The ‘stretch-out’: The idea that wrecked life for mill workers

By Bill Shepard

During the mid-1920s and on into the mid-1930s, the textile industry was expanding all over the South. To speed up production, two things were happening within the cotton mills. New and speedier machinery was being introduced and more production was being required of those who labored inside the old mills often referred to as sweatshops! Those who worked inside them would agree with that label. A new word was introduced to the workers at that time and throughout the industry. It came to be known as the “stretch-out system.” The mill hands described it as a way to get more production from the workers but with no more pay. I was a small boy at he time, but I remember many conversations about the stretch-out system and the way it was operated in the big mill where my Dad worked. As my brothers reached the age when they were old enough, or should I say, “big enough,” they too told stories of the stretch-out. By the time I was old enough to work at the mill, much had been changed. The child labor laws were in effect along with the 40-hour workweek and eight hours per day. In the book “Like a Family,” the authors share many stories about the stretch-out and the effects it had upon the textile industry throughout the South. Some results were devastating, even resulting in deaths in some locations. The things of which I write are those that I experienced and witnessed while living on the Mill Village in Darlington. Let me begin by saying that it was the stretch-out system that led to the closing of the big mill, Darlington Manufacturing Co. in Darlington. Yes, I know that the final straw was the unionizing of the mill in 1957, but long before that, a promise had been made. Now, back to that time long ago. I recall sitting on the Atlantic Coastline railroad track and watching the long line of mill workers parade by. A walkout had been called by their leader, and workers left their jobs and followed! They were protesting against working conditions that had been imposed by the stretch-out system. A few examples are given here. Young men were hired to follow workers on their jobs or stand nearby with stopwatches in their hands to determine the minutes lost by workers. For example, if a thread was broken on a weaver’s loom, that worker stopped the loom to tie the thread, and then would restart the loom. The stopwatch recorded the lost time. If a worker stopped for a drink of water or to eat a sandwich or to go to the restroom, all those minute were added and the time lost was reported. No longer could a worker receive a promotion on his or her job. Young college folk were hired for positions as overseers and supervisors. I think I’ve made my point. Those conditions continued, as more and more production was required. Enough was enough! With no union to appeal to, the workers had decided to take matters into their own hands and walk out. Not all workers were willing to do that and hard feelings, quarrels, broken friendships and as stated earlier, fights, even killings in some places were the results. In Darlington, the latter did not happen. As a boy, I followed the marchers to one of the houses on the village and the leader of the group took a position on the porch and delivered a rousing speech to the workers. I can never forget one of the lines he spoke. “We will eat salt and drink water before we go back to our jobs, unless our conditions are met!” I could not imagine what it would be like to eat salt and drink water! It almost came to that, before Dad had another pay envelope. With no support for the workers, the mill owners were in a winning position. “Eating salt and drinking water” seemed a near reality. Then a deal was made between the groups; it was altogether in the favor of the mill owners. It was simple and to the point. You can return to work, but if you ever strike again, we will close the mill and sell it off piece by piece, never to open again. The walkout was over. In the years that followed, numerous efforts were made to unionize the mill, but those who remembered were not interested. They remembered and believed the promise that had been made. After years passed, many had died and a younger generation voted to unionize the old mill and a promise made years before was kept! The mill was closed, never to open again! Some workers remained, hoping that one day, smoke would be seen rising from the smokestack again; it didn’t happen. Others moved away and started life elsewhere. The old mill stood until it was demolished and hauled away. Now, only memories remain and the numbers of those who remember grow smaller, as the time goes by.

Author: Rachel Howell

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