Published Articles by Doris Weatherford

Labor Day, from the beginning

August 29, 2016

While we celebrate Labor Day this weekend, let us remember that includes women: from the very beginning of American industrialization, women joined men in positive action for workers. It also includes children, as no group worked harder to end child labor than unions. From their beginning, unions have been dedicated to public education and to encouraging children to be children. For far too long – until the Great Depression of the 1930s – kids of ten or twelve commonly toiled for the pittance that their families desperately needed.


The same often was true for women. Textile mills were the nation’s first form of major manufacturing, and given that women had carded wool from their own sheep and spun flax into linen on their home machines, it was natural that they were recruited to join the work force in weaving cloth on giant looms in mills powered by waterfalls. The nation’s infant industrial scene also saw women in its very first labor action, as women and men went on strike in the textile mills of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1824.


Just two years later, women were the sole strikers when the United Tailoresses declared a work stoppage in New York City. This required more organizing than the Pawtucket strike, because, in an era prior to the sewing machine, women sewed at home, not in a factory setting. Manufacturers sent garment parts to homes for women to hand sew and then collected the completed work a few days later. Per-piece pay was low, and to make enough money to live, many women stitched by candlelight until they were nearly blind. Without a factory locale, the 1826 strike had little long-term success – but the strikers did show their awareness of the importance of gender-limiting language by terming themselves “tailoresses” instead of the more conventional “seamstress.” By definition, a woman could not be a tailor – and tailors, of course, earned more.


The causes of discontent were not local, as some 300 female textile workers went on strike in Dover, New Hampshire, in 1828 – while the entire work force of Paterson, New Jersey, known for silk manufacture, briefly went on strike that same year. In the next, 1829, women in the mills of Taunton, Massachusetts, followed 15-year-old Salome Lincoln out on strike. Exhausted by their long days, they demanded shorter hours: prior to electricity, management expected them to toil from dawn to dark. In northern New England during June, factory days easily could begin at 5:00 in the morning and end at 9:00 night. Yes, 16-hour days were not uncommon, and only the Sabbath was allotted for rest. And they were paid by the week, not by the hour.


Shoemaking followed as an industry that required cutting and stitching, and thus natural to women. Strikes also followed, and when female shoemakers in Saugus, Massachusetts, won an 1833 pay increase, their counterparts in nearby Lynn went on strike. They organized buyers to boycott the company until they won a similar pay scale. Philadelphia women in both the shoe industry and in cotton mills soon emulated the Massachusetts strikes, but the most successful ones continued to be in smaller towns with a smaller available labor force.



A Brief Idyll


Workers (and strikers) in the 1820s and 1830s were virtually all the descendants of longtime American families. Ninety percent of Americans lived on farms then, and manufacturers systematically recruited young women whose labor was of lesser value in agriculture. Factory representatives visited the countryside looking for such women, and horse-drawn “omnibuses” took them to jobs in towns such as Worcester or Nassau. The most famous of these settings was Lowell, Massachusetts, where manufacturers built college-style dormitories for their workers – which you still can see today.


With housing and meals provided for them, life wasn’t bad, and these young women took steps to make it even better. Some hired professors from nearby (all-male) colleges to teach them non-vocational subjects such as botany and English literature during winter evenings. They produced magazines, such as The Lowell Offering and The Operative, which published their poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. For almost all, it was the first independent money they had in their lives – and too often, the only independent money they ever would earn. Mills wanted young workers, and their Protestant family heritage usually meant that they eventually returned home to marry a farmer.


Yet enough of them considered themselves to be career women that the Lowell Female Labor Association had some 500 members by 1842, and they collected several thousand petitions for a 10-hour day. When management in one of the mills tried to increase the standard workload from three looms to four without any increase in pay, almost every woman signed a pledge refusing to do so, and management conceded.


Their most visible representative was Sarah Bagley, who led six women in testifying before a committee of the Massachusetts legislature in 1845. It was the nation’s first public hearing on labor needs, and the women’s testimony set a public-speaking precedent. Bagley then organized workers in New Hampshire and was the first woman elected to office in the New England Working Men’s Association. Even more impressively, labor organized to defeat legislators who opposed their goal of a 10-hour day.


But despite her success, Sarah Bagley left that work in 1846. In a foreshadowing of the twentieth-century’s switch from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, she became the nation’s first female telegraph operator. More important at the time, New England mills no longer had the idyllic setting of a decade earlier, as that came to an end with the great Irish migration of the 1840s.


A potato blight in Ireland brought the first famine that most Americans ever knew of: estimates are that of a country with eight million people, a million starved to death and another million managed to cross the Atlantic. Many took the shortest route to Canada and literally walked hundred of miles to the first place where jobs could be found – Boston and its surroundings. The result was that Irish families, including men, women, and children, were willing to work for less money than the independent-minded American women, and profit-minded manufacturers were glad to hire the foreign families.



