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A Look at Labor Conditions and the New South's Historic Ties to Organization 

An organized effort

It's 1929, and workers in the Loray Mill in Gastonia have unanimously decided to strike after work conditions in the mill have gotten worse over time, thanks to management's efforts to reduce operating costs.

Wanting livable wages, better hours, union recognition and to rid the mill of the stretch-out system that was crushing their ability to effectively complete their jobs, 1,800 workers walked out on their jobs on April 1.

Although the ferocity of the strike waned over the next few months, sparks flew again that year on September 14 when Ella May Wiggins, a union leader and single mother of four from Bessemer City, was shot and killed on her way to a protest rally in Gastonia.

All of the men accused of her murder were tied to the Loray Mill and the Manville-Jenckes Company that ran it, and all were acquitted by a grand jury on Oct. 25.

Wiggins' murder left a profound effect on the strikers and their efforts. Eventually, the National Textile Workers Union and national political organizations were able to pressure Gastonia mill factory owners to reduce work hours and improve conditions in the mills.

Decades later, Wiggins' great-granddaughter Kristina Horton wrote a book titled The Martyr of Loray Mill. Horton begins the book with a reflection on the death of her ancestor.

"My great-grandmother was murdered, killed while trying to improve the lives of her children," Horton wrote. "No one was convicted for her murder, nor was anyone convicted for the numerous other crimes committed against textile strikers that year in the South."

click to enlarge Ella May Wiggins, the second woman from the left, was shot and killed on her way to a protest in 1929. (Photo Courtesy of Millican Pictorial History Museum)
  • Ella May Wiggins, the second woman from the left, was shot and killed on her way to a protest in 1929. (Photo Courtesy of Millican Pictorial History Museum)

Now skip five years past Wiggins' death to 1934. On the night before a large textile strike, over 1,000 union delegates gathered in Charlotte on September 2. Joseph Shaplen reported on the meeting for The New York Times. He observed that the attendees grew increasingly passionate, turning it into an "old-time Southern camp meeting with shouts and prayers that they would keep the workers out until the strike demands were granted."

Inflamed with a sense of injustice, laborers and representatives threw their fists in the air with enthusiasm while the space filled with the voices of leadership. One of these leaders, R. R. Lawrence, was the president of the North Carolina State Federation of Labor, and he gave the crowd a call to action.

"The hour has arrived when the fight must go forward. We fight for the Lord and for our families," he said. "Many sacrifices will be required of you in this fight. No fight can be won without sacrifices. I know you are ready to make them."

The next day, 65,000 workers walked out of their jobs. Over 200 mills in the Carolinas were closed and 60,000 operatives sat idle.

Those who rose up in the Southern textile mills and risked everything for better conditions paved the way for the rights we have as workers today. But the fight hasn't ended.

Today, 84 years after that textile strike, many people are still facing difficulty when it comes to working conditions, wages and benefits.

Isael Mejia, economic mobility center manager with the Latin American Coalition, works with the Latinx community in and around Charlotte regarding work issues and wages. He sees many of the same problems being presented to him from people coming to the coalition for help.

"I can only speak from our experience here, but unfortunately wage theft is the most common [issue] ..." he said. "Or we see a lot of folks here who are just misclassified. It's a way that employers can make you work without paying you the appropriate amount or without covering you whenever you're injured."

Injury is a huge risk for vulnerable workers, especially in the construction industry. There have been two incidents in which construction workers have died in Charlotte in the past year, including a worker who fell to his death and another killed when an elevator malfunctioned.

The Build a Better South report, which Creative Loafing reported on upon its 2017 release by the Workers Defense Project, states that every nine hours, a construction worker in America is killed on the job. It also states that only 11 percent of the construction workers in Charlotte have received formal training.

Mejia also described cases where people are coerced into working or threatened with deportation if they pursue withheld wages.

So, why aren't people speaking up when they're subject to these kinds of working conditions? Beyond the fear of deportation, much of it stems from a fear of retaliation — by being fired, harassed, or subject to more dangerous working conditions. Much like what the strikers and laborers in the 1920s and '30s faced when they began to organize.

click to enlarge Approximately a thousand workers protesting during the Loray Mill Strike in 1929. (Photo Courtesy of Millican Pictorial History Museum)
  • Approximately a thousand workers protesting during the Loray Mill Strike in 1929. (Photo Courtesy of Millican Pictorial History Museum)

MaryBe McMillan is the president of the North Carolina State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization. The AFL-CIO is a national organization that advocates for workers in pursuit of improving their working conditions and workplace rights. McMillan, the first female president of the North Carolina chapter, said that even taking legal action against employers does not always wield timely outcomes.

"The worst thing is when [employers] fire workers who they know are trying to organize and rally their coworkers into a union," McMillan said. "And it's illegal to fire a worker for trying to organize, but our system is so broken that it takes years for these cases to go through the National Labor Relations Board and the court system. And there really is no justice when it takes five or 10 years for a unjustly fired worker to get their job back."

The result of this lack of accountability is a weakened working class, which weakens the city's economy. The ripples of economic injustice are felt by families across the community.

McMillan Called The current minimum wage, $7.25 an hour in North Carolina, a "poverty wage," and said she believes that all workers should earn a living wage to support themselves and their families without public assistance.

"It would be good not just for those workers to earn more money, but it's good for our economy," she said. "Because when workers earn more, they're going to spend more at businesses and they're going to pay more in taxes. That means more tax revenue for government. It's good all around for the economy when working people have more in their pocket."

