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The following is a historical timeline of the 25-year struggle to unionize Cannon Mills, a struggle that took place within the larger story of the battle for labor rights in the U.S.



James W. Cannon founded the town of Kannapolis around his mills. The Cannons lived in neighboring Concord.

James Cannon died. His son, Charles Cannon, took over the operation of the company. In June, a textile strike was called in Concord and Kannapolis. After 2 months, when they knew the strikers had run out of food, Charles Cannon and the Mayor of Concord called in the state militia to reopen the mills.

The stock market crashed, ushering in the beginning of the Great Depression.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt beat Hoover, carrying every Southern state. In August of 1933, FDR signed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) into law. Designed to spur economic recovery and put people back to work, the new law established minimum wages and hours of work for each industry. Section 7(a) gave workers the right to organize a union.

Stretch-Outs: with the beginning of the 8-hour day, workers were pushed to do as much work in 8 hours as they did before in 10-12.


General strikes were called in nearly every industry. The promises of FDR and the NRA fell flat as employers still did not respect workers? lawful right to organize. Textile workers called a general strike on Labor Day. Mill workers made up teams of ?flying squadrons? that traveled from mill to mill across the South trying to bri ng people out to join the strike. After the strike, 72,000 southern textile workers were locked out of their workplaces and blacklisted.

In Kannapolis, Cannon called in the National Guard to ?protect? his mills. As a result, very few Cannon workers joined the strikers.

Southern mill owners responded with what would become part of a standard set of repressive tactics including: discriminatory firings, threats, and evictions from mill houses. Unions also began to face trouble getting contracts due to another common tactic: company stalling.

The Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) was formed, becoming a strong force in the battle for textile workers? rights.

During World War II, TWUA successfully organized several large and important mills including Cone Mills, Dan River Mills, and one Cannon plant. The National War Labor Board helped efforts to organize by forcing companies to accept (minimal) contract s because of the intense need for wartime production.


By the end of the war, 80% of the American textile industry was located in the South. Only 20% of workers were under contract with the TWUA.

Cannon built ?G.I. town,? erecting 150 houses for returning veterans who wanted to return to the mill and start families. Rent was $5 every 2 weeks.

The union launched Operation Dixie, an intense effort to organize all major southern industries in 12 states. The textile industry was a major target of the campaign with the vast majority of resources being sent to the biggest textile plants, including Cannon Mill s in Kannapolis. The campaign included 86 mills and 64,000 workers.

Often overlooked by historians, this year was marked by the second largest gene ral strike in the South's history when the TWUA attempted to raise the wages in the union mills above the non-union. But there was an unforeseen depression after the post-War boom. The industry had overproduced during the boom and thus was unscathed by the strike. The strike?s failure weakened and destroyed many TWUA locals.

The second half of the year is marked by the TWUA drive in Kannapolis.

The Civil Rights Act was passed. Title 7 of the Act provided that people could not be discriminated against in hiring, promotions, or in workplace conditions on the basis of race, creed, color or national origin. Gender and disability would be added in future years. The Civil Rights Act provided the basis for integrating workplaces throughout the South and ultimately throughout the U.S.

African Americans, who in 1964 made up 18% of the Kannapolis population, started to work production jobs inside Cannon Mills. Previously they had only been allowed jobs outside the mills or as janitors. By the early 1980's African Americans would comprise 25% of the workforce. Based on the belief that African Americans are more prone to join unions, future owners would make efforts to keep the percentage of blacks in the workforce below 25% in order to prevent unionization.

45% of all manufacturing jobs in the Carolinas were in textiles.

Hicks et.al v. Cannon Mills, a class action discrimination suit to try to end discriminatory hiring and promotion practices at Cannon Mills, was filed by Chambers and Stein, the first integrated law firm in North Carolina.

Charles Cannon died.

A small industry recession ende d up being the start of a long-term economic decline mostly due to increased imports after 1975. Textile imports tripled between 1975 and 1984 leading to widespread plant closings in the 1970's and 1980's and well into the 1990's. Textiles remained North Carolina's largest industrial employer, yet the industry experienced increasing consolidation.

Union campaign started by Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU). Bob Freeman essentially ran the campaign by himself, educating workers about their rights. The union lost the vote 6801 to 8473 or 44% to 56%.
  March 1982
David Murdock, a real-estate tycoon, bought Cannon Mills and 660 acres of surrounding real estate from Cannon?s heirs including the downtown business district and 1,600 houses. At this time, a typical family paid $36.83/month rent and a retired worker's pension was $47.15/month after 35 years at the mill. The average water bill was about $4 every 3 months.

