Loray Mill Strikers Deserve to be Remembered


David Lee McMullen is the author of Strike! The Radical Insurrections of Ellen Dawson – the biography of the first woman elected to a national leadership position in an American textile union. It will be available in August. He received his PhD from the University of Aberdeen in 2006.

April 1 marks the anniversary of one of the most infamous strikes in the history of American labor history, the 1929 Loray Mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina.  Today, while many have heard of the strike, few have a clear understanding of the events that took place or the circumstances surrounding the two murders that occurred during the strike.

Most people who know anything about Loray are quick to note that the strike was organized by communists, a distinction that built the strike’s reputation and helped to establish a still lingering anti-union bias in the South.  Interestingly, the communist connection is not what makes Loray significant -- although the communist labor activists provided the catalyst for the confrontation that occurred -- nor is it the murder of Gastonia Police Chief Orville Aderholt, which has drawn the greatest attention over the years.  In many ways Aderholt’s death is a red herring, distracting attention away from the real significance of the events.

Loray is important because of the insight it provides into the actions taken by those in power – the civic and industry leaders – the individuals who orchestrated a bitter and violent attack upon the union and the striking workers, those who dared to challenge the inequalities of the Southern class system. 

When two labor activists – Ellen Dawson and Fred Beal – made their first organizing speeches to several hundred mill workers gathered on a grassy slope near the mill, two days before the start of the strike, they advocated ideas that were far more radical than communism, ideas that struck at the very foundation of Southern society.  They spoke of racial equality, equal rights for women and fair treatment for America’s poorest workers. 
It was these ideas that caused panic among Southern textile mill owners and the community leaders who supported them.  In response, the mill owners unleashed a vicious propaganda attack, using full page advertisements in the local newspaper to incite fear among the citizens of Gastonia and the surrounding communities.  They accused the activists of every possible crime – being against religion, against the family, and against America itself.  Mill owners said the union sought to overthrow the government, destroy property, supported free love, promoted a mixing of the races, and wanted to “kill, kill, kill.” 
At a time when lynching was still common, and the Ku Klux Klan was an active force, mill owners repeatedly encouraged local citizens to take the law into their own hands, openly pushing for “every American to do his duty.”

In contrast, the union focused on the needs of the mill workers – wages, working hours, sanitary conditions and equal pay for equal work.  Organizers continually preached non-violence.  In fact, when one examines the evidence, it is the mill owners and their agents who were responsible for the violence that occurred during the strike, not the union or the striking workers.

During the strike, North Carolina’s governor, a textile mill owner himself, sent National Guard troops to Gastonia, not to keep the peace, but to protect mill property.  Special deputies, many no more than hired thugs, were employed.  Vigilantes were organized from among local civic and fraternal groups.  Together, these forces openly attacked striking workers – beating and bayoneting men, women and children – who peacefully marched in support of the strike.

As for the murder of the local police chief, no hard evidence has ever connected the crime with the individuals who were charged.  In fact, there are those who believe that Aderholt was killed, intentionally or accidently, by one of his own officers.  His death simply gave the mill owners the justification needed to crush the union campaign, to drive the activists away,and to perpetuate a feudalistic system that kept Southern mill workers in poverty.

Beal and Dawson understood the plight of the Loray workers.  Each had worked in textile mills since their early teens.  They worked for a communist union because the American Federation of Labor refused to represent the vast majority of America’s unskilled textile workers.  They understood that if Southern workers were to improve their conditions, they needed to work together, regardless of race.

Dawson’s position as co-director of the strike helped demonstrate the union’s commitment to women’s issues such as equal pay for equal work and proper sanitary conditions.  This was a time when half of the textile workers in America were women, and yet they earned half of what men were paid for similar work.  Many mill workers of the period were single mothers.  Ella May Wiggins, the striker who was murdered by local vigilantes, is the most prominent example.  The hardships she endured survive today in her poetry, particularly her most famous poem, “A Mill Mother’s Lament.”

While there are many who would like to sweep away the memory of Loray, the courage of those striking workers must not be forgotten.  Even though they lost their battle in 1929, their cause was just, and their struggle for fair treatment of workers, women’s rights and racial equality continues throughout the world today.

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Dani Brackett - 4/1/2010

I find it astounding that Mr. Mc Mullen does not mention once the name of Fred Beale the strike organizer. After the police chief was murdered, Mr. Beale ran away to the Soviet Union. Whether he was a communist or not I do not know but the evidence sure looks like it.

Annette Cox - 4/1/2010

It is fitting to remember the 1929 Loray Mill strike and it is appropriate to blame much of the violence on mill owners and the agents they hired. And I too want to memorialize the strikers and all other hard-working textile mill employees. However, it is not accurate to portray the workers as supporters of the Communist Party or its ideals, no matter how noble they might seem. The 1929 strike was successful at first, but support quickly dwindled. As analyzed by Liston Pope and John Salmond, this was a strike against something, rather than one for the CP and its platform. Not only were economic conditions lousy in the spring of 1929, but the Loray itself had a history of abysmal labor relations. Owned by Manville-Jenckes of Rhode Island, the Loray was consistently and egregiously mismanaged. Only a handful of other workers in the area responded favorably to the organizers, helping to convince me that the workers' grievances were focused on specific and local mill policies rather than the agenda of the Party. I plan to publish a business history of the Loray shortly.

Rebecca Phipps - 3/29/2010

Deserve to be remembered, indeed. Myself, I will be pro-labor with my dying breath despite my rural southern roots or perhaps because of them as I am the adult child of mill workers on my mother's side of the family. I recall hearing that my grandfather suffered a heart attack at age 51 brought on - so the doctor said - by the stress of weaving cloth in a textile mill. And I grew up hearing my parents discuss the novels of Harriet Simpson Arnow, author of "The Dollmaker" and others about the mountain folk of Appalachia (father's side)and their experiences in the factories of the northern states during WWII. Here's hoping this new book gets wide recognition. Workers unite! More attention should be paid!