The Historical Gastonia Textile Mill Strikes Are Not Forgotten
When in the early part of this millennium I was writing a rather surrealistic novel, ASHEVILLE, about the town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina where I started out my life, I ran into the story of the Asheville-based self-professed Communist writer, Olive Tilford Dargan, of whom I had never heard before. Visiting then her gravesite in the little known Green Hills Cemetery in West Asheville and researching her and her activities I fell into a gossamer review of early 19th century labor struggles in the good old U.S. South.
Here I want to share this bit of labor history—its passion, its shortcomings and failures, to shed some light on what might be the future. But first some words by and about Dargan. Back during one of the fervid witch hunts of native Communists, she wrote this in a novel:
A young black Harvard graduate makes a speech at a Fourth of July celebration:
“Suppose that some great disaster were to sweep ten million families out to sea and leave ‘em on a desert island to starve and rot. That would be what you might call an act of God, maybe. But suppose a manner of government that humans have set up and directed, drives ten million families into the pit of poverty and starvation? That’s no act of God. That’s our fool selves actin’ like lunatics. What humans have set up they can take down….Whoever says we’ve got to have a capitalist government when we want a workers’ government, is givin’ the lie to the great founders of these United States….”—A Stone Came Rolling, page 161, Olive Tilford Dargan
A widely traveled Radcliffe graduate, Olive Tilford Dargan lived most of her life in Asheville, NC. Acclaimed poet and novelist and in Who’s Who, she was blacklisted during the McCarthy Communist Scare in the 1950s. Not only authorities and witch hunters labeled her writing propaganda, but also other writers because, they charged, she hobnobbed with Communists. She said she lost her friends because of her red novels and that during the McCarthy scare she had to hide out.
This was off the pages of Asheville history as I knew it. No relation to Thomas Wolfean Asheville. In a 1935 interview with the Raleigh News & Observer, Dargan said unequivocally: ‘I am more interested in humanity than literature. My interest in literature is probably in my effort to put humanity into it.’
Writing about the workers’ struggles in the South last century Dargan claimed that, for her, literature was secondary to social commitment—‘They lie closer to real experience than the flutter of an eyelid which has occupied bourgeois writers for years and is considered by standpat critics as art.’
Her first book, Call Home the Heart, published in 1932 by Longmans, Green and Company under the pseudonym of Fielding Burke—was ‘a proletarian novel depicting the role of mountain folks in the Gastonia, North Carolina mill strike’, a novel which became a milestone in the history of the American labor movement:
Gradually she became possessed of a secret. Every sordid and ugly life had its hidden war in the service of a dream; its struggle behind drab matter-of-fact; its timidity and pride, fearing to be found out. That was the mystery she had so often seen in chilled, coffined faces. Dead lips drawn over life-long, unconfessed defeat; curved with the triumph of concealment; the dream safe from life’s insolences and surprises. But suppose it could be released into life?
Word after word Dargan crept along the filaments of my brain straight into my conscious. Because we both were in Asheville. And because I had to learn of her long after she was gone. To the end of her life at 100 years of age she fought with conflicting feelings about being a poet and being socially responsible. She felt stymied by guilt because she wrote poetry when the real issues of the day called her to another job. She even saw good in a violent and brutal and scheming mountain folk lacking in any kind of class consciousness who were no protection against the capitalism she detested.
Call Home the Heart told the story of the role of mountain folks in the Gastonia, North Carolina cotton mill strikes,’ today largely forgotten as is the wave of violent textile worker strikes that swept through much of North Carolina in 1929.
The number of spindles in Gaston County, N.C., grew from 3000 in 1848 to 1,200,000 in 1930, making it first in the state and the South, and third in the nation. The town of Gastonia swelled from 236 in 1877 to 30,000 in 1930, primarily from the influx of mountaineers exchanging their exhausted land for jobs in the new factories. Although blacks made up 15 per cent of the population of the county, few were allowed to work in the mills.
