Article Twenty: Labor Unrest In Gastonia:Strikes, Stretch-Out, Flying Squadrons and Violence
Part Two: General Textile Strike of 1934
The General Textile Strike, spearheaded by the United Textile Workers’ Union (UTWU) and American Federation of Labor (AFL), occurred in September 1934. More than half of the 600,000 men and women in the American textile industry responded to the call for a nationwide strike, from Main to Alabama, to take place on Labor Day. Its immediate objective was to shut down the nation’s textile industry, cut hours of work to 30 a week without wage reduction and eliminate the hated “stretch-out.” It was hailed in United Press news releases as “a day of unparalleled significance in organized labor annals…and the grimmest in the country’s history.”
Up and down the Atlantic Seaboard, workers were called to hundreds of mass meetings to whip their enthusiasm to a fever pitch, and get union and non-union workers to follow them and join the organization. In Gastonia, local union officials of the already established Central Labor Union (CLU) staged a giant parade on Labor Day, Monday, September 3, 1934. With emotions running high, 2,000 strikers marched through the city carrying banners and shouting slogans. At City Park (later Lineberger Park) they were encouraged by union organizers to take decisive steps to close those plants that were running. Communists were reported en route to Gastonia from Charlotte and elsewhere to participate and assist in union recruitment. It was a somber time in history, marked by emerging social changes, and Gastonia was on center stage.
Because it was during the bleak days of the Great Depression, only a portion of Gaston County’s 104 textile mills were in a position to run at all – those few with sufficient order backlogs. The management of those 60 Gaston County mills that were capable of running told their workers that if they wanted to work on Labor Day the mills would run; otherwise, they would close. It was their decision. The employees of a majority of those mills, it was reported, voted to stay on the job. With perhaps a few exceptions, mill executives made it known that rather than have any violence, they would close their plants for a few days should there appear any likelihood of disturbance. Most of the mills were making no money anyway and could afford to stand idle for some time. The real test would come the morning following Labor Day, Tuesday, September 4, when most of the mills would attempt to resume operations.
The principal strategy of the WTWU and CLU was to raise a roar of protest and keep all the mills closed until their demands were met. The strikers’ job was to concentrate on closing those mills that attempted to open. Conversely, workers that had jobs were pleased to have them and generally did not desire to stir up unrest. They were, depending on their specific work assignment, earning $10.80, $13.80 and $14.60 per week for a 12-hour shift. Unfortunately, however, one or two mills in Bessemer City were paying as low as $4.50 a week, hardly enough to keep bread on the table, and their workers were highly susceptible to discontent.
The unemployed workers had no such constraints and readily joined what were known as “flying squadrons”, groups of 150 to 250 people moving in caravans around the state from strike to strike, venting their frustration, spreading the union message and using terrorist tactics to agitate employed workers to a fever pitch of discontent. Locally these squadrons were from Gaston, Cleveland, York and other surrounding counties. Their objective was to intimidate workers into leaving their stations and joining the WTWU or CLU. In several incidences, mill property was destroyed and workers were forcibly “pulled” from their jobs.
Strikes were occurring in textile towns all across both Carolinas, as well as throughout the South and New England. Because of Gastonia’s importance as the combed yarn center of America, much media attention focused here. Greater Gastonia saw 37 or its 45 mills closed by the strike on the first day -- Labor Day, Monday, September 3 – with only eight mills continuing in operation. Residents of the troubled textile city were uneasy with the memory of the 1929 Loray Mills strike still fresh on their minds. Dire speculation dominated newspaper and wire service reporting.
It all started when hundreds of howling picketers surrounded the big 5-story Loray Mills plant Monday night, preventing the workers from going inside for the 11 p.m. shift. By daybreak Tuesday morning, 2,000 picketers from Gastonia, Bessemer City and Shelby joined in to besiege the factory, and even the office staff could not get in. The next Gastonia targets on Tuesday morning were two Hanover plants – Pinkney and Rankin – in South Gastonia, followed by the Parkdale, Threads, Arlington and Myrtle mills. Then came Ragan Spinning Company’s plant in West Gastonia. Flying squadrons of strikers, ranting with an apocalyptic fervor, “crashed into the mills, pulled the main [power] switches, dislodged card room belts, disrupted yarn in process and shoved willing workers from their posts,” reported the Gastonia Gazette. Soon, the Cramerton and Mayflower mills were closed, as were all 18 mills in Belmont, 6 in Mount Holly and 7 in Cherryville. By noon, all the mills were paralyzed. Not a spindle was turning in a single one of the Gaston County’s 104 textile plants. Management asked their loyal workers to go home until things settled down.
