Ellen "Nellie" Dawson Kanki


Political activist and trade union organizer

Ellen "Nellie" Dawson Kanki 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 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 Friday, December 14, 1900 in Barrhead, Southeastern outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland. She was the fifth of at least 10 children born to Patrick Dawson and Annie Halford Dawson, an impoverished working class couple. 

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. 

Dawson entered the working world in 1914 as a young teenager, probably going to work in a textile mill as had her mother before her. 

The end of World War I brought massive unemployment to Glasgow and other manufacturing cities around Great Britain, as wartime spending was curtailed. Late in 1919 the Dawson family, with Ellen in tow, found themselves forced to leave the Clyde in search of employment, heading South to Lancashire in Northwest England.  Dawson soon 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 to be little better than that of Western Scotland, however, and on April 30, 1921, the 20-year-old Ellen and an older brother departed for the prospect of better opportunities on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The pair embarked as Third Class passengers to America aboard the SS Cedric, arriving in New York City on May 9. A new life was being begun.

Soon joined by other family members, the Dawson clan settled down in the mill town of Passaic, New Jersey, making a home in a working-class neighborhood composed largely of European emigrants, mere blocks away from the massive Botany Worsted Mills. For the next five years, Ellen Dawson worked at the Botany Mill, a facility in which over 70 percent of the workers earned less than $1200 annually — well under the estimated $1600 a year needed to support a family in that era.

Ellen Dawson Kanki died at 4 am on April 17, 1967 at her home in Charlotte Harbor, Florida. She was 66 years old at the time of her death. According to family members Dawson had been suffering from "a lung complaint contracted during her years working in the mills." 

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