Events that Shaped the American Nation’s Labor History & Culture

Written by  on May 9, 2011

The story of America is the story of its working people—their struggles and successes and their hopes for a better future for themselves and their families.

The Battle of Cripple Creek
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These days, the town of Cripple Creek, Colo., is best known for casinos—14 of them. A century ago, Cripple Creek was famous for important, dramatic battles where workers fought to win their rights.

It all began in 1894. Cripple Creek had become a boom town after gold was discovered. Some 150 mines sprang up. So did a strong miners union—the Free Coinage Union No. 19, which was part of the militant Western Federation of Miners (WFM).

Workers started pouring in from around the country desperate for jobs, and soon Cripple Creek had a huge labor surplus. That’s when the mine owners pounced. In January 1894, they proclaimed that the working day would increase from eight hours to nine and 10—with no increase in pay. However, the owners did offer an alternative. Workers could keep the eight-hour day, but for a reduction of 50 cents in their daily pay.

The WFM members opposed both plans. Miners went on strike, set up roving picket lines and closed most of the mines. They showed what solidarity is all about. The miners who were still going down in the working mines assessed themselves 10 percent of their wages to support the strikers, and the union set up soup kitchens.

There had been plenty of labor battles in the West, but this one differed in several ways. The mine owners failed to get the military or police force they demanded to suppress the strikers. The Populist governor of Colorado, David Waite, was no help to the bosses. They did have County Sheriff Frank Bowers under their thumb, but when he sent a team of six deputies to defend a mine, they were captured by the local marshal’s “special police,” who were on the side of the strikers.

The mine owners were furious. They secretly organized and paid for a small army to protect strikebreakers and put Sheriff Bowers in charge. When the first group of deputized gunmen under Bowers’ control arrived by train, they were greeted by a dynamite explosion at a nearby mine. They climbed back on the train and backed away.

A small war was beginning with shootings and dynamite explosions on both sides. Then, Waite intervened as a benevolent neutral. He sent the state militia to calm things down. Just as important, he sat down with labor and management and helped negotiate an eight-hour day and a $3 daily wage.

As labor historian Sidney Lens writes, the outcome was “a stunning victory for the Western Federation of Miners.”

Another great battle at Cripple Creek that had a more tragic ending. When miners went out on a sympathy strike for striking miners at the Standard reduction mill in nearbyColorado City, the employers retaliated. This time, they had a powerful tool in their arsenal lacked previously: a viciously anti-union governor, Jim Peabody. He sent in hundreds of troops under Gen. Sherman Bell, who arrested union leaders and activists, city and county officials, and staffers of a newspaper that published an editorial he didn’t like—all without legal warrants or any charges other than “military necessity.”

The Mine Owners’ Association was at least as ruthless. The owners blacklisted pro-union miners, and a mine explosion was blamed on the union despite evidence of the mine owners’ guilt. The anti-union tactics worked. The strike was broken and the WFM in Cripple Creek was crushed. It was years before the miners could—and did—organize openly and win their rights.

Sources

Lens, Sidney, The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs. Haymarket Books, 2008. Blevins, Tim, Nicholl, Chris, and Otto, Calvin P., (editors), The Colorado Labor Wars: Cripple Creek, 1903-1904. Pikes Peak Library District, 2006. Feitz, Leland, Victor, Colorado’s City of Mines. Little London Press, 1969. Jameson, Elizabeth, All That Glitters: Class, Conflict and Community in Cripple Creek. University of Illinois Press, 1998. Chris Garlock, Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO.

1892 Homestead Strike
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The 1892 Homestead strike inPennsylvania and the ensuing bloody battle instigated by the steel plant’s management remain a transformational moment in U.S.history, leaving scars that have never fully healed after five generations.

The skilled workers at the steel mills in Homestead, seven miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh, were members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers who had bargained exceptionally good wages and work rules.Homestead’s management, with millionaire Andrew Carnegie as owner, was determined to lower its costs of production by breaking the union.

Carnegie Steel Co. was making massive profits—a record $4.5 million just before the 1892 confrontation, which led Carnegie himself to exclaim, “Was there ever such a business!” But he and his chairman, Henry Frick, were furious workers had a voice with the union. “The mills have never been able to turn out the product they should, owing to being held back by the Amalgamated men,” Frick complained to Carnegie.

