"The Trade Union Unity League is an avenging angel sent to strike down the bosses and heal the wounds of the working man."
Those words were spoken by Amy "Fellow Worker" Schechter in February 1930 at the first meeting of the Chattanooga Communist Party.
Amy Schechter was the lead organizer of the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) and she came here with a purpose - to defend and advance the interests of workers who were being ruthlessly exploited by the capitalist class. Schechter was preaching revolutionary politics and militant unionism and she had no patience for the reformist "aristocratic trade unions" that sought to be the handmaidens of Capital, rather than its adversary. In her first speech to the workers of Chattanooga, Schechter "declared war on the American Federation of Labor" and called William Green, the president of the American Federation of Labor, a "tool of the bosses and the business man's friend, who lolls in Florida with his executive council while 3,000,000 workers are unemployed."
And Schechter practiced what she preached. She was one of the lead organizers, alongside Vera Buch and Albert Weisbord (author of the famous ballad "Solidarity Forever"), of the 1929 Gastonia Labor Strike at the Loray Mill. The largest textile mill in the South and the third largest in the nation, Loray Mill had been purchased as part of an intentional plan by Northern industrialists to relocate their business to the South where they could more easily exploit workers. It went on to become the site of one of the most infamous and bitter labor strikes of the early 20th Century.
Soon after purchasing the Loray Mill, the mill owners fired a third of the workers, cut the pay of the remaining workers and upped the amount of production. The mill workers, who were predominately women, responded by calling for a strike and demanding a "minimum $20 weekly wage, a forty-hour work week, union recognition" and an end to highly exploitative practices that result in higher levels of productivity, and thus profits, for the capitalists. What resulted was nothing short of class war. The company hired thugs to accompany Gastonia police to hunt down and imprison union organizers, arrest folks on site for picketing, throw families sympathetic to the union out of the company homes, and raid the food supplies and tent city that was home to the striking workers. On the night of June 7, 1929 the Gastonia Police Chief Orville Aderholt and several officers raided the union's tent colony and headquarters, which had just been rebuilt after being smashed to pieces by company thugs in the months prior. The raid turned into a shoot-out in which the Police Chief died and more than 70 organizers and strikers were arrested - including Amy Schechter. In September of 1929, protests erupted across the United States against "Gastonia-style justice" and the charges against Schechter were dropped.
You can actually read the diary of Vera Buch and her first-hand accounts of organizing alongside Amy Schechter in Gastonia by clicking HERE.
Soon after the trial, Amy Schechter came to Chattanooga, joined by organizers Fred Totheroe, a former textile mill worker of Gastonia, "Red" Hendrix, who would be eventually be convicted in a North Carolina court for his involvement in the Loray Mill Strike, and a Black organizer who remained unnamed in every article published by the bourgeois press that I have reviewed from the period.
Picture taken from "Local Reds Aided by Moscow" the Chattanooga Times 2.5.1930
Having a fiery and committed woman as the lead organizer in a hostile Southern city was not an anomaly. The Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) advanced a radical organizing philosophy connecting "shop floor militancy with community-based organizing". The Communist Party of the time was actively connecting community and workplace battles in the hopes of recruiting a broad base of directly affected persons to struggle alongside one another in the pursuit of "a more egalitarian society in the broader community."
The TUUL actively organized some of the most marginalized segments of society, reaching out to the homeless and hungry through the creation of unemployed councils, fighting for women's rights and economic interests and hiring women, like Amy Schechter, and Black folks as organizers and appointing them to positions of leadership over white men, all while openly agitating for full racial integration of society in the segregated American South. What makes this so incredible is that it was taking place in the late 1920s and early 1930s - and it was happening right here in Chattanooga.
Shechter claimed that she was part of a proletariat revolution, which "would wipe out the aristocratic labor unions" which were "closed to negroes and poor white laborers." For the small price of fifty cents, Chattanooga workers could join the revolution and get a copy of The Daily Worker.
"The Trade Union Unity League came not singing hymns of harmony, but as a militant organization prepared to fight for the working man's rights." - Fred Totheroe, a former textile mill worker of Gastonia and organizer of the Chattanooga Communist Party
The Chattanooga Communist Party's headquarters were set up at 2207 South Broad Street:
The building was destroyed during the construction of Interstate 27, but the building directly next to it stands to this day:
Four days after the TUUL publicly announced its campaign to being organizing workers, including people of color and women, into a revolutionary union and political party, the Chattanooga Times announced that the Commissioner of Chattanooga City Schools, H.D. Huffaker, was at once launching an intentional propaganda campaign to brainwash students into being unquestioning jingos. This is Huffaker's statement as quoted in the paper:
"I've been asked if there are any communists in Chattanooga schools and I am very happy to say there is none, and will not be under this administration. Judging from the attempts being made here during the last few days to establish the order, they are dealing almost entirely with the ignorant classes. We consider that they only excuse for our educational systems is the work that is accomplished in making better citizens out of boys and girls who are to be the men and women of tomorrow. This is but another reason why our public schools must be strengthened at every point to the end that our citizenry will be able to know the false and true theory of popular government. The public schools have been strong and steady in the question of loyalty and patriotism to our government, but we have gone a step further and this is our plan: The department will publish a textbook on citizenship soon and a copy will be placed in the hands of every teacher ... If communism predominates, the American civilization is gone. The American government and communism are antagonistic forces." - H.D. Huffaker, Commissioner of Chattanooga City Schools, quoted from "Wave Red Flag as Negro Hope Against White" in Chattanooga Times 2.6.1930
The schools were not the only institutions that began publicly speaking out against efforts to organize workers together to fight for progressive causes, they were quickly accompanied by the local Black churches.
"It would be unrighteous and ungodly for a poor man to rise up against a rich man in an evil manner or do harm in any way, because he became rich while you took an intellectual nap," said Reverend P.B. Hill of the Union Baptist Church. Reverend Hill was one of the leading Black ministers in Chattanooga, who was joined by fourteen others on the Sunday following the launch of the local Communist in preaching sermons against them. Chattanooga Times articles from the period attribute the simultaneous sermons to D.C. Harper, whom the paper describes as "head janitor at the courthouse and a leader of his race". Harper is quoted in several articles as announcing that the ministers would direct their congregations to not join the Communists, but instead "work for harmony with the white people." Harper proclaimed that "the leaders of the negroes realize that nothing good can come from the organization of the white and the blacks."
You can read all the news articles quoted in this blog by clicking HERE.
This post is one in a series entitled "The People's History of Chattanooga". My hope is to begin providing a more complex and true history of the actual events and people who lived, worked, and struggled in Chattanooga. This is not the Chamber of Commerce's version of local history. I am trying to provide narratives that speak to the grassroots about the grassroots in a way that includes all of our failings, contradictions, victories and moments of inspiration.
UPDATE 4.29.2012 9:01 PM minor spelling corrections were made.
UPDATE 4.30.2012 10:26 AM date corrections were made, previously said that The Party was starting to organize in the "late 1930s and early 1940s", this has been corrected to "late 1920s and early 1930s".