Tobacco Bag Stringing

Report on Tobacco Bag Stringing Operations in North Carolina and Virginia, 1939

Law Offices
Tucker, Bronson, Satterfield & Mays
State Planters Bank Building
Richmond, Virginia

March 16, 1939

Hon. Graham A. Barden,
House of Representatives
Washington, D.C.

In Re: Fair Labor Standards Act.

Dear Mr. Barden:

I am deeply grateful to you for the time extended to me this morning and the opportunity afforded to discuss the Wage and Hour law and its relation to the stringing of cotton tobacco bags. Just before I left Washington, my partner, Congressman Slatterfield, transmitted to you a copy of an amendment to the law, which we feel will cover not only our situation but others similarly situated, and I am enclosing an additional copy of the amendment in order that it may be appended to the brief statement herein contained and made in support of the amendment.

Small cotton tobacco bags are used as containers for granulated smoking tobacco. The bags are made by machines, and all work in connection therewith conforms with the Fair Labor Standard Act. The insertion of the draw string and the tag appended thereto is done by hand, except in the case of one manufacturer, who is equipped with machines, but not to an extent sufficient to string its entire output. There are only three companies in the United States engaged in the manufacture of these cotton bags - -

Golden Belt Manufacturing Company, having its plant at Durham, North Carolina;

Millhiser Bag Company, having its plant at Richmond, Virginia; and

Chase Bag Company, having its plant at Reidsville, North Carolina.

The Golden Belt Manufacturing Company, a subsidiary of American Tobacco Company, is the only company equipped with machines to perform its stringing operations. This company fills all the requirements of the American Tobacco Company for Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco. The machines are patented and the Golden Belt Company has been unwilling to license the other two companies to use the patented machines.

It is reliably estimated that approximately 1,000,000,000 bags annually are made by the three companies. This involves directly the use of approximately 25,000,000 yards of cotton cloth, and indirectly requires 10,000 bales of cotton and the processing of this cotton.

The bags when ready for stringing and tagging are delivered to distributors, who place the bags with hundreds of householders in Virginia and North Carolina. These distributors do not receive any portion of the price paid to the party stringing the bags. The situation is not comparable in any way to the distribution of home work in Porto Rica as reflected in the hearings on January 4, 5, 6, 17 and 18, 1939, before the Honorable Merle D. Vincent upon the question of regulations on record to be kept by employers of industrial home workers in the United States and Porto Rica.

The only implement needed to effect the stringing is a small needle, which costs approximately one penny. The home worker is allowed almost unlimited latitude with respect to the time of return of the finished bags. The rate of compensation which usually prevails is from 50 cents to 75 cents per 1,000 bags.

The actual work of stringing is performed by various members of the family at moments of leisure. The home workers in the vast majority of cases are white and engaged in agricultural pursuits. No one is permitted to work under the age of 18 years in spite of the fact that the work is of such a beneficial nature as to be terms "institutional." Doctors prescribe it for extreme nervousness. It is so simple a performance that some of the largest producers serving the industry are totally blind. The home is in no respect converted into a factory, the members of the family stringing individually or collectively at their leisure, usually while attending to other duties, such as cooking or nursing or caring for aged parents and relatives. It would be difficult to suggest any economic or humane reason for the discouragement of the stringing of bags in the home, or, under the guise of the regulation of labor, to interfere with the instinctive habits of family industry and thrift.

It is conceded that the home worker engaged in the stringing of bags cannot earn 25 cents per hour. It is conceded that the industry cannot effectively check the number of hours the home worker engages in this pursuit. It is a fact that in many instances parties whose names are unknown engage in the stringing of bags, as it is not an unusual practice for a community store to distribute the bags to customers desiring to supplement their income. Except in the rarest instances the amount earned from stringing and tagging of bags is entirely supplemental to other primary income, usually derived from farming. While the individual amount of money involved is not great, the Millhiser Bag Company and Case Bag Company paid the following amounts in 1937:

Millhiser Bag Company    
  North Carolina Virginia
  $10,300.00 $71,200.00


Chase Bag Company    
  North Carolina Virginia
  $78,289.98 $159,789.98

This is a total of $159,789.98. No figures are available for the Golden Belt Manufacturing Company, whose operations were fully as extensive as those of the other two companies combined, for the reason that only the perfectly made bag can be strung by a machine, and approximately 20% of the bags made are imperfect for machine stringing.

