Labor and Fairness – Velma Hopkins and Lonnie Nesmith

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Factory workers in the 1930s and 1940s were often mistreated. This was particularly true for black people. In 1943, the workers at R J Reynolds in Winston-Salem had enough. They organized a union and called a strike. The worker’s grievances included things like a white male supervisor walking in on a black female worker who was changing, without notice and a sick black man who was refused rest dropping dead on the factory floor. Velma Hopkins was one of the women Reynolds tried to ignore, but she organized ten thousand workers, mostly black women, to force the tobacco giant into fair treatment.

Nesmith organized black men in his area of the company, drying and packaging the tobacco. In the heat and humidity of summer, there was little water, few breaks, and back-breaking work. He told a reporter in 1993 that “there was no point in coming to work with underwear, socks, or shirt. The heat in the drying room was so high that you’d be soaked in sweat within a few minutes.
Like the Israelites ordered to make more bricks without straw, the company ordered a machinery speed up that taxed the fastest workers, but kept the wage at forty-six cents an hour. The day before the strike, after the speedup, a white foreman pounced on a black woman, a widow with five children, and told her that he didn’t care if she was ill – if she couldn’t keep up, she was fired. The woman began weeping hysterically because there was no one to support her children but her.

The plant employed sixteen thousand workers in those days and covered one hundred acres. A supervisor discovered the plan to strike and threatened to fire all the women. Velma and Theodosia Simpson mobilize the men as well, and when the whistle blows to resume work, they form a line outside the workroom, refusing to return to their stations. They present their demands to the shocked foreman. He never thought they’d go through with it and tells them he has no authority to negotiate with them. Word of the strike spreads until almost the entire plant is idle. They attract the attention of Reynolds’s Vice President John Whitaker, who orders the gates locked – no one can enter or leave. Whitaker hopes that promising to speak to the company attorney about the grievances will calm the storm, and get the workers back to their stations. He underestimates the anger. Over the next few days, they find ways to consult with a white labor organizer, Philip Koritz, on how to apply leverage to the company. Koritz was eventually sentenced to prison and banned from the state for his role in the strike.

The strike spreads to neighboring companies. The workers that can move report to work, but sit at their stations until grievances are addressed. An agreement is finally reached and signed after five days of the plant being idle. This time, the workers won.