The Mill Hill, Natural Communism, and the Loray Mill Strikes

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Loray Mill - Charlotte Observer 1929By JP Miller.

[Image source: Charlotte Observer, June 9, 1929. Used with permission of The Charlotte Observer. Copyright owned by The Charlotte Observer.]

There are no less than six books on the Gastonia Loray Mill strike of 1929. There are scores of papers, hundreds of opinions and a common conception that although the strike itself was a failure, it led to better working conditions for many workers that followed. Not one that I have read reveals the current condition of Gastonia and surrounding towns like Bessemer City that were the battleground between a homegrown communal left and a despicable capitalist ownership that finally broke the back of the workers in the strikes of 1927-1929. I write this fully aware that my maternal extended family is from Gastonia and many live there or in Bessemer City currently. Their stories are somewhat separate from the mills but really no one was unaffected by the “Mill Hill” and its battle to survive. Much of my youth was filled with stories of how the town resisted the Yankees and the mill overlords. The oral history passed down to me from grandparents and parents and uncles and aunts are rich with scenes of the common man resisting authority, whatever form it took.

Unfortunately, and still visible day, the capitalist victory over the workers has left a legacy of defeat. Gastonia is a perfect example of the modern “mill town” without the mill but complete with alienated workers, the company store, sub-standard housing, absent healthcare, and the unemployed, who roam the streets for any survival strategy. Perhaps the strike did provide some hope and lead to better conditions in other mills and industries over time but you will not see that in Gastonia. Once a town on the cusp of real communal living, the “Mill Hill”; a shining example of a workers community built and nourished by the textile mill workers themselves, Gastonia is today a forgotten city–passed into the annals of history but without a single vestige of the revolutionary and communal struggle from which it sprang. The “natural” and essential communism that sprung up in the Piedmont of North Carolina in towns like Gastonia and Bessemer City at the beginning of the First World War has been obliterated. What is left behind is desolation and poverty, timidity, fear, racism, and drug traffic which is fueled by the unsustainable capitalist policies of slash and burn economics. The generation of workers who built the town and fought to keep their dignity and their humanity in the face of overwhelming capitalist thuggery is long gone.

When the First World War and the continued industrialization of the US created a need for uniforms and other textile products, non-farming jobs became available for the first time in the small towns of the piedmont area of North Carolina. Local textile plants were erected quickly. A corridor of textile mills sprung up in small towns all across the poverty stricken rural piedmont. The workers came down from the farms in the hills looking for opportunities that the textile industry offered. And, for some time, it was all they wanted. In Gastonia and all across the piedmont of North Carolina, the “Mill Hills” erupted. Communities or rather self-sustaining villages developed quickly and thrived.  My own Great Grandfather, a loving if wild, man about town, used to mill the wood for the row houses and provide the local moonshine for the community. Being as wily as he was, I believe he knew there was no future in the mills and he would be proven right.

The workers had come so close to creating something good and sustaining for their families–a workers town and a village of shared familial responsibilities. These early strikes have become legend now but that is all that is left; the memories passed down from a defiant generation of workers to their children born after the strikes.  I hear stories from the older families that grew up in this town about how they were so proud of their progress and growth. They tell me how neighbor helped neighbor, how the parks were full of children who didn’t have to work in the mills. By the mid-twenties, the Gastonia mill community had grown to over 5,000 individuals. They had welfare workers, doctors, banks, and even their own baseball teams. They were proud.  It is no wonder they prefer to speak about the beginning and how their families were prosperous, closely related, and comfortable in their mill hill. I have listened to the stories and despite the violence and failures of the subsequent strikes, the generations who recall their parents or grandparents stories echo each other in how they created such a mill town, fought mightily for their rights as human beings or how they simply came together as a village of proud workers with a set of communal values that is absent in today’s United States–destroyed by capitalist disdain for the worker and worship of the profit.

