The Great Gastonia Textile Strike

Glimpses of Britain and USA history

In the spring of 1929 thousands of Southern workers turned to a Left- wing union for help, to defend themselves against unbearable exploitation. The National Textile Workers’ Union came into the area around Gaston County in January 1929 and made steady headway.

Gastonia is located in Gaston County, N.C., which was the leading tex­tile county of the South. The Loray Mill, in Gastonia, was its largest textile mill.

The mill workers were plagued with pellagra; a number had brown lung disease, from the cotton dust and lack of ventilation. Many of them looked like living skeletons. They worked eleven to twelve hours a day, for fifty cents to three dollars. The average wage was nine to twelve dollars for a week’s work.

After leaving the mill at night, workers would sit down near the mill gate to gain strength with which to walk home. For the women, it was worse. Their work was not finished at the mill gate. The mill workers were drained of stamina, cursed with disease. Their private lives were under the control of the company as well. They lived in insanitary company houses, small and unfit for ordinary needs, for which they paid rent to the com­pany. The company store supplied the food they ate and a minimum of whatever else they used. The workers were never out of debt to the mill.

On April 1, known union members were discharged. There was an im­mediate protest inside the mill. This was followed by a huge mass meeting, in which the workers declared for a strike.

From the beginning it was clear that the mill owners were determined to use the most vicious means at hand to defeat the strike. Men, women and very young strikers were clubbed and jailed from the first day.

The Loray strike was the signal for thousands of cotton mill workers throughout North and South Carolina and Tennessee to leave the mills. They went on strike, without any union, without organizing committees, in a spontaneous outpouring, because of starvation and desperation.

On the first day of the strike only a few foremen walked into the mill. Together with police they threatened the pickets with violence. The strikers returned to their homes, got their “squirrel rifles”, and resumed picketing. Nobody, they announced, would cross the picket line. Nobody went into the mill and it shut down.

Evictions began almost as early as the strike. Some of the strikers were sleeping on bare floors. Their furniture, which they had been buying “on time”, had been taken from them by the mill owners’ agents. They had no fuel or light.

Although there was great sympathy throughout the country for the Southern textile strikers of the NTWU and a warm response to the national campaigns organized by the Workers International Relief and the International Labor Defense, it became an increasing problem to sustain the needs of the strikers, as their numbers multiplied, day by day, in a pe­riod ushering in a catastrophic economic crisis.

The end result was that five men, all employees of the Loray Mill, were acquitted of the charges against them, although what happened took place in full sight of many people. Nor was anyone ever convicted for the kid­nappings, stabbings and beatings of hundreds of union men and women during the strike.

Now, many decades have passed and mill workers are once again engaged in bitter struggle against the North Carolina textile mill barons. The industry is shaken by the persistence and determination of the J. P. Stevens workers to form a union. North Carolina manufacturers are adding another infamous chapter to their unsavory past. The company has defied the courts and continues to disregard the safety, health and well­being of 44,000 workers, treating them as virtual slaves. But the drive for unionism continues.

The struggle for a better life for the working class and for all exploited people is long and difficult. Obstacles that are overcome lead to future victories.

From: Political Affairs, 1984