Even more galling for them was that, as Pittsburgh labor historian Charles McCollester later wrote in The Point of Pittsburgh, “The skilled production workers at Homesteadenjoyed wages significantly higher than at any other mill in the country.”

So management acted.

First, as the union’s three-year contract was coming to an end in 1892, the company demanded wage cuts for 325 employees, even though the workers had already taken large pay cuts three years before. During the contract negotiations, management didn’t make proposals to negotiate. It issued ultimatums to the union. The local newspaper pointed out that “it was not so much a question of disagreement as to wages, but a design upon labor organization.”

Carnegie and Frick made little effort to hide what they had in mind. Their company advertised widely for strikebreakers and built a 10-foot-high fence around the plant that was topped by barbed wire. Management was determined to provoke a strike.

Meanwhile, the workers organized the town on a military basis. They were “establishing pickets on eight-hour shifts, river patrols and a signaling system,” according to McCollester.

Frick did what plenty of 19th-century businessmen did when they were battling unions. He hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which was notorious for such activities as infiltrating its agents into unions and breaking strikes-and which at its height had a larger work force than the entire U.S. Army.

When Frick plotted to sneak in 300 Pinkerton agents on river barges before dawn on July 6, word spread across town as they were arriving and thousands of workers and their families rushed to the river to keep them out. Gunfire broke out between the men on the barge and the workers on land. In the mayhem that ensued, the Pinkertons surrendered and came ashore, where they were beaten and cursed by the angry workers.

At the end of the battle between the Pinkertons and nearly the entire town, seven workers and three Pinkertons were dead. Four days later, 8,500 National Guard forces were sent at the request of Frick to take control of the town and steel mill. After winning his victories, Frick announced, “Under no circumstances will we have any further dealing with the Amalgamated Association as an organization. This is final.” And in November, the Amalgamated Association collapsed.

According to labor historian David Brody, in his highly acclaimed Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era, the daily wages of the highly skilled workers at Homestead shrunk by one-fifth between 1892 and 1907, while their work shifts increased from eight hours to 12 hours.

That was not the only measure of the steel workers’ defeat. As Sidney Lens pointed out in his classic The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs, membership in the Amalgamated Association plummeted from 24,000 to 10,000 in 1894 and down to 8,000 in 1895. Meanwhile, the Carnegie Steel Co.’s profits rose to a staggering $106 million in the nine years afterHomestead. And for 26 long years—until the last months of World War I in 1918—union organizing among steelworkers was crushed.

At the end of the 19th century, Homestead inspired a song well known around the country, “Father Was Killed by the Pinkerton Men.” The lyrics of this deeply angry ballad began: “‘Twas in Pennsylvania town not very long ago,/Men struck against reduction of their pay./Their millionaire employer with philanthropic show/Had closed the works ’till starved they would obey./They fought for home and right to live where they had toiled so long,/But ere the sun had set, some were laid low.”

Sources

Demarest, David (editor), The River Ran Red: Homestead 1892.University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. Krause, Paul, The Battle forHomestead, 1880-1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. McCollester, Charles, The Point of Pittsburgh.Battle of Homestead Foundation, 2008. Brody, David, Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era. Harper & Row, 1969. Lens, Sidney, The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs.Haymarket Books, 2008.

McKees Rock Strike: Turning Point for Immigrant Workers
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Eugene V. Debs, arguably the foremost union activist in American history, described the 1909McKees Rock, Pa., strike this way: “The greatest labor fight in all my history in the labor movement.” Yet today, few remember this struggle when immigrant workers rose up and changed the course of American unionism.

The strike took place at the huge Pressed Steel Car Co. plant in McKees Rock, a few miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, where between 5,000 and 8,000 mostly immigrant workers from some 16 nationalities created railway cars. Hailing mainly from southern and eastern Europe, they included “Russians who had served in the 1905 Duma [parliament], Italians who had led resistance strikes, Germans who were active in the metal workers’ union,” according to historian Sidney Lens. “But because of the language barrier they were easily divided, and thoroughly exploited.”

At McKees Rock, “exploited” literally meant daily injuries and deaths. Labor historian Charles McCollester quotes from an article in the Pittsburgh Leader, one of the city’s daily newspapers, which reported that when a worker is maimed and mangled in his work, “some foreman or other petty ‘boss’ pushes the bleeding body aside with his foot to make room for another living man, that no time be lost in the turning out of pressed steel cars. The new man often works for some minutes over the dead body until a labor gang takes it away.” A former county coroner testified that the death toll averaged one person a day.