Today, as you drive through the town of Gastonia–the seat of Gaston County–the place has the doomed look of broken roads and broken dreams. When driving north to south from the relative structure of Charlotte to the notorious strip of Franklin Boulevard in Gastonia, the scenery changes abruptly. The poverty is stark. Franklin Boulevard, once the main thoroughfare of the Mill Hills, still snakes through the town and dominates current Gastonia life. It has become synonymous with utter poverty, joblessness and crime. Gastonia is a town with no center, no downtown and no hope. The town was broken decades ago by the crush of anti-union forces, depression era economics, and the owners violent hatred for the Communist parties that pulled off one of the largest textile strikes in US history in a last attempt to save the Mill Hill community. It has never recovered.

The initial strikes which included mills up and down the textile corridor in 1927 and 1928 were doomed before they started. The management by men far removed from the south began the “stretch-out”–the reduction of wages, increase of hours, and the introduction of piece work. The Mill owners built a cage of fence around the mills to prevent any worker from taking breaks or watching over their families. Then they managed to reduce the workers’ wages by 25-50 % –a wage that was woefully insufficient for survival. The workers were eventually broken by the need to survive. Some returned to the hills to farm but a nucleus of uncommon men and women stayed and worked horrendous hours under terrible conditions in order to protect the Mill Hill community that they had built. The work force was drained from 3,500 to 2,200. The workers were absolutely alienated from the Mill and now from each other as the Mill Hill disintegrated. Many of the workers began a rolling series of unorganized demonstrations and strikes. These spontaneous strikes never worried the management. It was simply a matter of time. The workers came crawling back to the mills to once again suffer the conditions and to collect a weekly salary of under ten dollars. It was obvious to all except the mill owners and management that this was an intolerable and unsustainable condition and insufficient to support Mill families. The welfare services, parks, medical services, and even the baseball teams which provided entertainment and relief from tedious hours of work disappeared.

The Mill Hill, so eloquently constructed, was gone and replaced by a machine of ever increasing production schedules, child labor, unfathomable working conditions, and threats in and out of the work place. The mill ownership was northern investment capitalists who had never even been south but were clamoring to buy the mills for their magnificent profits. Millions of dollars were sucked right out of the workers labor and passed to the entrepreneurs in states like New York and Delaware, Connecticut and New Jersey. There was such disconnect between the ownership and labor that either side would have a hard time locating the other on a map.

The only positive for the worker during these early strikes was the news coverage of the strikes picked up by other papers and this prompted the National Textile Workers Union and the Trade Union Unity League to investigate, provide relief and protest.  Upon hearing of the severity of the workers conditions and their constant battle with management the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU), an unabashed communist union, began to focus on Gastonia and the Loray Mill. This newly found notoriety would lead all parties directly to the 1929 strike which by any standard was a violent struggle and bloody battle between the management and the workers.

Presently, past Gastonia’s Franklin Square where the fast-food restaurants pump through thousands of customers and pay the workers minimum wage, where Wal-Mart sits in its shining glory of indifference to its workers, where car lots sell heaps and a promise of on the lot financing and on past New Hope road lies a small enclave of what’s left of the wealthy and powerful. Their houses gleam even brighter as they are surrounded by the stunning broken down town that was once a promising Mill Hill. On our drive through Gastonia, one can see a town in dirty, defeated mixture of numerous broken down trailer parks, closed shops from thirty years ago, areas of broken wood and brick structures, burnt-out businesses and abandoned cars which line the streets and alleys. The once proud parks are now illegal drug stores where the disaffected, unemployed, and disappointed get their crack, meth, and weed. I know these people. They work in fast food restaurants or Wal-Mart. They are constantly fighting the government for assistance to feed their kids. And, this is no easy battle, being alienated by the rest of the US, called welfare queens or lazy benefit hunters. They do what they have to do to survive. They deal drugs, and steal whatever is available. They have no choice. This is a part of the legacy of the capitalist defeat of the natural communism that came down the hill, and the emptiness that follows the loss of community.

