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Loray Mill Strike

Loray Mill Strike

United States 1929

Synopsis

The Loray Mill Strike of 1929 is perhaps the most infamous strike in southern textile industry history, helping to build antiunionism among workers that would last for most of the twentieth century. In 1928 the mill began introducing more efficient methods that significantly reduced the workforce, cut wages, and increased company profits. Workers at Loray were ripe for action when an organizer for the communist-backed National Textile Workers Union, Fred Beal, came to town in early 1929. When mill officials began firing workers who had contact with the union, Beal called a strike against Loray. What followed was a mini-class struggle between mill workers and the Gastonia establishment. Ideas of race, gender, religion, and class all came under attack. Before the incident ended, the local police chief, Orville Aderholt, and a popular female striker, Ella May Wiggins, had been killed. The trials that followed drew national and international attention. Ultimately, the strike failed and seven union men, including Beal, were convicted of conspiracy to murder the police chief. The men charged with Wiggins's death were acquitted.

Timeline

  • 1914: On the Western Front, the first battles of the Marne and Ypres establish a line that will more or less hold for the next four years.
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles is signed by the Allies and Germany, but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.
  • 1924: In the United States, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, along with oil company executives Harry Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, is charged with conspiracy and bribery in making fraudulent leases of U.S. Navy oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. The resulting Teapot Dome scandal clouds the administration of President Warren G. Harding.
  • 1927: Charles A. Lindbergh makes the first successful solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic and becomes an international hero.
  • 1929: The Lateran Treaty between the Catholic Church and Mussolini's regime establishes the Vatican City as an independent political entity.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.
  • 1929: Edwin Hubble proposes a model of an ever-expanding universe.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1933: Newly inaugurated U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt launches the first phase of his New Deal to put depression-era America back to work.
  • 1935: Second phase of New Deal begins with the introduction of social security, farm assistance, and housing and tax reform.
  • 1941: Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December brings the United States into the war against the Axis. Combined with the attack on the Soviet Union, which makes Stalin an unlikely ally of the Western democracies, the events of 1941 will ultimately turn the tide of the war.
  • 1944: International Monetary Fund and World Bank are created at Bretton Woods Conference.

Event and Its Context

Gastonia, North Carolina, was at the heart of the South's textile industry in 1929, claiming more than a million spindles and the third largest textile center in the United States. Gastonia's Loray Mill was built in 1900 for $1 million and was by far the largest mill in the region. More than half of the initial capital came from New York investors. In 1919 the Jenckes Spinning Company of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, purchased the mill, making it the first mill in Gastonia to be owned and operated by northern capital. In November 1924 Jenckes merged with Manville, another New England company, creating the Manville-Jenckes Company.

Many of the seeds that produced the 1929 Loray Mill Strike were sown during the two years prior to the strike, when Manville-Jenckes brought in Gordon A. Johnstone as the new mill superintendent. Johnstone was a master of "stretch-out," production techniques, which increased productivity and profits for the company. Johnstone's approach to the mill workers was harsh and insensitive. During his time at Loray, Johnstone cut the total workforce from 3,500 to 2,200; initiated two 10-percent pay cuts; moved most of the female workers from salary to piecework; and raised workloads. He also fired skilled workers and replaced them with semiskilled and unskilled workers. Johnstone's efforts reduced worker wages by 25 to 50 percent. It also saved the company half a million dollars. In March 1928 weavers at the Loray Mill walked out. Their weekly income had dropped from between $30 and $35 to $15 and $18, and the number of looms they were required to operate had increased from between six and eight to between 15 and 18. In response, Jenckes replaced Johnstone with J. L. Baugh, who eased the pressure on workers but kept most of Johnstone's innovations in place.

Into this powder keg of worker dissatisfaction walked Fred E. Beal, the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) representative. Coming south on a motorcycle, Beal initially stopped in Charlotte, where he began contacting textile workers. There he first learned of Gastonia's Loray Mill. Beal had been sent south by the NTWU secretary, Albert Weisbord, who believed the southern textile industry was ready for unionizing, and that once a strike began at one mill, it would quickly spread. The NTWU was a communist labor union born in the 1926 Passaic, New Jersey, textile strike and strengthened in the 1928 New Bedford, Massachusetts, strike, in which Beal had been one of the leading organizers. In Gastonia, Beal began forming a secret union organization among Loray Mill workers in March 1929. Recognizing both an opportunity and a challenge, Beal immediately asked Weisbord for assistance. The next NTWU organizer to arrive was Ellen Dawson, a veteran of the Passaic and New Bedford strikes.

On 30 March 1929 Beal and Dawson spoke to the first open meeting of Loray workers. In the crowd, Loray Mill spies noted the names of workers at the meeting. On the morning of 1 April, five Loray workers were fired for attending. That afternoon, workers voted to strike under the NTWU banner and marched to the mill, where they convinced most of the night shift not to report for work, effectively shutting down the mill. The following day the union presented its demands to Baugh, the mill's superintendent. The mill never negotiated with the union. On 3 April, after skirmishes between police and strikers, the Gastonia mayor asked the governor to send the National Guard to surround the mill and protect the workers who wanted to go back to work. On 4 April, Beal, in an effort to prevent violence, directed strikers to stay away from the guardsmen.

By the second week of the strike, others representing the NTWU and related communist organizations began arriving in Gastonia. Among them were Vera Buch Weisbord and Amy Schechter, who became two of the most active organizers. On 9 April the governor reduced the National Guard contingent assigned to Loray. In response, Major A. L. Bulwinkle, a former congressman, convinced the sheriff to deputize local members of the American Legion. Under Bulwinkle's leadership, this group would become known as the Committee of One Hundred and actively participate in many of the violent acts of the following months. U.S. Labor Commissioner Charles Wood ruled out any chance of federal government mediation, claiming that the strike leaders were Bolsheviks trying to start a revolution.

