New York Times: A Novelist Revisits a Deadly Textile Union Strike from 1929

Labor News

Reprinted from The New York Times by Amy Rowland on November 17, 2017.

“In 1929, the National Textile Workers Union tried to gain a Southern stronghold, beginning with the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina,” writes Amy Rowland in The New York Times. “Many workers, pushed to near impossible production while fearing loss of pay or, worse, ‘an arm or a hand or a finger or three,’ joined the union. The mill owners refused to negotiate and most of the 1,800 strikers reluctantly returned to work.

“When armed citizen deputies and police officers entered the tent village of the holdouts, shots were fired. Gastonia’s police chief was killed. The events of this summer of struggle are recovered in Wiley Cash’s vigorous third novel, The Last Ballad. The book begins with a newspaper ad, calling on every citizen to ‘do his duty’ against the strike, which has been organized by ‘Communists’ and ‘Bolshevists’ who ‘do not believe in our God, our Constitution or our government’ and are ready to ‘kill, kill, kill.’

“Ella May Wiggins is trying to keep four children alive on $9 a week. As Cash portrays her, ‘with lint hung up in her throat and lungs like tar,’ Ella is a tough 28, a skilled spinner at American Mill No. 2, owned by the Goldberg brothers, who are considered ‘white but not American’ and are tolerated by locals as long as their workers are treated as poorly as those at other mills. The employees at No. 2 may even make a little less, since it is the rare mill with an integrated work force. Housing remains segregated, though Ella heads the one white family living in Stumptown, the black residential neighborhood. …

NY Times book review 11/17

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Jeff Burman represents assistant editors on the Guild’s Board of Directors. He can be reached at

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