We often take North Carolina to be a conservative state when it comes to labor, best highlighted by our right to work and employment-at-will laws. But it has not always been this way.
Let’s go back to the 1920s. World War I sparked an explosion in the textile industry in North Carolina, fueling the war effort. Inevitably, the war ended, cutting demand. Supervisors at Loray Mill, in Gastonia, responded with a stretch-out: firing workers, cutting pay and increasing work hours, all in an effort to reduce costs. By 1929, some workers were forced to manage double the number of looms they were tasked with just a few years earlier, at one-third of the pay of previous years. Many were fed up.
Having been funded by Northern companies, Loray Mill was seen as a place familiar enough for the National Textile Workers Union to expand into the South. Their arrival in March 1929 was met with enthusiasm by workers. The strike began after a crowd of 1,000 union members voted unanimously to strike, calling for a 40-hour workweek, a $20 weekly minimum wage, the end of the stretch-out system and union recognition. On April 1, the mill fired them.
The strike lasted until September. Strikers became desperate to come back to work, having been evicted from their mill-owned homes, the arrival of the National Guard and several violent clashes that lead to the death of Ella May Wiggins, a single mother of nine children. In the end, nothing changed at the mill — many of the strike leaders were arrested or driven out of the county; two fled to the Soviet Union to avoid imprisonment.
Despite the strike’s failure to solve the issues at Loray Mill, it helped spark a larger labor movement across the South and further ignite a national labor movement. And although we do not see the direct consequences of these movements quite as clearly today, it had an impact on the working and middle-class policies and programs of the mid-20th century.