The workers also were subjected to a corrupt “pool system” in which their pay was determined not by any established wage rate but by the whim of the foremen. On July 10, 1909—a payday—workers received less pay than normal and 40 riveters told the company they wouldn’t work unless they were told the pay rates. When they returned to work three days later, they were fired. That was the breaking point. Within 48 hours, 5,000 workers went on strike.

When management brought strikebreakers to the plant on a steamer along the Ohio River, strikers fired their rifles at the steamer and it fled to the opposite shore. Soon, there were more skirmishes when the company brought in hundreds of deputy sheriffs and state constables. One striker was killed at the plant entrance, and 5,000 mourners marched in his funeral procession.

The Pressed Steel Car workers received welcome support from other workers. Railway trainmen on lines leading into the city and the motormen on the local streetcar lines all refused to haul scabs. This solidarity was critical. In the end, the workers won what Lens called “a victory of towering proportions.” As he recounted, management “agreed to end the pool system, raise wages by an immediate 5 percent and 10 percent more in 60 days, fire the remaining scabs and rehire all strikers.”

The victory at McKees Rock extended well beyond the plant. This was the moment when immigrant workers who had no power—”persecuted, robbed, and slaughtered,” as one local priest described them—found their voice. The turning point may have come at a giant rally on Indian Mound, a hill near the Ohio River, when 8,000 workers joined together and heard fiery speeches in nine languages. After that, they and the union movement itself were never the same.

Eugene Debs correctly interpreted the workers’ victory. He predicted the McKees Rock success would be “a harbinger of a new spirit among the unorganized, foreign-born workers in the mass production industries who can see here in McKees Rock the road on which they must travel—the road of industrial unionism.”

Sources

McCollester, Charles, The Point of Pittsburgh.Battle of Homestead Foundation, 2008. Brody, David, Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era. Harper & Row, 1969. Lens, Sidney, The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs.Haymarket Books, 2008.

The Uprising of 20,000 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
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On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Firefighters arrived at the scene, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the upper floors of the 10-story building. Trapped inside because the owners had locked the fire escape exit doors, workers jumped to their deaths. In a half an hour, the fire was over, and 146 of the 500 workers—mostly young women—were dead.

Many of us have read about the tragic Triangle fire in school textbooks. But the fire alone wasn’t what made the shirtwaist makers such a focal point for worker safety. In fact, workplace deaths weren’t uncommon then. It is estimated that more than 100 workers died every day on the job around 1911.

The shirtwaist makers’ story was so compelling because it brought attention to the events leading up to the fire. After the fire, their story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms. For some, such as Frances Perkins, who stood helpless watching the factory burn, the tragedy inspired a lifetime of advocacy for workers’ rights. She later became secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Life of a Shirtwaist Maker

The shirtwaist makers, as young as age 15, worked seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a half-hour lunch break. During the busy season, the work was nearly non-stop. They were paid about $6 per week. In some cases, they were required to use their own needles, thread, irons and occasionally their own sewing machines. The factories also were unsanitary, or as a young striker explained, “unsanitary—that’s the word that is generally used, but there ought to be a worse one used.” At the Triangle factory, women had to leave the building to use the bathroom, so management began locking the steel exit doors to prevent the “interruption of work” and only the foreman had the key.

The “shirtwaist”—a woman’s blouse—was one of the country’s first fashion statements that crossed class lines. The booming ready-made clothing industry made the stylish shirtwaist affordable even for working women.  Worn with an ankle-length skirt, the shirtwaist was appropriate for any occasion—from work to play—and was more comfortable and practical than fashion that preceded it, like corsets and hoops.

Clara Lemlich

Years before the Triangle fire, garment workers actively sought to improve their working conditions—including locked exits in high-rise buildings—that led to the deaths at Triangle. In fall 1909, as factory owners pressed shirtwaist makers to work longer hours for less money, several hundred workers went on strike. On Nov. 22, Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) convened a meeting to discuss a general strike. Thousands of workers packed the hall.

Nineteen-year-old Clara Lemlich was sitting in the crowd listening to the speakers—mostly men—caution against striking. Clara was one of the founders of Local 25, whose membership numbered only a few hundred, mostly female, shirtwaist and dressmakers. A few months earlier, hired thugs had beaten her savagely for her union involvement, breaking ribs.

