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We Shall Not Be Moved

December 3, 2009

(Lawrence Textile Strike)

In the 1820s, ’30s, and ’40s, New England mill workers began to push and strike for shorter hours and better pay, as well as solid protection laws for women and children. When mill owners failed to respond to repeated worker strikes, the unions went above the factories and appealed to the state for help. In the mid 1840s, legislation finally made several visits to various mills in an attempt to understand the conditions of the workers and came to the conclusion that shortening the work day from around 14 hours to 10 hours would make no difference in the lives of the workers. In 1870, the mulespinners, loom fixers, and weavers struck again. These three positions were the most highly skilled and thus most highly paid places at any mill. Simply without the integral weavers, textile production would grind to a halt and the mill would be forced to close, so without all three it was impossible for the owners to ignore the voices of the workers. The unions also changed the direction of their demands. Instead of arguing for a shorter work day for all employees, they argued simply for the women and children. Here in lay the most powerful part of the protest. As women and children made up the majority of the unskilled workers, once their needs were met, it would be unprofitable to keep the few remaining men longer in the day. With this tactic, the strike was won and in 1874, the 10 hour act was passed. (English, 23-25).

“The Knights of Labor was the first labor organization in the United States to spearhead a nationwide lobbying effort to secure laws that would advance the needs of the ‘producing class’.” (English, 27). In Massachusetts at the height of its power, the Knights of Labor had over 30,000 members, and although the organization fell in the 1880s and ’90s, it left its mark with laws like the standardized 60 hour week passed in 1900, and the safety and sanitary measure laws passed in 1894 in the Northeast. (English, 27-28). Before the Knights of Labor, other unions rose and fell in the North and South. In the earlier 1800s in New England, the more skilled textile operatives formed the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW). This union understood that none of their conditions would improve until the Southern conditions did, so their primary purpose was to raise the working standard in the South. They eventually successfully enlisted around 5,000 followers in the 4 leading textile production states in the south: North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. Unfortunately, the situation in the South was fundamentally different from that in the North. The Southern workers were chosen because of their inability to organize and their acceptance of lower wages and longer hours. Also, because of the paternalistic aspect of mill owners and the phenomena of the mill town as a family made it possible for the owners to threaten the workers in a way that would not have been possible in the Northern states. Mills owned the towns they inhabited, and could take away necessities such as food and housing from their workers. The unskilled Southern workers also had less to bargain with and had no means of retaliating against the factories when striking. By instituting a family infrastructure, the Southern mills had insured that their workers would never be able to rise to power. (English, 71-77).

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