This May Day we shouldn’t forget the women who were integral to building the labor movement. One such woman is Ella Mae Wiggins (1900-1929): a labor organizer and balladeer, and a pioneer in integrating the labor movement in the South.
Ella Mae Wiggins was no stranger to adversity—her organizing work and heartfelt songs were inspired by first-hand knowledge of the plight of the poor working class. Like many poor women in the early 20th century, she experienced loss as a direct result of the dangerous working conditions in the growing industrial sectors of the Piedmont. Wiggins lost her father to a logging accident at the age of 18, and her husband struggled to find work after being injured while working as a lumberjack. She began to work as a spinner to support her family, the textile industry being one of the few places hiring women at the time.
At age 29, Wiggins was abandoned by her husband. She struggled to support her children, but even working twelve-hour night shifts, six days a week, she could not provide adequate food and medicine for her family. Weakened by malnutrition, she would lose four of her nine children to whooping cough, leading her to write her most famous ballad, a ‘Mill Mother’s Lament’
We leave our homes in the morning, We kiss our children good-bye, While we slave for the bosses, Our children scream and cry.
And when we draw our money, Our grocery bills to pay, Not a cent to spend for clothing, Not a cent to lay away.
And on that very evening Our little son will say: “I need some shoes, Mother, And so does Sister May.”
How it grieves the heart of a mother, You everyone must know. But we can’t buy for our children, Our wages are too low.
It is for our little children, That seems to us so dear, But for us nor them, dear workers, The bosses do not care.
But understand, all workers, Our union they do fear. Let’s stand together, workers, And have a union here.
Wiggins testified in front of Congress, recalling how she begged her supervisor to allow her to switch shifts so she could care for her sick children, without success. Textile mills in the 1920s were laying off employees en masse, and operating under a new system called “stretch out,” where employees worked for longer hours for less pay to make up for the labor shortage. The National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) offered hope to textile mill workers like Wiggins, who were forced to work at a grueling pace in filthy, unsafe conditions. Wiggins quickly joined the NTWU and became the local bookkeeper for the Bessemer City branch.
Mill owners were stubbornly resisting all efforts to unionize, improve working conditions, increase pay, or implement safety standards. But their hatred of the NTWU went beyond finance. The Communist-led organization based in the north was seen as dangerous interference by outsiders, a continuation of the northern interference in the southern states during the reconstruction years. Wiggins and other NTWU union organizers organized black workers alongside whites, something that was seen as a threat to the traditional way of life in the deeply segregated South.
Led by the firebrand Ellen Dawson, the NTWU voted unanimously to strike in late March of 1929. In April of 1929, 1,800 workers walked off their jobs at the Loray textile mill in Gastonia, demanding a forty-hour work week, $20 per week minimum wage, equal pay for women, and union recognition. Mill owners retaliated by calling in the National Guard, and workers who lived in mill-owned housing were evicted.
These tensions came to a head on September 14, 1929. Wiggins was murdered when a truck full of armed men stopped her and her fellow union members. Wiggins was shot in the chest, and her five living children instantly orphaned. Despite damning testimony from scores of witnesses, including an anti-strike worker who stated he was handed a gun and 20 bullets by a mill security officer that morning and told to “do everything necessary to break up the union meeting,” all five attackers were acquitted of the murder.
Ella Mae Wiggins was, by all accounts, a skilled organizer and determined labor leader. She inspired the textile labor movement, and her testimony in front of Congress, on behalf of her children and fellow workers, was integral to changing labor laws. Current laws protecting workers from unsafe working conditions were not granted as a matter of conscience, they were won through a difficult struggle. As we go forward this May Day we should remember the sacrifices made by those who fought to give us things we take for granted now: work safety standards, 40-hour workweeks, overtime pay, and even weekends. Without the leadership, bravery, and organization of workers, we would not have these simple things—and without making our own sacrifices and taking leadership in the labor movement today, we will not leave the next generation with further progress to take for granted.