The Loray Mill, Gastonia’s largest, was the first in the county to be owned and operated by Northerners seeking the benefits of a “poor white” labor pool. In 1926, a southern textile worker, some of whom were children of 10 and 11, earned an average of $15.81 for a 55-hour week compared to the $21.49 for a 48-hour week earned by his or her New England counterpart. The Loray Mill was also the first in the South to undergo new “scientific management” techniques designed to fully exploit this labor savings. The “stretch-out” (increasing the work-load per operator by speed-ups rather than technology) was introduced in the Loray Mill in 1927, and soon became as widespread as the northern ownership of southern mills. In early 1929, the anger and bitterness of thousands of textile workers exploded in mill towns throughout the region. Five thousand workers, mostly women, in Elizabethton, Tennessee, led the wave of walk-outs in March, 1929, that quickly spread to the Carolinas. The Gastonia strike at Loray Mills is the most famous of that movement.
The Loray plant, owned by the Manville-Jenckes Company of Rhode Island, went out on strike. The strike in Gastonia reflected the tensions rising from the industry’s rapid development in the South after World War I when northern capitalists took over the southern mills to exploit cheap labor, an early form of the exportation of jobs. Since Gastonia was the epicenter of the phenomenon, mountaineers from the Smokies swept into town to work in the mills. The Loray Mill (pronounced Low-Ray) was the first in the South to undergo the new speed-up techniques forced on the worker. That exploitation of labor ignited the anger of textile workers in the region until walkouts began. The strike in the Loray Mills was the most famous and the most violent: scabs, arrests, beatings, workers’ evictions from plant-owned houses, and court trials of leaders.
I remember the red brick buildings, the chain-link fences and the little houses in Loray Village in West Gastonia that we passed each time we arrived in Gastonia where my grandparents lived. At that point my father always said, “Well, we’re at Loray, so we’re nearly there.”
Mill owners and state law enforcement officers crushed those strikes so viciously that subsequent attempts to organize labor in the North Carolina textile plants were unsuccessful. Yet the history of the strike remains, recorded in novels like those of Dargan and in the writings of one of the organizers of the Gastonia strike, Vera Buch Weisbord, a Communist and member of the National Textile Workers Union, NTWU. No less than Marxist writings, such histories of the battles for social justice throw light on the eternal struggle between labor and capital.
The history of the clash in Gastonia offers the perfect setting for an epic film or a social play of an insurrection. I underline the word insurrection, not a revolution. All the classic characters are present: evil capitalist mill owners, exploited workers in hot dusty factories, tiny ragged children and their emaciated mothers in the square wooden houses, strikers, scabs and strike-breakers and both dedicated and corrupt union leaders.
The textile strikes continued for some years in a disorganized manner. I found this eloquent testimony in the book by John A. Salmond, The General Textile Strike of 1934, From Maine To Alabama, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London.
“WE DIDN’T HAVE NO BACKING…. WE SHOULDN’T have done it. The South hadn’t even begun to organize well by then, ” remembered Kasper Smith, former textile worker and striker. “What happened in 1934 has a whole lot to do with people not being so union now.” The veteran organizer, Solomon Barkin, made much the same point at a 1984 symposium commemorating the strike’s outbreak. The strike’s leaders had had little “experience with leading large strikes,” he asserted. There was no money to sustain the effort; organizational preparation was practically nil; there was little support from other unions, the federal bureaucracy or the President, “preoccupied” as he was “with recovery rather than labor relations.”
Moreover, the AFL generally had failed its local union bases, especially those “which had been spontaneously formed” in the wake of the NIRA’s passage. They were essentially left to their own resources during the strike. There was no national direction, no widespread public or union support. This wave of strikes did not create a national strike at all, but rather it was the sum of thousands of essentially local efforts, often with differing impulses and aims. This was especially true of the cotton textile South, the strike’s epicenter, where the workers’ sacrifices were the greatest, the repression the most severe, and the consequences of failure the most long-lasting.