Reaction by stunned mill owners and managers was swift and predictable. They had been given no opportunity to negotiate by union officials or flying squadrons. Surprised and infuriated by the sudden onslaught, Caldwell Ragan of Ragan Spinning Company, one of the first targeted mills, was quoted in an interview for the Daily News Record, a New York textile trade publication, as saying, “It’s high-handed insolence and a damnable outrage that things like this can happen in a civilized society.” Industry leaders Archie Lineberger in Belmont, Arthur Dixon from his Mount Holly offices and Carl Rudisill in Cherryville expressed similar sentiments of anger. There was general outrage over union tactics. For the most part, the Southern press condemned the actions of the flying squadrons and was sympathetic to management and the maintenance of civil order. The national press was less restrained and created stories that cast a dark shadow on Gastonia, the South in general and the textile industry in particular.
By Wednesday, September 5, things began to get really nasty. One could feel the potential for violence rivaling the tragic strike at the Loray Mills plant five years earlier. Hanover Mills requested the Gaston County sheriff to furnish guards to protect their 295 workers. North Carolina Governor J. C. B. Ehringhaus made a last appeal for cessation of “unlawful activity of flying squadron pickets” in hope that he may “avoid drastic measures.” The governor conceded the right to strike and picket peacefully, but asserted “the right not to strike and keep on working is just as sacred and entitled to the same protection.”
In light of potential violence, most managers closed their mills until further notice and took precautions to protect their property by having loyal employees and friendly local farmers sworn in and armed as sheriff’s deputies. These privately paid deputies guarded the mills day and night, some stationed in railroad boxcars on sidetracks adjacent to the mills, inside the mills or even on top of a few mills. Leaders of the Gastonia-based Southern Combed Yarn Spinners Association, the trade arm that represented most of the country’s combed yarn mills, met almost daily in the boardroom of the First National Bank to discuss rapidly changing events and provide constructive advice. Communications were kept open between the textilists, the governor’s office and the White House.
Associated Press and United Press news releases on Thursday, September 6 reported that the death toll nationwide reached ten as bloody battles developed. Wild riots were reported in Rhode Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Six strikers were slain in a brief clash at Honea Path, South Carolina when mill guards opened fire upon a crowd advancing toward the factory gate. Fifteen others were wounded. That same day Governor Ehringhaus and the governors of most Southern states ordered state troops in large numbers to selected locations to protect both sides. A striker was killed in Trion, Georgia; a mill in Burlington, North Carolina was dynamited; and 4,000 state troopers were reportedly sent to a town in Georgia where a man was murdered and a mill superintendent attacked. The crisis area in Gaston County was at Belmont, where near riots erupted in an attempt to restart Knit Products Company and Hatch Full Fashioned Hosiery. Later, one striker was slain in Belmont, which re-ignited the explosive situation there.
On Saturday, September 8 the Gastonia Gazette headline screamed “Union Leaders Dare Mill Owners to Start Monday,” furthering tension. President Roosevelt tried to stay out of the confrontation. The only word from the government came from the summer White House at Hyde Park when Relief Administer and Presidential Assistant Harry Hopkins, visiting the president, said the government had no intention of underwriting the strike and there would be no government food for the strikers. It had been generally thought “that taxpayers would finance the strikers,” and that federal aid would “enable strikers to stay out indefinitely.”
Finally, mills began to reopen with the assistance of armed militia. Unions began to realize their cause was hopeless, as strikers became hungry and discouraged. Seeing no purpose in further prolonging the conflict, it was announced on September 22 that the General Strike, the largest in American history, had been called off, ordering 500,000 idle workers back to their looms and spindles. Little, if anything, had been accomplished, other than creating a public awareness of labor dissatisfaction in the country. In some regions like North Carolina, it could be argued that the strike actually created a backlash against unions. It was a hard, depression era when most working Americans were happy to have a job of any kind, even if it wasn’t a perfect one.
Picketing and other disturbances soon ceased and National Guardsmen were slowly withdrawn. By September 25, it was reported some 60 of the 104 Gaston County mills were running, the same number as before the strike was called on September 1. Soon the Indian Summer days of autumn brought healing. Newspaper headlines began changing from strikes, unions, flying squadrons and local violence to assassinations and war in Spain, the Lindberg baby kidnapping trial, the Gloria Vanderbilt custody trial, Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party’s take-over in Germany and the reign of terror in Stalin’s Russia.
So significant was the General Textile Strike of 1934 and the events that centered on Gastonia in the labor movement of the United States, that it was documented in a 1994 two-hour Public Television documentary called The Uprising of ’34. The broadcast was national in scope and aired intermittently for a decade or more afterward. Students and scholars of labor history have studied the strike over the past 83 years, trying to understand the South’s strong aversion to labor unions. [INDEX]