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Organizing the Breathless

Organizing the Breathless: Cotton Dust, Southern Politics, and the Brown Lung Association

Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Organizing the Breathless
    Book Description:

    In the 1970s, textile workers joined forces with a small band of grassroots activists and organizers and challenged the most powerful industrial interest in the heart of Dixie-the cotton textile manufacturers. They located disabled workers and organized them, employing the full range of interest- group tactics, and they creatively engaged in legislative, administrative, and judicial lobbying as well as protest actions-with remarkable success.

    Robert E. Botsch recounts the history of the Brown Lung Association and details the interaction of the major participants in the rise-and ultimately the failure-of the organization. A once all-powerful and politically dominant textile industry lost its public relations battle as it lost business to cheaper labor markets abroad. Medical researchers, policy makers, and regulators had difficulty communicating. State government regulations often cost workers their health and their means of support. Organizers allowed their followers to become too dependent on their ability to raise grant monies. Working-class southerners found energy and courage in the face of age and sickness but were incapable of the self-discipline necessary for successful long-term organization.

    Organizing the Breathlessreveals the dramatic negative impact of the Reagan years on the disabled workers and their organization and draws lessons from the experience of other interest groups. Botsch examines central issues-the value of membership incentives, the complexities of relationships with organizers, and the perennial question of the relative importance of organization versus protest. This book will interest political scientists and historians as a strong study of labor issues, interest groups, and the South.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6218-8
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
    (pp. viii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-6)

    “The Valley” is a series of small mill towns that lie along Horse Creek between Aiken, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia. When I came to South Carolina in 1978, I learned that this was the same valley Erskine Caldwell had described inGod’s Little Acre.In this tale of eccentric and fiercely romantic individualists, Caldwell made several references to weak old workers who were “spitting their lungs into the yellow dust” (1933, 123). Some forty years later novelist Pat Conroy described the same area in a biting indictment of worker exploitation by local mills:

    For twenty miles America has a...

    (pp. 7-16)

    They came from the failed farms and the hollows of the Appalachian Mountains. They came because they saw no other alternative, bringing with them their families, their broken dreams, and their habits of mind and behavior. Although they stubbornly resisted the changes mills demanded of them and maintained as best they could the things they held dear (Hall et al. 1987, 43; Newby 1989), milltown life altered their physical being, their family relationships, and their habits and beliefs.

    The building of textile mills and the accompanying mill villages around the turn of the century gave rise to a new culture...

    (pp. 17-34)

    Those who organized the Brown Lung Association hoped to attract both disabled and active workers, to win the support of disabled workers by fighting for workers’ compensation and the support of active workers by fighting for a cleaner, healthier workplace. To understand what these battles were about, we need to examine the workers’ compensation system and how it neglected the needs of those disabled by “brown lung” (byssinosis). We should also examine the evolution of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the cotton dust standards that were supposed to make the workplace safer.

    Clara Lewis began working at Graniteville...

    (pp. 35-46)

    The likelihood that a worker will contract byssinosis depends on the precise work setting in a cotton textile plant. The more dust associated with a stage of production, the more likely it is to produce the symptoms. Therefore, a complete understanding of byssinosis and the grassroots movement that arose out of this occupational disease requires an understanding of the textile industry and the production of cotton cloth.

    Most generally, the cotton textile industry has three major components.¹ First, yarn production involves taking the baled cotton through several stages to produce cotton yarn or some blend of cotton and synthetic yarn....

    (pp. 47-76)

    Having examined the political and cultural settings, government policies with respect to workers’ compensation and dust exposure, and the scientific and medical controversies surrounding the nature of byssinosis, we now turn to the grassroots movement itself. We begin by considering the obstacles that stood in the way of such a movement and the challenges its members and organizers faced. The obstacles were many, and they were formidable. Then we shall turn to the people who brought about the formation of the Brown Lung Association and examine the group’s embryonic stage and early growth. Finally, we shall assess the role of...

    (pp. 77-98)

    This chapter examines the Brown Lung Association from an organizational perspective. How were members recruited and retained? What were the membership incentives? How was the group governed? How did these far-flung, tiny chapters, spread out over five southern states, communicate with one another? Finally, what was the relationship between organizers and members (a critical question for a group that had a goal of becoming a grassroots, memberrun organization)?

    Helping disabled workers through the workers’ compensation process was the primary tactic for recruiting new members, just as earlier welfare rights organizations had approached potential members by helping them secure welfare benefits....

    (pp. 99-119)

    The Brown Lung Association utilized a number of traditional interest-group tactics in their overall strategy, a strategy that required pressure on many targets. They attempted to generate information and favorable publicity, held protest rallies, testified at hearings, rewarded and punished political candidates, and formed coalitions with other groups, worked at building legitimacy, placed pressure on the workers’ compensation system, and encouraged strict enforcement of the cotton dust standards.

    Throughout its life, the organization provided extensive human evidence of the failures of the existing system of worker protection and care.¹ The retired workers themselves were the most effective publicity the group...

    (pp. 120-141)

    It should have been the mother of all political mismatches. Poor, uneducated, sick, retired mill workers should have been no more than a minor irritant to King Cotton and the mills of the New South. Indeed, until the birth of the Brown Lung Association, that’s the way it was. The issue of occupational disease was exiled to the silent realm of nonissues. It was not on anyone’s political agenda in the South. It was one of those dangerous class-based issues that could potentially endanger the rule of those who owned the lands that grew cotton and those who owned the...

    (pp. 142-158)

    The election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980 spelled doom for the Brown Lung Association. When Reagan and his advisers put his administration in place in early 1981, one of the first orders of business was to cut the federal programs that were the lifeblood of the fledgling grassroots interest group. If cutting was not enough, the administration went on the attack. It challenged the association’s past use of funds, demanding that money be returned. It even started a criminal investigation into the possible misuse of grant monies. Within a few years, little of the Brown Lung Association was left....

    (pp. 159-186)

    The story of the Brown Lung Association may be worth telling in its own right, but the story becomes more valuable if we can learn some lessons from this effort to organize disabled southern workers. After a brief survey of the successes and failures in the struggle, we shall compare the efforts of this group with those of other grassroots movements to see what lessons can be learned.

    Many theoretical and practical issues complicate the evaluation of the success of interest groups in bringing about policy change. The definition of success and the difficulty in proving causality are central to...

    (pp. 187-190)

    The view of the Dan River, as one comes down North Main Street in Danville, Virginia, is dominated by a huge neon sign proclaiming the city to be the home of Dan River Fabrics. The letters seemed to melt into the landscape through the moist air of the late spring 1991 evening at dusk. Because it was so familiar to them, the half-dozen members of the Danville Brown Lung Association who made it to their monthly meeting to meet the college professor who was writing a book may not have noticed this scene.

    I had hoped to observe their meeting...

    (pp. 191-198)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 199-208)
    (pp. 209-220)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 221-228)