One objects that times have changed. That the world and society have become so complex and multilayered and people’s interests so diverse that old ‘class’ categories no longer apply and that only in certain places and under certain circumstances are old class divisions clear. Some critics maintain that such labels as proletariat and bourgeoisie and capitalists are obstacles to the message such words offer because they alienate a section of the population such as the middle class in the USA today, who might comprehend their shared identity with the traditional working class if addressed in a different language.
Though those masses once personified by the term proletariat constitute a class, they themselves are seldom aware of it. To become a class of action the proletariat, i.e. wage earners, require leadership, something those furious, hungry, striking textile workers did not have.
The proletariat however is complex. The term is confusing. Who makes up the proletariat? For it comprises much more than the elusive industrial proletariat of the Russian Revolution. Today it comprises any wage earner, the property-less class, which sells its labor to the class of property, money and power. Capitalism too is complex though the exploitation by one class of the other remains. Of course enterprise needs capital and it needs employees. One asks therefore if anyone who employs someone else a capitalist? In the long run, yes. Inevitably, history shows, they will clash. For the simple reason that greed is inherent in man.
Thus those two classes—those who work and those who exploit the wage earner—stand face to face on the stage of life, interdependent, but forever at war with each other. The capitalist understands instinctively this eternal dichotomy dividing men since the Persians, Mesopotamians and the Greeks.
But the super-indoctrinated American working class dulled by the “American dream” does not get it. Moreover, the middle class in America and Europe has not even grasped that they too are now part of the proletariat. In that respect I find that old and criticized word quite adequate.
Dargan claimed the sequel to her first novel—A Stone Came Rolling, same publisher, same pseudonym—was even more proletarian. She claimed that she strove not to write propaganda while she fought with conflicting feelings about writing poetry and her social responsibility. Can one combine the two? Or are fiction and social reality destined to take separate paths?
Having a mortgaged home, a car and a TV does not change the proletarian’s status because his very lifestyle depends on wages determined by the capitalist class which controls property, power and money. The wage earner depends on money lent him by the capitalist bank to buy his home, his car and his TV. The subprime crisis demonstrates eloquently that those loans make the wage earner a prisoner of his employer, be it industry or banks or the state bureaucracy.
Though the man who works for wages, blue collar or middle class, is a member of the working class, his wage earner status does not make him automatically a class-conscious revolutionary. He can be anything, from a priest to the blackest reactionary, which unfortunately is often the case in the USA.
Modern history shows that the American wage earner—the potential proletarian—is in reality the staunchest flag-waving defender of the same capitalist system that exploits him, does nothing for him except pay him unfair wages, sends him to war to defend capitalist interests, and throws him aside at will. American wage earners are so amorphous, so blunted in their ballyhooed ignorance, so unstructured and ill-organized that they do not even constitute a class in the political sense of the word. Their ignorance and their acceptance of their situation represent one of the great victories of capitalism.
The arrangement doesn’t make any sense at all.
In contrast, many Europeans workers are still class-conscious. Divided but class conscious, though now a shrinking minority. But not the reactionary American workingman. The absence of class-consciousness of the American workingman exemplifies Marx’s statement that “the working class is either revolutionary or it is nothing.”
A forewarning: The day a group of young and dynamic leaders capable of inculcating a sense of class consciousness in the entire wage earner class and organizing it for nationwide coordinated action steps forward and takes the reins of guidance in its hands, then Capitalism should tremble and run for shelter for the movement will be unstoppable. Such a movement in North America can stop capitalism as we know it in its tracks.
Gaither Stewart, Featured Writer on Dandelion Salad, Senior Editor of Cyrano’s Journal Online and The Greanville Post and Special European Correspondent for both, is a novelist, reporter and essayist on historical and cultural topics. His observations, often controversial, are published on many venues across the web. He’s based in Rome. Stewart’s latest novel is The Trojan Spy, a thriller and morality tale in the tradition of John LeCarré.