This post contains highlights of material from the Triangle Research Libraries Network’s CCC project, digitizing 40 archival collections related to the long civil rights movement from four area institutions. For more on this digitization project, click here.
84 years ago in April of 1929, textile workers at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina, initiated a historic strike. The strike lasted for months and drew national attention, becoming a representation of the larger ongoing battle between Communist-led labor unions and factory bosses. The Gastonia strikers demanded union recognition, a 40-hour work week, and a minimum $20 weekly wage, hoping to improve the grueling hours, low wages, and poor working conditions that workers at that time were forced to endure. In response, mill owners evicted the families of strikers living in mill-owned houses, leaving hundreds homeless.1 The National Guard was called in to keep the peace, but in June of 1929, union headquarters and the homes of strikers were attacked at night during a police raid, and when laborers fought back to defend themselves, the chief of police was killed.
Seven labor union leaders, including Fred Beal of the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU), were arrested and sentenced to terms of up to 20 years in prison. In response to the Gastonia case, the International Labor Defense wrote a passionate letter to rally support for the Gastonia prisoners and other workers facing charges that included sedition, inciting to riot, conspiracy, criminal syndicalism, illegal entry, and even murder. The International Labor Defense felt strongly that labor organizers and strike leaders were being targeted as part of a “terror wave” constructed by factory bosses who “intend in this way to stop the workers from organizing and fighting against misery and starvation.”2
A key figure in the Gastonia strike was Ella May Wiggins, a textile mill worker and ardent unionist who testified regarding inhumane labor practices in the South. Wiggins’ involvement in the workers’ rights campaign is also notable for her support of integrated unions, and through her influence, the local NTWU branch expanded to admit black workers to its ranks.3 As the Gastonia strike dragged on into September of 1929, Wiggins was on her way to a union meeting with fellow strikers when she was shot and killed by a mob outside of Gastonia. Though five men were initially arrested for her murder, all were quickly acquitted; her fellow unionists refused to forget Wiggins’ sacrifice, and through her death she became a figurehead for the labor reform movement.
Despite the publicity created by pro-union organizations and the many who sympathized with the Gastonia strikers, the Communist ties of the National Textile Workers Union made some wary of unionization, and ultimately the violence in Gastonia set back union organization efforts and left strong anti-union sentiments in North Carolina which persisted for many years. In the Guy Benton Johnson Papers you can find more information relating to the Gastonia mill strike, and examples of the material circulated by pro-union groups like the International Labor Defense to publicize and gain support for the labor reform movement.
3. “Ella May Wiggins, Labor Activist,” by Beth Crist. North Carolina Museum of History.