During the Loray Strike, who truly had the best interests of the Loray Mill community in mind?
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the North Carolina Piedmont continued to be a large cotton-growing region. Wealthy business owners saw an opportunity to build factories there. They could process cotton into textiles near the source where it was grown. The Piedmont region began an explosive growth in cotton manufacturing in the 1880s with the city of Charlotte at the center of the industry. The nearby town of Gastonia profited from this cotton mill boom that employed many local workers as well. Many families left farms to find work in the cotton mills, or factories. Often all able-bodied members of a family went to work in a mill as they had on the farm, including children. The average worker still struggled against low wages, long hours, and dangerous conditions. However many people preferred the steadier income a factory job could provide over farming.
The next great wave of mill building was during World War I due to the demand for war materials. After the wartime demand lessened, mill owners depended on cutting costs and increasing production to make a profit. One way they could achieve this was through the “stretch-out” system, where they increased work and decreased wages. Not only did workers struggle financially, but they also had less time to care for their own families at home. Women bore a large part of this burden. They made up a large part of the mill workforce while shouldering the majority of responsibilities at home.
Fred Erwin Beal was an organizer in a national communist labor union. When he heard about a stretch-out happening at Loray Mill in Gastonia in 1929, he decided to take his efforts there. Beal led willing workers in declaring a strike, while other workers chose not to. During the strike, confrontations became violent, and even fatal, for workers and police. Casualties included worker Ella May Wiggins and Police Chief Orville Aderholt. The strike did not immediately succeed in improving Loray Mill’s conditions. Still, it influenced future strikes in other locations. It also inspired the formation of the United Textile Workers labor organization. This organization had some success standing up for laborers’ rights in the anti-union South.
Piedmont: hilly middle region of North Carolina between the mountains and coastal plain
Manufacturing: making products on a large scale using machines
Boom: rapid increase
Communist: advocating for a society where all people are on equal terms financially and the production of goods is operated and owned by the public; there is no private property
Labor union: organized association of workers formed to protect rights and interests
Who is to blame for the results of the Loray Mill Strike? Within the course of the strike, violence occurred, the chief of police was murdered, a striker was murdered and several people were injured through violent clashes between strikers and strike breakers. While the strikers accused of murdering Chief Alderholt were found guilty and Ella May Wiggins’ accused killers were found not guilty, the mill owners were never tried or held responsible for any actions that took place. As a class, you will put the Loray Mill owners on trial. Should they be held responsible or were the strikers and union members at fault for the violence that took place? Your teacher will give you an overview of how trials work and assign roles and materials to you.