Ellen "Nellie" Dawson Kanki (14 December 1900 - 17 April 1967), best known as Ellen Dawson, was a Scottish-American political activist and trade union organizer in the textile industry. Dawson is best remembered as an active participant in three of the greatest textile strikes of the 1920s; the 1926 Passaic textile strike, the 1928 New Bedford textile strike, and the 1929 Loray Mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. An activist in the Communist Party USA during the 1920s, Dawson was the first woman ever elected to a leadership position in an American textile union.
Ellen Dawson was born on December 14, 1900 in Barrhead, a small industrial town of about 9,000 residents on the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland. She was the fifth of at least 10 children born to Annie Halford Dawson and Patrick Dawson, a poor working class couple. Her paternal grandparents were indigenous Scots, while her maternal grandparents were Irish emigrants, having left Ireland in the 1840s to escape the Great Famine.
At the time of her birth, Dawson's father worked as an iron foundry worker at Shanks' Tubal Works - a manufacturer of toilets and other bathroom products - in Barrhead.  The work was gruelling and pay was based on the piece work system. Her mother was a former power loom weaver in a textile mill.
During the 18th century, Barrhead had been the center of an Owenite utopian cooperative movement — an organization which around the time of Dawson's birth operated 19 businesses and included some 2,100 members — nearly a quarter of the entire community. While no membership records of the Barrhead Cooperative Society are known to exist, and consequently there is no way to either confirm or deny that the Dawson family were members, Dawson's biographer recounts family oral history indicating that they were members of the organization. This would have been an important formative experience in Dawson's life, it is intimated, as the Cooperative was linked to social and educational efforts directed at the children of the community.
Dawson started work in 1914, probably working in a textile mill as had her mother before her. Although the date of her first employment is known, the exact location and the tasks she performed are not recorded.
While this, with other aspects of Dawson's early years, has been poorly recorded, the political and social environment of so-called Red Clydeside — the region in which she was raised — is a subject of considerable academic research. Historian David Lee McMullen sees this environmental factor as a fundamental component in the understanding of Ellen Dawson:
"Given what we know about Dawson's activities in the United States during the late 1920s — where she was a highly effective labor organizer, known for her courage on the picket line and her fiery oratory — Red Clydeside must have been Dawson's classroom and the activists of the period her teacher. During these years she was introduced to the realities of industrial wage labor, and began formulating her own attitudes and opinions as a worker. During this time Scottish women emerged not only as rank-and-file workers, but as leaders within several major labor confrontation.... Dawson may have only been a silent witness to these events, but it seems impossible to believe that she, or any other young worker of the period, could have escaped the influence of such firebrand rhetoric and monumental events."
The end of World War I brought large-scale unemployment to Glasgow and other manufacturing cities of the United Kingdom, as wartime spending was curtailed. Late in 1919, the Dawson family including Ellen, left the Clyde area in search of employment, heading south to Lancashire, England. The family settled in the village of Millgate, about 15 miles north of Manchester. Dawson found work as a spinner and a weaver in local textile mills, remaining in this capacity until April, 1921.
The unemployment situation in Lancashire proved little better than that of west Scotland, and on April 30, 1921, the 20-year-old Dawson and an older brother departed for the prospect of better opportunities in the United States. They travelled as steerage passengers aboard the SS Cedric, arriving in New York City on May 9, 1921.
Labor organizer in America
Soon joined by other family members, the Dawson family settled in the mill town of Passaic, New Jersey, making a home in a working-class neighborhood composed largely of European emigrants, a few blocks from the Botany Worsted Mills. For the next five years, Dawson worked at the Botany Mill, a facility in which over 70 percent of the workers earned less than $1200 annually, at a time when it was estimated that $1600 a year was required to support a family.
Death and legacy
Dawson died at 4am on April 17, 1967 at her home in Charlotte Harbor, Florida. She was 66 years old. Although the cause of her death will not be released by the state of Florida until 2017, according to family members Dawson had been suffering from "a lung complaint contracted during her years working in the mills." Her published obituary in the local press made no mention of her radical past.
- David Lee McMullen, Strike! The Radical Insurrections of Ellen Dawson. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010; pg. 3
- McMullen, Strike! pp. 7-8.
- McMullen, Strike! pp. 14-15.
- McMullen, Strike! pg. 29.
- McMullen, Strike! pg. 23.
- See Dawson, Strike! pp. 23-27 for a discussion of the cooperative movement in Barrhead.
- McMullen, Strike! pg. 28.
- See, for example William Kenefick and Arthur McIvor (eds.), Roots of Red Clydeside, 1910-1914? Labour Unrest and Industrial Relations in West Scotland. Edinburgh: John Donald, 1996; Robert Keith Middlemas, The Clydesiders: A Left Wing Struggle for Parliamentary Power. London: Hutchinson, 1965; William Kenefick, Red Scotland! The Rise and Fall of the Radical Left, c. 1872 to 1932. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007; etc.
- McMullen, Strike! pg. 51.
- McMullen, Strike! pg. 49.
- McMullen, Strike! pg. 53.
- McMullen, Strike! pg. 57.
- McMullen, Strike! pg. 59.
- McMullen, Strike! pp. 59-60.
- McMullen, Strike! pg. 69.
- McMullen, Strike! pg. 70, citing the figures of economist W. Jett Lauck given in 1926 Congressional testimony.
- McMullen, Strike! pg. 182.
- McMullen, Strike! pg. 183.
- "Gastonia," Revolutionary Age [New York], vol. 1, no. 1 (Nov. 1, 1929), pp. 3–4.
- "The Convention of the Textile Workers," Revolutionary Age [New York], vol. 1, no. 6 (Jan. 15, 1930), pg. 10.
- Fred E. Beal, Proletarian Journey: New England, Gastonia, Moscow. New York: Hillman-Curl, 1937.
- William F. Dunne, Gastonia: Citadel of the Class Struggle in the New South. New York: National Textile Workers Union/Workers Library Publishers, 1929.
- Philip S. Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement from World War I to the Present. New York: Free Press, 1980.
- David Lee McMullen, Strike! The Radical Insurrections of Ellen Dawson. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010.
- John A. Salmond, Gastonia 1929: The Story of the Loray Mill Strike. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
- David Lee McMullen, Talk on his book Strike! C-SPAN BookTV, May 10, 2011.