THOUGHTS: Si Kahn & Labor Day in NC
In the 1930’s, the textile industry in North Carolina (and beyond) was booming, and the towns and people that had factories looming over their lives sought representation through the United Textile Workers Union. Between the years 1932 and 1934, the UTW’s nationwide membership increased from 27,000 to 270,000.
Even though the UTW had large numbers, when it came to bargaining with mill owners here in North Carolina, progress was not being made. So, on September 1, 1934, UTW workers went on strike nationwide. Here in North Carolina, that meant 65,000 North Carolina textile workers walked off there jobs, demanding their employers negotiate in good faith with the UTW.
The governor of NC at the time was John C.B. Ehringhaus. Ehringhaus sided with his mill owner constituents and friends, and mobilized the National Guard to protect the interests of business, not workers. After a month long strike that yielded no results, the workers received pressure to return to their jobs from all angles, including President Roosevelt. Defeated and threatened, UTW workers returned to their jobs on September 23, 1934. Forty years later, the workers at J.P. Stevens plants in NC had the opportunity to continue that fight.
In the 1970’s, J.P. Stevens was one of the largest employers in the south, with 77 textile mills and 43,000 employees nationwide. Made famous by the film “Norma Rae”, the J.P. Stevens union organizing campaign is one of the most referenced in history; where textile workers spent 11 years fighting for the right to form a union
Activist, musician, and organizer Si Kahn joined the J.P. Stevens fight after spending a year with the mine workers in Harlan County, Kentucky on the notorious Brookside Strike. In Harlan County, Kahn worked with 180 mine workers and their wives battling the Duke Power Company owned Eastover Coal, for 13 months. Kahn had already been using song to address issues, like in his most celebrated song, “Aragon Mill”, which was released in 1974. But when Kahn arrived in NC, he noticed that music was at the heart of culture here, and he re-wrote the lyrics of familiar song’s in order to spread the unions message—solidarity through song.
The J.P. Stevens campaign ended with a victory, but the company would not bargain a contract in good faith, so Kahn remained in NC to help continue the fight. He has lived here in NC ever since and hasn’t stopped singing or organizing. Now 75 years old, Khan recently revived the 2019 Joe Hill Award from the Labor Heritage Foundation , celebrating his lifetime of contributions to the labor movement and to working-class culture.
So, as we take today off to reflect on what workers have done for our country, let’s also reflect on the battles that workers had to face, and the organizers on the front lines. And let’s say thank you to North Carolinian Si Kahn for always making the struggle a little bit more bearable. Through song.
“Aragon Mill”. Written By Si Kahn . Recorder by Red Clay Ramblers. Released in 1979.
“Aragon Mill” performed by Si Kahn and The Looping Brothers. Released in 2013.