On April 1, 1929, textile workers at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina went on strike. This strike was brutally suppressed by the mill owners who had moved production to the South precisely to avoid unionism and because they felt they could count on loyal politicians and law enforcement if workers did strike. The workers themselves did not win the strike, but this was a critical moment in the rise of textile worker unionism that would help define labor history in the 1930s.
As early as the 1890s, apparel factories began moving to the South to escape unions. This increased dramatically after the Uprising of the 20,000, the Triangle Fire, the Lawrence strike, the Paterson strike, and other many other periods of workplace organizing, forcing them to change their methods in New York and New England. They found compliant workers in the hills of Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. They wanted a workforce that lacked immigrants or a history of socialism. They found a region that was riven by racial tension, deeply under the influence of fundamentalist evangelicalism (and the anti-Semitism that went with it that would help with resistance to Jewish organizers coming South), a history of paternalism, and poverty. Southern Appalachia was perfect. By the 1910s, there were tens of thousands of southern Appalachians laboring in newly opened textile mills.
Mills opened up in large numbers during World War I, but in the postwar economic slump hurt workers bad. Like farmers producing food, they were promised continued prosperity and spent accordingly, in this case buying consumer items that were hardly luxurious by New York standards, but which required credit lines for these poor workers. Then the hard times came and the workers found themselves tumbling back into poverty. Wages were reduced and work became harder to find. Moreover, the mill owners decided to maximize the production of each worker. They did so through what is called the stretch-out. This was an attempt to make up for lost profits by forcing workers to work up to twice at hard. One worker recalled working 48 looms before the stretch-out and 90 after it was implemented. To make this happen, workers lost their breaks, owners shifted to paying workers at piece rate instead of wages, and they also increasing the number of supervisors to work the employees like slaves. Moreover, all of this was for no additional money. The individual noted above who now worked 90 looms complained that he made $19 a week in 1926 and $17.70 in 1929, despite the huge increase in his production.
This infuriated workers. These were not people inclined to unionization, but as their rights and their lives were crushed, they began to change their minds. This also got the attention of unions based in the north. The National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) was a communist-led union that saw potential for organizing the South. Seeing the rapid exploitation and anger of the workers, it decided to focus on the Carolina mills. It sent an organizer named Fred Beal to Gastonia and he walked into a powder keg. On March 30, 1929, the NWTU held its first public meeting in Gastonia. Attending it was Ellen Dawson, NWTU vice-president, Scottish immigrant, and a long-time communist organizer who had been involved in several major textile strikes in the 1920s in northern cities such as New Bedford and Passaic and who would evidently die from the damage to her lungs from working in the textile mills. Dawson gave an inspirational speech that motivated the workers to strike, which they officially announced that day.
The next day, 1800 workers walked off the job at the Loray Mill. They wanted a 40-hour week, $20 a week as a minimum wage, union recognition, and, most important, the abolition of the stretch out. The mill owners were absolutely incensed that their workers would form a union. The first step they took was throwing them all out of its company housing, a common tactic in small mill towns and mining villages that kept employer control over workers tight. The town’s mayor immediately asked for National Guard intervention, which the government was happy to provide. The strike continued but the anti-strike forces became more violent. On April 18, 100 masked men destroyed NTWU headquarters.
Scabs began to enter the mill and the strike seemed lost. They continued to hold on. But on June 7, as 150 strikers went to the mill to try and get the night shift to walk off the job, the police decided to bust the strike once and for all. They were attacked by the police, who then went to the strikers’ camp and demanded that the camp guards hand over their weapons. A fight began and the police chief was killed.
71 strikers were arrested in the aftermath of the violence. Eight strikers and Beal were indicted for the murder of the police chief. During the trial, with the strike continuing, a juror went insane and the judge had to declare a mistrial. This set the forces of order off in a violent spasm to crush this workers’ movement. A vigilante movement called the Committee of One Hundred roamed the countryside, seeking out strikers. By early September, mobs were rounding up strikers and kicking them out of the county. On September 14, a mob opened fire on a truck full of strikers. A pregnant woman named Ella Mae Wiggins was murdered. She was a strike leader and songwriter whose songs became rallying cries for the union. Woody Guthrie later called Wiggins “the pioneer of the protest ballad.” This murder effectively ended the strike, as the workers could go no farther.
In the retrial for the killing of the police chief, the judge found seven men guilty of second-degree murder, six strikers and Fred Beal, who received a sentence of 17-20 years in prison. Beal then fled to the Soviet Union, but hating life there and horrified by the lack of freedom Soviet workers had, returned to the U.S. He surrendered to North Carolina authorities in 1938, where he was later pardoned in 1942. He died in 1954, spending his later years working as an anti-communist unionist.
But while Gastonia was incredibly violent, other textile workers in the South managed to win some strikes in 1929. These strikes were strictly about ending the stretch-out. Workers in South Carolina organized while also avoiding unions, appealing to local people as insiders, to win these gains. The owners tried to argue that the stretch-out was “progress,” but the workers won. Alabama, which had the strongest labor movement in the South, saw its unions become strong enough that politicians actively sought their endorsement. United Textile Workers, a union that would come out of this and other strikes along the east coast, had locals in Georgia and Alabama grow quickly after 1929. The Depression would deeply challenge any gains the workers had won in the stretch-out and made their living incredibly precarious, but despite the continued and very real southern white workers’ antipathy for and fear of unions, the UTW would form in the aftermath and would continue to have a presence up to the point of the famed 1934 textile strike.
To say the least, the brutality of the apparel industry has not diminished to the present. It has simply moved out of the United States. The workers of Bangladesh labor under a system not too different from that of a century ago in the United States, still producing your clothing under disastrously exploitative conditions.
I borrowed from Janet Irons, Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South, to write this post.
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