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The Loray Mill Strike in 1929 in Gastonia, North Carolina was one of the best known strikes in the labor history of the United States. Though it was largely unsuccessful in its goals of better working conditions and wages, the strike did cause a great deal of controversy nationwide, and is seen by the modern labor movement as an influential event in the movement's development.
Located in the south-western piedmont of North Carolina, Gaston County had the ideal resources for manufacturing. With the abundance of water and the large potential workforce of former sharecroppers and failed farmers, many northern industrialists came south in search of a reduced cost of labor. Therefore the owners of the mills insisted on keeping prices down, resulting in work in the mills being extremely dangerous and dirty. Often the workdays were so long that the women, who made up a considerable percentage of the workers, were rarely home to raise their children. Upon hearing about the detestable conditions in the Loray Mill, Fred Beal of the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU), a communist labor union, began focusing his attention on the small town of Gastonia as he sensed that it would soon be more than âjust a dot on the mapâ.
On Saturday, March 30, 1929, the union held its first public meeting in Gastonia. The first person to speak was Ellen Dawson, co-director of the strike and vice president of the NTWU. She was followed by Beal and several Loray Mill workers.
The strike at Loray Mill started on Monday, April 1,1929, after mill supervisors began firing workers who had participated in the Saturday meeting. At 3 pm, Beal took a vote of the workers, which was unanimously in favor of a strike. The relatively low-key atmosphere was replaced by tension as Mayor Rankin then asked for help from the National Guard, which arrived on April 3. The strike continued to escalate throughout the month. Nearly 100 masked men destroyed the NTWUâs headquarters on April 18, resulting in the NTWU starting a tent city on the outskirts of town that was protected by armed strikers at all times.
The situation continued through the next few months as the workers continued to strike despite the return to production at the Loray Mill, thus making their situation appear hopeless. On June 7, 150 workers marched out to the mill to call out the night shift; this demonstration was attacked and dispersed by sheriff deputies. Later that night, four officers including Police Chief Aderholt arrived at the tent city and demanded that the guards hand over their weapons. Although it is unclear what occurred next, Chief Aderholt was killed in the scuffle and two officers, as well as a number of strikers, were wounded.
In the aftermath, 71 strikers were arrested and 16 were indicted for murder (8 were strikers, and 8 were members of the NTWU including Beal). During the tense trial, a juror went insane and therefore the trial was labeled as a mistrial and was to be brought to court again. When the news of the mistrial was released a general wave of terror ran through the countryside. During the early part of September, mobs of men gathered up strikers and ran them out of the county. These actions came to a head when, on September 14, a truck containing 22 strikers was chased down and fired upon. One female striker, Ella Mae Wiggins, was killed and seven men were charged with her murder (6 of them were employed by the Loray Mill). All were found not guilty. Fred Beal was released on bail, but fled to the Soviet Union. Disillusioned, he returned to the United States, surrendered to North Carolina authorities. He was later pardoned.
Overall the strike was not a success but resulted in a great deal of controversy, and a heightened rhetoric on the part of the textile industry and the labor movement. The strike also had the effect of setting back labor unions decades in the South.
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