By 1929, the Loray mill had been long been sold to Northern interests–much like what the workers families remembered as carpetbaggers. The mill had become a prison of workers, encased in poverty and surrounded by national guardsmen, armed management enforcers and bullied by the local newspapers with thinly veiled threats of violence. The local authorities were corrupted by the owners bribes and many of the workers themselves, unable to survive on mill wages, became spies for the management or even worse, enforcers armed with clubs and firearms. The Gastonia and Charlotte papers were both anti-communist and anti-union.  Being owned by outside interests themselves, they served up a radical voice of retribution for the owners and management.  They called for the absolute suppression of workers and the use of violence to quell the worker’s call for justice. The support from The Daily Worker which published stories supporting the workers and calling for help spread to other publications. The Communist party and the NTWU provided relief funds and organizers. But ultimately these were insufficient to protect the workers.  Many activists came south to help but they were soon targeted with violence and they disappeared.

The final act of the Loray Mill strike of 1929 began in April of 1929 and ended in June after 1, 800 workers walked off the job and rallied outside the mill with demands for 40 hour work weeks, better working conditions, and an end to the stretch-out. After the strike ran into the third month, running battles with the police and National Guardsmen had ramped up the strike into anarchy. The police and cronies destroyed the NTWU headquarters and a battle ensued where the police chief was shot and killed.  Trials were held and 71 strikers were arrested. The courtroom drama ended in a mistrial which infuriated the local police and anti-union organizers. They went on a hunting mission and managed to scare off remaining strikers much like the Klan would do in the black neighborhoods.

Any attempt to explain the strikes cannot be understood without noting that it was the women who led the strikes for the most part. Brave and irreverent, they rallied young and older women and men against national guardsmen and management. Often they spent time in jail and were proud to do so. One of these women was Ella May Wiggins. She was the embodiment of the resistance to the owners and the strength of the local strikers. She lived in a place called “Stump-town” which was mostly a black neighborhood with nine children, four of whom would die from inadequate healthcare. She led the strike to its crescendo and was shot to death as she traveled to a union meeting in September, 1929. She was pregnant with her tenth child.

Ella May Wiggins was a symbol of the struggle for workers’ rights and one tough lady. Her death marked the end of the strikes and the end of Gastonia as a battleground between worker’s rights and the owner’s murderous campaign to destroy the Mill Hill. That the owners and management had won this round was clear. The ideal of a natural, worker made communism had been destroyed as well. The idea that a community of workers could build from the ground up a communal village centered on a mill with adequate pay, decent working conditions, healthcare, childcare, and establish a union to negotiate collectively was now a dream.

While Gastonia was once a dream town built by workers for workers, today it is a nightmare. The only employers are fast food restaurants, Wal-Mart and various huge superstores where minimum wage is apathetically accepted. And where do the workers spend their meager wages? The company store.  They spend their pay back in the same stores where they work. Unable to save enough for the future or find a better job, the superstores which pay them pitiable wage, sell them clothes, food, and televisions to divert their attention from their plight. It’s the same depressed mill town attitude as it was in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

While I will concede that US mill workers after the 1927-29 mill strikes in the North Carolina piedmont gained at least some exposure and hence were able to gain better working conditions for subsequent mill workers. And, as a result of the strikes, The United Textile Workers was created out of this class war. But, the town of Gastonia gained nothing. The workers in Gastonia gained nothing and the capitalist owners way up north made what would be billions in profits today. And, as a whole, the unions and the Communist party in Gastonia disappeared, never to return. After all the strikes and violence, after all this time, after all progressive advances, the workers are back where they started–working for Wal-Mart.

JP Miller is a disabled veteran, journalist, and writer who lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina beside the Atlantic Ocean. He has published short stories and political essays in The Literary Yard, The Southern Cross Review, The Greanville Post, Pravda, Countercurrents, Uncommon Thought and Cyrano’s Journal.


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