The action is planned for tomorrow, Friday, June 18, 1943: A handful of black women who work in the top-floor stemmery of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Factory No. 65 in the heart of Winston-Salem will report for their morning shift as usual, but they won’t start working until their grievances are heard.
The women work in a sweltering room where the air is thick with tobacco dust. In teams of three, they unpack cases of bundled tobacco, untie the bundles, and then feed the tobacco onto a chain between moving blades that cut the stems from the precious bright leaf.
The moving chain, the whirling blades, the speed at which they must work, and the incessant pall of oily dust all make the labor dangerous and exhausting. The women are overworked and underpaid — earning on average just 46 cents per hour — and are treated as the lowest of the low by the white foremen. And the company-ordered speed-up since May has made the work intolerable.
Theodosia Simpson, a young woman whose enrollment in Winston-Salem Teachers College was cut short by the Great Depression, has become a quiet leader among the women.
The day before the planned work stoppage, one of her coworkers, a widow with five children, is too ill to work her machine. Simpson recalls what happens next: “The foreman came up and told her that if she didn’t catch up, there was the door. She started crying, almost went into hysteria because she had these children to rear and nobody working but her.”
It’s a shared fear: More than half of the working women in the city are employed by the big tobacco firms. For black women, one of the few alternatives to a tobacco job is domestic service.
Simpson shares the plan with her coworkers at machine No. 13 — one of 66 on the floor lined up in three long rows. It’s not a threat, not a real strike, just a request for some humane consideration.
• • •
The women of the stemmery are among more than 16,000 workers at RJR, the largest tobacco manufacturing plant in the world. It covers 100 acres in downtown Winston-Salem, not far from the courthouse and city offices — an implicit reminder of the political power the company holds in a city where it pays more than a quarter of all property taxes. More than 80 percent of RJR workers are black — including more than 4,000 seasonal workers.
Somehow, the line foreman finds out about the plan and threatens to fire them all if they go through with it. The women meet at lunchtime, huddled in a corner of the cafeteria, and change their plan: They will stop work immediately after lunch. They recruit the men in the adjacent casing room, where the loose tobacco plants are packed, to join them.
“We was catching so much hell at Reynolds that we had to do something,” Geneva McClendon, Simpson’s coworker and friend, later explains. “Working conditions was so bad you needed God and a union … It got so we wasn’t going to take it anymore; we had had it.”
As the whistle sounds to signal a return to work, the women turn their backs to their idle machines and confront the foreman with their demands. He is taken aback, tells them that he doesn’t have the authority to bargain with them.
The women don’t back down. The talk goes back and forth for a few minutes, and already the dynamic has changed: Black women are speaking up to a white foreman. Things can still end well for everyone — a few concessions from the company, a few more cents an hour, some consideration for sick workers, and the women will go back to their machines. Then, in walks James McCardell, 38, a 15-year veteran “draft boy” who hauls the boxes of tobacco into the stemmery. He, too, has been complaining of feeling sick all week — he visited the company nurse just that morning — but he’s come back to work anyway to avoid being replaced. He steps forward and declares, “If these women’ll stand up for their rights, I’m with them!” Then he keels over onto the floor, stone dead of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Pandemonium erupts — some of the workers begin shouting that the company worked the poor man to death. All of the women stop work, and as word spreads to the fourth floor, 198 more shut down. On the third floor, 25 women walk off the job. Leaders counsel the workers to remain at their work stations, idle, rather than try to leave the plant, and company officials order all 73 gates locked so that no one can enter or leave the premises.
• • •
Before long, company executives, including John Clarke Whitaker, vice president for manufacturing, converge on No. 65 from the RJR headquarters two blocks away.
“We told him we were tired of the workload, tired of the boss standing over us with a whip in his hand,” McClendon later recalls. “We wanted better working conditions, and we wanted more money. We wanted equal pay for equal work.”
It’s an astonishing moment in a Southern workplace where black workers — especially black women — have previously been silenced for fear of retribution. Now these women are speaking out openly, as equals, as workers who are valuable to the company.
Whitaker promises to consult the company attorney. But it’s not enough — the dam of frustration has broken. Workers complain that they can’t feed their families on the wages they take home, that the pace of work is too relentless, that sick workers are treated harshly. What could have been a reasonable conversation turns into a battle — and Whitaker makes a tactical retreat: If the workers appoint a committee, he will meet with them. Simpson is elected to head the committee. Union organizers, until now stymied by the power of the company, have found their opening.
• • •
That evening, strike leaders gather about 50 people at the Union Mission Holy Church to draft formal demands. They are hosted by the Rev. Frank O’Neal, rumored to be the highest-paid black employee at RJR. O’Neal is a trim man, known as a charismatic speaker and a man of fierce convictions. Like other well-paid black workers, he is under significant pressure from Whitaker to support the company against the strikers. “He thought he could use me, but he couldn’t do it,” O’Neal says. “I knew how they were doing my people because during the Depression, that Reynolds Tobacco Company cleared $30 million profit when the people were starving, standing in bread lines and soup lines.”