There's already a movement in full-swing that fights for workers to earn a living wage. Ashley Hawkins, an organizer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 379, participates in the Raising Wages NC coalition. The group works to bring awareness to the issue and strengthen workers' political power in hopes of raising the minimum wage.

She echoed McMillan's sentiment on wages, addressing the gap between what workers make and what they need to live and support themselves — let alone a family — in Charlotte.

"A living wage for a single person in North Carolina is [$11.36 an hour]," Hawkins said. "But a living wage for a person with one child, like a single parent, is [$23.80 an hour]. So there's a huge discrepancy."

When workers make $7.25 an hour, it puts a strain on the working class and on the economy, while preventing people from achieving upward mobility, Hawkins said.

This reflects what workers in the '20s and '30s faced when they united against the long hours, low pay and disrespect they experienced in the textile mills and factories. Mill owners reaped huge monetary rewards off the backs of overworked and underpaid laborers, who could not move past poverty into a more financially sustainable life.

click to enlarge The Gastonia Loray Cotton Mill hosted about 57,000 spindles. (Photo Courtesy of North Carolina Postcard Collection at UNC Chapel Hill
  • The Gastonia Loray Cotton Mill hosted about 57,000 spindles. (Photo Courtesy of North Carolina Postcard Collection at UNC Chapel Hill

Scott Thrower, president of IBEW 379, recalls a time three years ago when he traveled to Raleigh with IBEW's business manager, Tommy Hill. The two met with a representative of Hill's district. During their conversation, Thrower and Hill revealed they were there to talk about raising the minimum wage.

Thrower remembers the representative leaning back in his hair and asking the two, "Well, you do know I am a Republican?"

"I didn't get it," Thrower said. "Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, what does that have to do with raising the minimum wage? It's about people, it's not about party."

In May, Hawkins and Raising Wages NC traveled to Raleigh to pursue the same goal. While some legislators agreed with them, she also met pushback from Republicans.

Thrower said he believes that labor unions help all workers — whether Republican or Democrat, whether unionized or not.

"The union does affect the non-union worker because whatever our wages are, the non-union has to match that or their people will come to work for the union," Thrower claimed. "So when we get a raise it does help other non-union electrical contractors. People actually get more increase in their wages even though they're not part of the union."

On the other hand, Mejia said that labor unions may not be for everyone. It ultimately depends on the state of their employment and the industry that they work in. In his line of work, he sees people who may not benefit directly from joining a union, but that there still needs to be changes made to improve working class conditions.

"I don't think it's necessarily the right fit for everybody, and especially not the folks that we work with, just based on different situations for all those workers that wouldn't allow them to work in that aspect," Mejia said.

"But I do believe that when we're able to educate the population at large about some of the things that occur, hopefully it makes them more inclined to help affect those necessary changes in the state."

Every year since 1999, the Charlotte Labor Day Parade Committee (CLDPC), comprised of different labor leaders in and around the community, organizes a parade that meanders through Uptown. It's a parade that is organized, funded and executed by labor, and Charlotte is one of the only cities in the state that still hosts a parade on Labor Day.

But just because a worker may not be in a union, does not mean that Labor Day and its parade is not for them.

"I think it's for everyone. It's a chance to celebrate what labor does for the community," Thrower said. "Just like Memorial Day — I'm not a veteran but I still celebrate what they've done. And white collar workers and blue collar workers are all workers, they just do a little different job."

Ben Lee, vice-general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and chairman of the CLDPC, said he wants everyone to join him and his fellow laborers for the parade.

"We want everybody to come out to the Labor Day parade. We want to use it as a day to commemorate the sacrifices and accomplishments of American labor, North Carolina labor and Mecklenburg County labor. Past, present and future," he declared.

However, this year may be the last time the committee will organize a parade. With more people participating comes a rise in fees due to the police department and the city's Department of Transportation.

Thrower fears that the loss of a dedicated Labor Day parade could hurt the city and remove the working population's chance to openly celebrate and commemorate the history of labor and organizers.

click to enlarge The local United Automobile Workers union 3520 in the 2017 Charlotte Labor Day Parade (Photo Courtesy of Charlotte Labor Day Parade Committee)
  • The local United Automobile Workers union 3520 in the 2017 Charlotte Labor Day Parade (Photo Courtesy of Charlotte Labor Day Parade Committee)

"It's important to us, and I do believe it's important to the people who aren't in a union," he said. "This is the one day of the year that we actually take time out and celebrate what labor has done for us. So I hope we continue to have it for next 100 years and it doesn't go away."

Lee thought back to the working conditions that past laborers fought for — the 40-hour workweek, healthcare and vacations. It was not an easy fight. That's why Labor Day is an important day for us to remember the sacrifices people made in pursuit of better conditions for their families and future generations, he said.

"To organize, it takes some personal strength to risk what you got to organize a union or workers group ... You're going to have to band together and use your personal fortitude if you're going to risk what you got to organize. It shouldn't be that way, but it is," Lee said.

That includes the Southern laborers who rose up and fought tooth-and-nail for better conditions. Whether a worker is in a union or not, it's important to remember the people who risk their lives and their livelihood to secure the laws and regulations that we have today.

Now, it's important to keep the celebration of Labor Day alive in an effort to never forget what people such as Ella May Wiggins fought and died for.

McMillan has faith in the future of labor laws and workers' rights, with the recent upswing of coalitions, faith groups and organizations that are working to raise wages, educate workers and advocate for those who can't advocate for themselves.

"I'm hopeful. I think that young people are fired up and more women than ever are running for public office," McMillan said. "Working people want things to change in this country and in this state. And I believe that we're going to see significant changes as a result of this election."

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