Back in the early seventies, in my days as a blue-collar worker, I spent one day in a carpet weaving factory in Philadelphia. That
first day was just to observe, supposedly learning how to do the job. I stood and watched my co-worker demonstrate how to do the varied tasks involved in tending the power loom gyrating in place on the wooden floor. The idea of repeatedly putting my hand into harm’s way – thrusting it into the fast-moving loom to tie up broken threads – along with the deafening noise, the lint-filled air, even at the good union wages and benefits that urban mill offered, was not for me. I quit after one day, leaving it for someone else in need of a good-paying job, someone braver, or more desperate.
Reading Wiley Cash’s new novel, The Last Ballad, brought back that recollection. The novel reimagines the life and death of the real Ella May Wiggins, a mother, mill hand, singer/songwriter, and striker, who was murdered on a picket line during the 1929 Loray Mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. The author lyrically captures the struggle for survival in these Southern mill communities – the grinding workweek, the ever-present hunger, the missing fingers, along with the other hardships of the mill hands. He also shows us the forces arrayed against the workers when they finally organized to fight their oppressors – the Citizens’ Council, the National Guard troops, and the violence visited upon them. Ella May was but one of the many casualties in America’s on-going class war.
We asked labor historian Melvyn Dubofsky to provide some context for the strike in Gastonia. He wrote: “The conflict in 1929 was part of a series of protests and strikes that erupted in the Carolinas and Tennessee mill towns between 1928 and 1930. Nearly all erupted as a result of specific local conditions and grievances, and lacked any organizational connections to each other. As in Gastonia, communists and other left-wingers played a part in trying to coordinate the efforts of the local strikers. 1934 by contrast, was a nationwide strike called and coordinated by the United Textile Workers, a strike that spread from the mill towns of Maine to those of Alabama. Gastonia 1929 foreshadowed the fate of Southern mill strikers in 1934, repression and defeat. Among other factors, the memory of such defeats made it more difficult to organize mill workers in the future. Jacqueline Hall’s Like a Family remains the go-to place for understanding the Southern textile mill workers.”
In American Violence: A Documentary History, edited by the historians Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace, the authors catalog some of the worst examples of state anti-worker violence. They include the Pullman Palace Co. strike in 1894, when police, militias, troops and federal marshals were arrayed against the union strikers. In 1913, vulnerable migrant agricultural workers in California sought to organize against their exploitation, but were brutally defeated. Hofstadter and Wallace write that: “Some of the most lethal incidents of industrial violence occurred in isolated mountain towns” … and “led to stark confrontations across class lines.” In his last book, The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom, the late labor historian James Green documented one of the most brutal chapters of that war against the miners.
The daily grind of exploited workers struggling to improve their conditions and break free of the terms being imposed by oppressive employers has a long history. As we confront our contemporary struggles against exploitation, these books are worth reading. They inspire us and help us to recall the long road of resistance waged by workers, the forces brought to bear against them, and to assess how we have arrived at this moment of a severely weakened labor movement and extreme economic inequality.
*Headline refers to the title song from the film “Norma Rae.”