A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry

A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry

A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry

A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry


With important ramifications for studies relating to industrialization and the impact of globalization, A Common Thread examines the relocation of the New England textile industry to the piedmont South between 1880 and 1959. Through the example of the Massachusetts-based Dwight Manufacturing Company, the book provides an informative historic reference point to current debates about the continuous relocation of capital to low-wage, largely unregulated labor markets worldwide.

In 1896, to confront the effects of increasing state regulations, labor militancy, and competition from southern mills, the Dwight Company became one of the first New England cotton textile companies to open a subsidiary mill in the South. Dwight closed its Massachusetts operations completely in 1927, but its southern subsidiary lasted three more decades. In 1959, the branch factory Dwight had opened in Alabama became one of the first textile mills in the South to close in the face of post-World War II foreign competition.

Beth English explains why and how New England cotton manufacturing companies pursued relocation to the South as a key strategy for economic survival, why and how southern states attracted northern textile capital, and how textile mill owners, labor unions, the state, manufacturers' associations, and reform groups shaped the ongoing movement of cotton-mill money, machinery, and jobs. A Common Thread is a case study that helps provide clues and predictors about the processes of attracting and moving industrial capital to developing economies throughout the world.


“It has been said,” U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan noted in advance of a September 2000 United Nations summit meeting of world leaders, “that arguing against globalization is like arguing against the laws of gravity.” Perhaps. Certainly, the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States and the exodus of industrial capital to other parts of the world have spurred heated debates. Are capital relocations and related restructuring within the U.S. economy a long-term boon or bane? What is the best strategy to raise global labor standards? What are the most effective ways to mitigate the unemployment and hardships caused by downsizings and plant closures? Factory closings associated with globalization have become endemic in the United States, a phenomena described in 2002 by Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times as “the infection that has hit so much of industrial America.” Indeed, “globalization” has become a buzzword of the early twenty-first century, and its effects are a hot-button political issue. Yet while capital flight appears to be relatively new, in reality, it and the dialogue about effective strategies to deal with it have been ongoing for well over a century.

The cotton textile industry was one of the first in the United States to experience massive relocations of capital and plant closures when the center of the industry shifted from New England to the South during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Competition from textile mills operating in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama became a serious challenge for northern cotton textile manufacturers as early as the 1890s. Owners of northern textile corporations—watching profits turn into losses during the 1893 depression while output and sales of southern goods continued apace—felt unfairly constrained by state legislation that established age and hours standards for mill employees, and by actual and potential labor militancy in their mills. As a result, several New England textile manufacturers opened southern subsidiary factories as a way to effectively meet southern competition. In 1896, the Dwight Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts, was one of the first New England cotton textile companies to open a southern subsidiary, building a branch mill in Alabama City, Alabama. In subsequent decades, the Dwight Company worked to maintain the manufacturing advantages found there by utilizing aggressive union-busting tactics and, in conjunction with other Alabama textile manufacturers, by lobbying against and stymieing the passage of meaningful state labor legislation. The Dwight Company eventually shifted all of its production to the Alabama mill, and in 1927 it closed its Massachusetts . . .

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