Things Begin to Get Ugly


Shoemakers organized the first national labor union exclusive to women in 1869. Religiosity permeated every area of life as the Victorian Age lengthened, and they called themselves the Daughters of St. Crispin, the patron saint of shoemakers. With increased prosperity after the Civil War, they had 24 chapters by the end of the year, including three in Canada. Delegates came to the first convention in Lynn, Massachusetts, from as far as San Francisco.


Women continued their independence from men in 1875, when female weavers in Fall River, Massachusetts, voted to strike in response to a pay cut that male workers accepted. This is particularly noteworthy given that men routinely were paid twice as much as women, regardless of the job description or skill level. But the 1870s were hard years economically, as the old abolitionist Republican Party transformed itself into plutocrats responsive only to men with money. Their insistence on high tariffs kept prices high, and low-income people – farmers as well as workers – were hurt by their catechism of “hard money” in terms of gold, not paper. Police also were under their control, enforcing policies set by increasingly corrupt elected officials. The result was a series of violent strikes.


Governors called out militia in Baltimore and Pittsburgh during a strike of male railroad employees in 1877, and women were among those killed. “Mother Jones” came to public attention because of that. The widow of an ironworker, she had lost her four children during a Memphis epidemic of yellow fever – a disease caused by poor public sanitation. Her true name was Mary Harris Jones, and she was a naturally skilled organizer and orator who soon became the most visible face of women in the labor movement. She was not a feminist, however, and did not endorse women’s right to vote nor particularly support them in strikes. Her Catholic background led her to believe that women should marry, and men should earn enough to support them.



More Women to Honor on Labor Day


Employed by the United Mine Workers, Mother Jones continued her cause into the twentieth century, including the 1914 strike of copper miners in Ludlow, Colorado, when police -- acting at the instruction of government officials – set fire to the miners’ shanties, leaving more than a dozen women and children burned beyond recognition. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a flaming Irish beauty and spellbinding speaker, was similar, organizing men on the Minnesota iron range and other western states.


Back East, the Women’s Trade Union League began in 1903, with Boston philanthropist Mary Morton Kehew as its first president. The WTUL differed from male organizations in that its members were both workingwomen and their customers. Among the unions under the WTUL umbrella were those representing garment workers and shoemakers, as well as newer occupations such as waitresses, retail clerks, and typographers. Among the customers were such luminaries as Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: unaware of her identity, police dragged her off to jail during a giant strike against clothing manufacturers during the winter of 1911-12.


Wealthy sisters Mary Drier and Margaret Drier Robins also were active in the WTUL, supporting women during strikes in Chicago and New York. Much later, Robins would have a winter home, Chinsegut, here in Brooksville, but in 1916, she was elected to the executive committee of the American Federation of Labor in Chicago. They and other women paid bail for those of the 20,000 striking garment workers who were arrested for picketing in 1911.


The strike was in response to a system that hugely discriminated against women. They were charged for necessary supplies such as needles, required to buy their own sewing machines, and even had to pay for the electricity to run them. Women were fined for mistakes, and even for the mistakes of others, such as when a pick-up boy dropped and dirtied a garment. It was possible to work an entire week and end up owing money to the company. The strike against some 500 manufacturers in New York and Chicago was long, hard, and violent, but with the help of affluent women, the WTUL succeeded in winning most of its goals.


Similar appalling conditions in Lawrence, Massachusetts finally brought national attention to union pleas. In 1912, when textile workers went out on strike, life expectancy in Lawrence was a mere fifteen years – indicative of a huge infant mortality rate caused by overworked and undernourished mothers. Even though the era was prosperous, management cut wages, believing that the largely immigrant workforce -- which spoke more than 40 languages -- could not be organized. When police shot Annie LoPizzo, the mother of a large Italian family, during a demonstration, town officials had the audacity to arrest union leaders as the cause of her death, even though they were nowhere in the vicinity.


The threat of violence got so bad that women, with the help of other women from out of town, made plans to evacuate their children on a train. Police met them at the station and clubbed children, along with mothers, causing two obviously pregnant women to miscarry – and then arrogantly arrested 35 women for “child neglect.” By then, however, national reporters were on the scene, and scandalized Americans forced a congressional inquiry. The strike eventually was won, and some 200,000 workers benefited from the courageous action of the Lawrence women.


National labor leaders acknowledged that the victory was due to women, and the poem and song, “Bread and Roses,” grew out of this strike. My favorite recording is by Joan Baez. Look it up and sing along on Labor Day: “She must have bread, but she should have roses, too.”



doris@dweatherford.com





Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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