic strike, Vonnegut's cautionary tale has an unfortunate new meaning.