When the meeting’s star attraction, the American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers, spoke, the crowd went wild. After he finished, Clara expected a strike vote.  Instead, yet another speaker went to the podium. Tired of hearing speakers for more than two hours, Clara made her way to the stage, shouting, “I want to say a few words!” in Yiddish. Once she got to the podium, she continued, “I have no further patience for talk as I am one of those who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike…now!” The audience rose to their feet and cheered, then voted for a strike.

The Uprising of 20,000

The next morning, throughout New York’s garment district, more than 15,000 shirtwaist makers walked out. They demanded a 20-percent pay raise, a 52-hour workweek and extra pay for overtime. The local union, along with the Women’s Trade Union League, held meetings in English and Yiddish at dozens of halls to discuss plans for picketing. When picketing began the following day, more than 20,000 workers from 500 factories had walked out. More than 70 of the smaller factories agreed to the union’s demands within the first 48 hours.

Meanwhile, the fiercely anti-union owners of the Triangle factory met with owners of the 20 largest factories to form a manufacturing association. Many of the strike leaders worked there, and the Triangle owners wanted to make sure other factory owners were committed to doing whatever it took—from using physical force (by hiring thugs to beat up strikers) to political pressure (which got the police on their side)—to not back down.

Soon after, police officers began arresting strikers, and judges fined them and sentenced some to labor camps. One judge, while sentencing a picketer for “incitement,” explained, “You are striking against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God!”

The struggle and spirit of the women strikers caught the attention of suffragists. Wealthy progressive women like Anne Morgan (daughter of J.P. Morgan) and Alva Belmont (whose first husband, William Vanderbilt, presented her with a home so lavish, it was worth $150 million in today’s dollars) believed that all women—rich and poor—would be treated better if women had the right to vote. Alva saw the labor uprising as an opportunity to move the women strikers’ concerns into a broader feminist struggle. She arranged huge rallies, fund-raising events and even spent nights in court paying the fines for arrested strikers.

The coalition of the wealthy suffragists and shirtwaist strikers quickly gained momentum and favorable publicity. Fifteen thousand shirtwaist makers in Philadelphia went on strike, and even replacement workers at the Triangle factory joined the strike—shutting it down.

A month into the strike, most of the small and mid-sized factories settled with the strikers, who then returned to work. The large factories, which were the holdouts, knew they had lost the war of public opinion and were finally ready to negotiate. They agreed to higher pay and shorter hours but refused even to discuss a closed shop (where factories would hire only union members and treat union and nonunion workers equally in hiring and pay decisions).

At a series of mass meetings, thousands of strikers voted unanimously to reject the factory owners’ proposal. They insisted on a closed shop provision in which all employees at a worksite were members of a union. For these young women workers, the strike had become more than taking a stand for a pay raise and reduced work hours. They wanted to create a union with real power and solidarity.

While a closed shop became standard practice in later decades, at the time, their insistence seemed radical. The issue unraveled the alliance between the union and the wealthy progressive women. But by then, only a few thousand workers were still on strike, from the largest, most unyielding companies—including Triangle.

In February 1910, the strike finally was settled. The few remaining factories rehired the strikers, agreed to higher wages and shorter hours and recognized the union in name only, resisting a closed shop. Local 25, which prior to the strike represented only a few hundred members, now had more than 20,000. However, workers at Triangle went back to work without a union agreement. Management never addressed their demands, including unlocked doors in the factory and fire escapes that functioned.

The Legacy of the Shirtwaist Makers

A week after the fire, Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont hosted a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House to demand action on fire safety, and people of all backgrounds packed the hall. A few days later, more than 350,000 people participated in a funeral march for the Triangle dead.

Three months later, after pressure from activists, New York’s governor signed a law creating the Factory Investigating Commission, which had unprecedented powers. The commission investigated nearly 2,000 factories in dozens of industries and, with the help of such workers’ rights advocates as Frances Perkins, enacted eight laws covering fire safety, factory inspections and sanitation and employment rules for women and children. The following year, they pushed for 25 more laws—entirely rewriting New York State’s labor laws and creating a State Department of Labor to enforce the laws. During the Roosevelt administration, Frances Perkins and Robert Wagner (who chaired the commission) helped create the nation’s most sweeping worker protections through the New Deal, including the National Labor Relations Act.