Hicks v. Cannon Mills, the class-action suit brought in 1970, was settled by consent decree. The terms of settlement were that Cannon Mills was to pay out $1.65 million to 3,700 African-American workers.

The town of Kannapolis was incorporated on November 6, 1984. Rent jumped from $40/month to $320/month. The houses in ?GI town? were picked up and moved so Murdock could build a park and a YMCA.

ACTWU ran a union campaign that lasted 15 months. ACTWU lost the election in October 1985, 3,530 to 5,982.

In December 1985, Murdock sold Cannon Mills to Fieldcrest Mills, based in Eden, NC for $250 million. Murdock kept the surrounding real estate including the downtown business district which he renovated into a Williamsburg-style outlet mall. Murdock terminated the Cannon pension plan and took with him the interest the pension fund had earned to date--some $39 million in so-called ?excess assets.?

October 1986
ACTWU won cash settlements for 4 workers discharged in the 1985 campaign.

ACTWU sued Murdock on behalf of workers for the pension fund money. The union won $1 million but, divided among so many workers, each received only a few dollars.

The union's closest vote. Fieldcrest hired B&C Associates to fight unionization efforts by targeting the African-American community with anti-union propaganda and recruiting black ministers to speak out against the union. ACTWU lost the election by 199 votes, 3,034 to 3,233 with 538 challenged votes. ACTWU filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging Fieldcrest's illegal conduct during the campaign.

The case wound its way through the NLRB system: the regional NLRB held a hearing on the union?s charges. The regional NLRB ruled against Fieldcrest. Fieldcrest appealed to the federal National Labor Relations Board in Washington DC. The federal NLRB upheld the decision of the regional NLRB charging Fieldcrest with more than 150 unfair labor practices (ULP?s) during the 1991 organizing campaign. Fieldcrest appealed the NLRB decision to the U.S Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was implemented, easing the way for American companies to take advantage of cheaper labor costs outside the U.S.

ACTWU merged with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) to form the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!)

Fieldcrest lost its NLRB appeal. The U.S 4th Circuit Court upheld the NLRB decision and ordered "special remedies? and a new election. Chief Judge Wilkinson's decision stated: "Fieldcrest simply adopted a scorched earth, take-no-prisoners approach to stop unionization without regard to statutory limitations."

February 1997
Fourth Circuit Court denies Fieldcrest?s petition for a rehearing of its appeal, opening the way for implementation of the NLRB order and a new union election.

April 21, 1997
Illegally fired employees return to work: Employees who were unlawfully terminated during the 1991 campaign return to work as the first step in the implementation of the NLRB?s ruling against Fieldcrest.

June 12, 1997
Union charged Fieldcrest with new violations: The union files new unfair labor practice charges against the company for violating the NLRB ruling by terminating four employees for union activity and by showing anti-union videos to employees in violation of the NLRB?s order.

July 7, 1997
A 2-year period began during which the National Labor Relations Board?s ?special remedies? would be in effect. In accordance with its ruling, the NLRB began reading to employees a notice listing Fieldcrest?s violations during the 1991 campaign. UNITE began access to employee breakrooms.

July 21, 1997
UNITE asked that the date be set for the re-run election.

August 6, 1997
NLRB filed emergency petition with Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals against Fieldcrest: The filing sounght immediate action to halt violations by Fieldcrest of the special rules and remedies ordered by the Court. The NLRB asked the Court to appoint a special master to oversee the election.

August 12 & 13, 1997
UNITE lost the election 2,194 to 2,563 with 260 challenged votes. UNITE again filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB, alleging Fieldcrest?s illegal conduct and violation of the court?s remedies. The court would agree and also overturn this election.

September 1997
Fieldcrest sold Fieldcrest-Cannon to Pillowtex Corporation for $700 million.

June 1999
UNITE started a new campaign that lasted 3 weeks.

June 22 & 23, 1999
UNITE won the election 2,270 to 2,102 with 285 challenged votes. Pillowtex filed charges with the NLRB.

November 1999
Pillowtex withdrew its charges. The union was certified by the NLRB and it was announced in a joint press conference.

December 1999
Bargaining for a first contract began, along with workers from the company?s other union plants.

February 2000
A first contract was recommended to members by the committee and ratified overwhelmingly by the membership.

November 2000
Pillowtex filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

May 2002
Pillowtex emerged from Chapter 11, relieved of $700 million in debt. < P>July 30, 2003
Pillowtex announced its immediate and total liquidation, filing a new petition for bankruptcy. Overnight, 7,650 people lost their jobs?4,340 in the Kannapolis area. It was the largest permanent layoff in North Carolina?s history.