The individual family often earns as much as $300.00 a year from this source. While this sum, as previously stated, is not large, when the plight of the people engaged in this work is taken into consideration, it becomes alarmingly large. In the report of the National Emergency Council to the President of the United States rendered on July 25, 1938, and entitled "Report on Economic Conditions in the South", there appears in Section 5 thereof this statement:

"Ever since the War Between the States the South has been the poorest section of the nation. The Richest state in the south ranks lower in per capita income than the poorest state outside the region. In 1937, the average income in the south was $314.00. In the rest of the country it was $604.00, or nearly twice as much. Even in prosperous 1929, southern farm people received an average gross income of only $186.00 a year, as compared with $528.00 for farmers elsewhere. Out of that $185.00 southern farmers had to pay all their operating expenses, tools, fertilizers, see, taxes and interest on debt - so that only a fraction of that sum was left for the purchase of food, clothes and the decencies of life. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that such ordinary items as automobiles, radios and books are relatively rare in many southern country areas. For more than half of the South's farm families - the 54% who are tenants without land of their own - incomes are far lower. Many thousands of them are living in poverty comparable to that of the poorest peasant in Europe. A recent study of southern cotton plantations indicated that the average tenant family received an income of only $73.00 a person for a year's work. Earnings of share croppers range from $38.00 to $87.00 per person, and an income of $38.00 annually means little more than 10 cents a day."

Again in Section 15 of the same report:

"A study of southern farm-operating white families not receiving relief or other assistance shows that those whose income averaged $390.00 spent annually only $49.00 on the food they bought, $31.00 on clothing, $12.00 on medical care, $1.00 on recreation, $1.00 on reading, $2.00 on education. * * * * *Southern people need food."

The American people have never been willing to permit any of its people to go hungry irrespective of the tax burden created in order that these people might be fed. A Wage and Hour Bill, no matter how commendatory the purpose of its passage might be, was never intended to deprive the people of North Carolina and Virginia of supplemental income, which would result in denying them of the "decencies of life" and would tend to lower the standard of living of a class of people whose standard is already pathetically low.

I am quite confident that it is not your desire to have me in this letter treat with the legal questions involved. Consequently, the issue will be dealt with on a broad basis, and if you desire a memorandum of authorities in support of our contentions, this memorandum will be promptly forthcoming.

Broadly speaking, the Act applies to employees of all concerns either engaged in interstate commerce or in producing goods destined for shipment in the stream of such commerce. If the parties stringing bags are employees, then the work performed falls within the purview of the Act and the Act should be amended to permit this character of home work. It is our belief and contention that a stringer of cotton tobacco bags under the prevailing conditions is an independent contractor answerable only for the results obtained and not for the means thereof.

Therefore, the act is inapplicable, but in view of the attempt on the part of the Administrator to cover by regulation all home work, it is highly desirable to clarify the situation by the amendment enclosed herewith. We sincerely trust that the Administrator will not object to the contemplated amendment, which will eliminate all-inclusive rulings which are necessarily legislative in character, and therefore illegal, and which tend to engender unnecessary animosity toward the Act and ultimately lead to its repeal or to a state of confusion in regard to its administration, which makes for uncertainty of uniform enforcement.

Further, by this amendment all undesirable home work is banned, and under the present law it is very doubtful whether any home work of any character falls within its purview.


Sherlock Bronson

[Source: "Tobacco Bag Stringing Operations in North Carolina and Virginia." Richmond, Va.: 1939. North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.]