Labor Leader Ella Mae Wiggins

An image of  Wiggins from the Gaston Gazette. An image of Wiggins from the Gaston Gazette.

 

All this month we’re bringing you stories from North Carolina women’s history. Check back here each week day for a new tidbit on the women of our state’s past.

One of North Carolina’s best known folk heroines, Ella Mae Wiggins is most famous for helping to organize Gaston County mill workers for better working conditions and higher wages. In the spring of 1929, the National Textile Workers' Union—or NWTU—sought to establish Loray Mill in Gastonia as a southern stronghold for unions and began a strike there. After owners refused to negotiate with the strikers and conditions escalated, the state militia was called out to try and control the situation. The events at Loray engendered support from workers in nearby mills, and in early April 1929 Wiggins and fellow workers from the American Mill in Bessemer City staged a spontaneous walkout and joined the NTWU. The group helped sustain the Loray strikers, and Wiggins emerged as a strong leader. The strike dragged on through the summer and fall of 1929 with tensions in the region continuing to escalate. They reached a head when Wiggins and other labor leaders were killed. After her death, pressure from a variety of groups led Gaston County mill owners to reduce work week to 55 hours and improve general conditions.

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