Simpson tells the crowd, “If you’d go to them one at a time, you might get fired, but if you stick together, they’re not going to fire you.” The new plan: On Friday, all of RJR’s workers will report for their shifts, but no one will work until their grievances are addressed. Winston-Salem’s streets and front porches fill with workers and their families, clamoring to learn news of the events at No. 65. Word spreads that tomorrow will be a day of reckoning.
• • •
The next day, Simpson is named in front-page stories about the sit-down strike in the Winston-Salem Journal and Twin City Sentinel. Meanwhile, 1,600 women at No. 60 and No. 60 extension — the largest of the stemmeries — report for their shift and declare that they will not work until the grievances are settled. The women also request that Robert “Chick” Black, an RJR worker from a little-known division that makes cigarettes from tobacco stems, represent them.
The company trusts Black, so it agrees to let him represent the women. Officials pressure him to persuade them to get back to work. But, again, they have miscalculated: Black sends word to coworkers around the plant and closes down the entire factory, all five floors.
On Friday, idle workers visit between stations, and when they leave after their shifts, union organizers are waiting at the gates to sign them up by the hundreds. The strike is on — one of 57 strikes in the state in 1943.
• • •
On Saturday, James McCardell is buried. On Sunday, some 10,000 workers converge on the Woodland Avenue School grounds for another mass meeting. Black later recounts, “People were out in the streets, on the sidewalks, in parked cars, standing on top of their cars. People were in trees.” By overwhelming acclamation, those present vote not to return to work without a binding agreement that no strikers will be fired — as in 1928, when RJR fired 2,000 workers for trying to form a union.
On Monday, the entire RJR plant is shut down. Some 10,000 workers refuse to enter the gates. A wildcat strike at neighboring Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company gathers new energy — 600 strikers remain out. That same morning, workers at the Mengel Box Company, which supplies the tobacco industry, walk out. Black workers at Hanes Knitting Company join the strike, as do maids at the Robert E. Lee Hotel. Local black ministers preach unionism from the pulpit and pass the collection plate for the union.
On Tuesday, Whitaker signs the agreement, and the workers vote to return to work. The negotiations are difficult and testy, stretching over months.
In December, workers vote to ratify Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers of America (FTA), an affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). For the first time, workers at RJR have successfully formed a union.
In the end, the union wins significant gains for the workers: six unpaid legal holidays per year, promotions based on seniority, a fairer grievance procedure, and a host of minor quality-of-life improvements — including better bathroom facilities and rain tarps to protect workers riding in trucks.
The union becomes strong and active in all areas of civic life, promoting affordable housing and championing the election of the Rev. Kenneth R. Williams — a much-respected community figure — as alderman. He is the first black candidate to defeat a white rival in a Southern city in the 20th century.
The CIO launches Operation Dixie, a plan to bring 30,000 tobacco workers into the union. Organizers like Black and Simpson recruit new members at the plant. Simpson even replaces all the buttons on her dress with union buttons — and is sent home to change. The union agitates for regular wage increases and better working conditions in a series of negotiated contracts.
Although Local 22’s victory against the tobacco giant is trumpeted far and wide, the union has many detractors. Its most effective adversary is the Winston-Salem Journal and Twin City Sentinel, owned by Gordon Gray, the publisher and an RJR stockholder. The newspapers run a series of “exposés” tying the union to the Communist Party.
In fact, some leaders of the union are members of the Communist Party, but it’s an open question just how deep their loyalty runs to communist dogma. Mostly the relationship seems to be a pragmatic alliance — the Communist Party is one of the few institutions that actively support workers’ rights.
• • •
In late April 1947, a new strike shuts down RJR. The union demands more wage increases to reflect the plant’s productivity: Between 1945 and 1946, RJR’s profits increased almost 50 percent.
The strike is settled on June 8, 1947 — with a 12-cent hourly wage increase — but with the stain of Communist infiltration clinging to it, Local 22 is struggling.
Despite mass meetings and its own print ads rebutting the newspapers’ exposés, the union continues to lose clout and credibility with the workers. On March 1, 1950, workers vote narrowly against allowing it to represent them any longer. Workers at RJR will never be effectively organized again.
The author wishes to acknowledge the following sources for their contribution this story:
Korstad, Robert Rodgers. Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth Century South. University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Lefler, Hugh Talmadge, and Newsome, Albert Ray. North Carolina: The History of a Southern State (Third edition). Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1973.
Robert, Joseph C. The Story of Tobacco in America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949.
Savitt, Todd L. Medicine and Slavery: The Diseases and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia. University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Tilley, Nannie M. The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
“Strike: When workers broke Camel City.” Ahearn, Lorraine. The Greensboro News & Record, Feb. 28, 2009.
“Trade Unionism in North Carolikna: The Strike Against Reynolds Tobacco, 1947.” Barthwell, Akosua. Rutgers University Occasional Paper No. 21 (1977)
“Striking Out Against Big Tobacco.” Martin, Stephen. Duke Magazine, March 31, 2004.