By mid-April many of the Loray workers had abandoned the strike and returned work. To help the remaining strikers, the NTWU local established a small food warehouse, which became the focal point of the first violence. Shortly after midnight on 17 April, a mob of masked men, probably from the Committee of One Hundred, raided the warehouse, overpowered a handful of union guards, and destroyed the food supplies. National Guard troops, only a 100 yards away, did not arrive until after the vigilantes had disappeared, and then only to arrest the union guards.

On the same day, the NTWU organizer Ellen Dawson was arrested on charges that her U.S. citizenship had been obtained fraudulently. The same tactic had been used against her in New Bedford, forcing her to return to New Jersey. There the charges were ultimately dismissed, and the judge chastised the government for trying to deport an individual because of unpopular political beliefs. Although Dawson remained in the country, the action removed one of the NTWU's most effective organizers from Gastonia.

On 22 April approximately 500 workers marched through downtown Gastonia. They met a force of more than 50 deputies who used blackjacks, rifle butts, and bayonets to attack the marchers, many of them women. Thirty marchers, including Weisbord and Schechter, were arrested. At this point, the NTWU was able to spark strikes at several other mills in the region, building on the shoulders of a few dedicated union members. One was Ella May Wiggins, a single mother whose song-writing abilities provided inspiration for her fellow strikers.

By May, however, the strike at the Loray Mill was faltering. Most of the workers had returned to work, and the mill was running at near capacity. Baugh decided he no longer needed striking workers and began putting them out of their mill-owned houses. On 6 May the mill put 1,000 people out on the street. The union erected a tent city for workers still active in the strike.

On 7 June, Weisbord and Schechter led another march. As he often did, Beal remained at the union headquarters with his bodyguards. Again, police attacked the marchers. Most of the demonstrators scattered and returned to the tent city, followed by Gastonia police officers. Two of the police officers had been arrested a few hours earlier in the next county on charges of assault and drunkenness. At the tent city, both sides fired shots; who fired first remains unproven. Four police officers and one union man were shot. Police Chief Orville F. Aderholt died the next day. Vigilantes later raided the tent city, terrorizing the men, women, and children. Sixty people were jailed. Beal escaped but was arrested later in Spartanburg.

On 18 June, claiming union guards shot first, prosecutors charged 14 union people with murder. They included Beal, Weisbord, and Schechter. The subsequent trial drew national and international attention to Gastonia and was compared to the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. A mistrial was declared when the prosecution, borrowing an idea from a contemporary movie, produced a life-size wax model of the dead police chief in the courtroom. According to locals, the shock drove one juror mad. Built secretly in the basement of the courthouse for a cost of $1,000, the wax model had caused janitors to report seeing the police chief's ghost in the weeks before the trial.

In the chaotic week that followed the mistrial, members of the Committee of One Hundred demonstrated throughout the area, and the union called another mass meeting. Ella May Wiggins and a group of NTWU members from Bessemer City were attacked on the way to the meeting, which, ironically, had been cancelled. Wiggins was killed. Seven men, including nonstriking employees of Loray Mill, were charged with her murder. Mill Superintendent Baugh bailed them out, and Major Bulwinkle led their defense team. All were acquitted.

At the second Aderholt murder trial, prosecutors limited the number of defendants to seven and reduced the charge to second-degree murder. Charges against Weisbord and Schechter were dropped. Beal remained the prime suspect. Ultimately, the remaining men were convicted and given sentences of from 5 to 20 years. While out on bail, most of the defendants escaped to the Soviet Union. Beal made two trips there before surrendering to North Carolina officials in 1939. He was pardoned in 1942 and returned to Massachusetts, where he died in 1954.

Key Players

Beal, Fred (1896-1954): Beal was an American communist labor organizer during the 1920s. He directed the National Textile Workers Union in the Gastonia Strike of 1929, where he was convicted of the murder of the local police chief. He escaped to the Soviet Union but returned to the United States disillusioned by Stalin's "workers' state." He wrote an autobiography, Proletarian Journey (1937). He surrendered to North Carolina authorities in 1939 and was pardoned after serving four years.

Dawson, Ellen (1900-?): A Scottish immigrant to the United States, Dawson was the National Textile Workers Union's national vice president and the second organizer to reach Gastonia in 1929. Known as the "Little Orphan of the Strikers," she came to the United States in 1921 and settled in Passaic, New Jersey. A weaver, she was active in strikes in Passaic and New Bedford.

Weisbord, Vera Buch (1895-1989): Weisbord was an American social activist who joined the Socialist Party in 1919 and was active in labor organizing. She was perhaps the most important woman organizer during the 1929 Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia. She and her husband, Albert Weisbord, moved to Chicago in the 1930s, where she remained active in labor causes throughout her life. She published an autobiography, A Radical Life (1977).

Wiggins, Ella May (1900-1929): Born in Tennessee, Wiggins was a textile worker, striker, songwriter, and mother. She was killed on the way to a union meeting during the 1929 Gastonia strike, and no one was convicted for her murder. She is buried in Bessemer City, North Carolina. Her tomb-stone reads, "She was killed carrying the torch of social justice."

Bibliography

Books

Beal, Fred. Proletarian Journey: New England, Gastonia,Moscow. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1971.

Pope, Liston. Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1942.

Salmond, John A. Gastonia, 1929: The Story of the Loray Mill Strike. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Weisbord, Vera Buch. A Radical Life. Bloomington, IN:Indiana University Press, 1977.

—David Lee McMullen

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