“Which side are you on?”
Cliffside Mill was never unionized, and the nearest it ever got to union activity was the “big strike” of September 1934, when about 5,000 strikers and sympathizers from other areas of the state swarmed into the county, forcing all the textile mills to close, largely out of concern for their employees’ safety.
On Wednesday, September 5th, Cliffside Mill shut down at 11:00 a.m. as a large delegation from Forest City, Shelby and other points (and even a few from Cliffside) marched down highway 221 into town, chanting and waving signs and banners, with the intent of forcing out the employees. No Cliffside workers were inside the plant; they had slipped out the back gates.
Anticipating just such an event, the governor had stationed a contingent of National Guardsmen at Cliffside, who pitched their tents on the school grounds and mounted machine guns above the mill’s main gate.
It was hardly a strike—only one mill in the entire county (Henrietta) was unionized—but a demonstration, intended to intimidate the mill owners into allowing their workers to organize. Seventeen “strikers” were arrested, on charges of forcible trespass, malicious injury to property and inciting a riot. (One of these was a man named “Pick Biggerstaff,”
but it is not known whether it was “our” Pick Biggerstaff, Cliffside’s barber for many years.*) Otherwise, the event didn’t amount to much, and before day’s end the marchers had disbanded and gone back to wherever they came from.
The mill reopened after about a week, when it was clear the “emergency” was over. The Guardsmen struck their tents and went away.
Most people in Cliffside were against unionization. Mrs. Ida Watkins was vehemently against it. Long the “voice” of Cliffside through her weekly columns in the county’s newspapers, and the wife of R.B. Watkins, a prominent and influential Cliffside Mills executive, she used one of her columns in the Courier in 1937 to rant against organized labor.
The headline read “Interesting Letter by Mrs. Watkins,” although it wasn’t a letter at all. It was a manifesto.
I am reminded that the C.I.O. organizers are coming to the dear old North Carolina State to disturb the peace and general satisfaction of the thousands of mill workers. Men that are perfectly strangers to us, and men who are not in the least concerned in our welfare. They approach us with smiling faces—effectively pretending sympathy. They talk of slavery in the days of Abraham Lincoln and of sweatshops, long hours and small pay—of which we have none, and then they begin to seek a ‘leader,’ call him ‘Mr. President,’ get out your union cards to be signed for dues. Oh, yes, you must part with your money—of which you get nothing in return—but promises. And rapidly their intentions widen and expand. The question comes, ‘have you any complaints?’ And a spark of prejudice is kindled in the heart against the employer. And the leader speaks of freedom, liberty, am I my brother’s keeper, then comes the demand for the mill officials to hand over the keys and keep their nose out. In my opinion, the mill or textile owners will never recognize their demands, for they have worked a lifetime in building their business to provide work for men and women to live and enjoy life. They have a deep love, appreciation, and understanding for their employees in all their activities. Cliffside desires no meddlers, night prowlers, strike seekers or agitators. We are glad to work. We enjoy the many privileges that are ours.
A few workers did favor unionization and some worked, however surreptiously, to bring it about. The name of one such man arises to this day when the discussion turns to Cliffside’s nearly forgotten history of labor unrest. At some point in the thirties, because of his involvement in union activity, this man was fired and forced to leave town. His name was Bob.
He was the son of Mrs. Ida Watkins.
This article first appeared in the Sep-Oct 2007 issue of the Cliffside Historical Society’s newsletter.
* Clarification from B.B. (Buzz) Biggerstaff: “Granddaddy was nicknamed ‘Pick’ when he made loom picker sticks for the Caroleen textile plant. Later his four sons were also called ‘Pick.’ Now, the one who was involved in this melee was the youngest son Alton, not our ‘Pick.’ Dad was involved with the Cliffside plant all of his working years. He certainly wasn’t a ‘hothead’ union organizer. Uncle Worth was a textile man and spinning overseer for a textile company in Marion. Uncle Glen was a professional baseball player and later an oil distributor. Uncle Alton was the hothead. So, now, if you were referring to Dad as being “our Pick” in this article, he wasn’t. I think a clarification is in order to the friends of Cliffside, for Dad certainly wasn’t this person. In fact, he was not proud of his brother being involved and mentioned it many times.”