Clara Lemlich became a full-time activist, after being blacklisted by the garment industry association, and founded a working-class suffrage group. She later organized mothers around housing and education issues. Even in her last days at a nursing home, Clara helped to organize the orderlies.

Sources
Cornell University ILR School, Triangle Fire Online ExhibitJewish Women’s Archive; Sachar, Howard M. A History of the Jews in America, Knopf: 1992; Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, Atlantic Monthly Press: 2003; Wertheimer, Barbara M. We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America, Pantheon Books: 1997.

Atlanta’s Washerwomen Strike
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With the official end of slavery less than two decades before, thousands of black laundresses went on strike for higher wages, respect for their work and control over how their work was organized. In summer 1881, the laundresses took on Atlanta’s business and political establishment and gained so much support they threatened to call a general strike, which would have shut the city down.

Life as a Laundress in 1880s Atlanta

Atlanta in the early 1880s was just beginning to develop. Less than two decades had passed since the Civil War ended. The city had primitive water and sewer systems, and unsanitary trash lined the unpaved streets. Atlanta’s businessmen and politicians sought to paint a very different picture to lure northern businesses to the city, spotlighting it as the urban center of the New South with a large, subservient workforce.

More than half of the city’s black residents—and half of the black wage earners—were women. Black women largely were responsible for sustaining not only their families but their communities as well. One-third of black women living in Atlanta, as in other cities, raised families alone.

Nearly all (98 percent) of these black working women were household workers. On average, women began working as domestics between age 10 and 16 and worked until age 65 or older. In the 1880s, more black women worked as laundresses than in any other type of domestic work. The city had more laundresses than male common laborers. In contrast, only a small portion of white women worked for pay, and the average white family could afford the services of at least a washerwoman.

Laundry work was the most difficult of domestic jobs, and industrialization made the chore even more dreadful. Manufactured cloth—especially washable fabrics such as cotton—made clothing more available so people had more clothes than ever before. Laundry work was the first chore women would hire someone else to perform if her family had the slightest bit of extra money. In the North, women would send their family’s dirty clothes to a commercial laundry at the time. But in the South, technology was lagging and even poor whites could send some wash to black women.

Laundresses worked long, tiring hours and their wages ranged from $4 to $8 a month. These wages changed little over time and laundresses would increase their earnings by adding on clients or getting help from their children. Laundresses worked mostly in their own homes or in their neighborhoods with other women. They worked outside in the shade when weather permitted or inside their homes, hanging clothes all over the house to dry.

They made their own soap from lye, starch from wheat bran and washtubs from beer barrels cut in half. Their work began on Monday mornings and continued throughout the week until the clean clothes were delivered on Saturday. Throughout the week, they would carry gallons of water from wells, pumps or hydrants for washing, boiling and rinsing clothes. Then, after hanging the clothes to dry, the women would iron, alternately using several heavy irons at a time.

“I could clean my hearth good and nice and set my irons in front of the fire and iron all day [with]out stopping….I cooked and ironed at the same time,” said laundress Sarah Hill.

The Summer of 1881

In July 1881, 20 laundresses met to form a trade organization, the Washing Society. They sought higher pay, respect and autonomy over their work and established a uniform rate at $1 per dozen pounds of wash. With the help of black ministers throughout the city, they held a mass meeting and called a strike to achieve higher pay at the uniform rate.

The Washing Society, or “Washing Amazons,” as their opponents called them, established door-to-door canvassing to widen their membership, urging laundresses across the city to join or honor the strike. They also involved white laundresses, who were less than 2 percent of laundresses in the city—an extraordinary sign of interracial solidarity for the time.

In three weeks, the Washing Society grew from 20 to 3,000 strikers.

By August, municipal authorities were taking direct action, arresting strikers, fining members and making house visits. The laundresses were not deterred. But the white establishment was so agitated that city politicians got involved. The City Council proposed that members of any washerwoman’s organization pay an annual fee of $25 and then offered nonprofit tax status to businesses that wanted to start commercial laundries. Even though the $25 fee would mean several months of wages, the strikers were not discouraged. They responded with a letter to the mayor, agreeing to pay the fees rather than be defeated. “We mean business…or no washing,” the letter stated.

These politically savvy women workers were willing to pay the fee in exchange for self-regulation. To them, self-regulation of their industry was about respect. In the post-Civil War South, the laundresses refused to be seen as subordinate.  These laundresses saw the strike as asserting their freedom and identity and gaining respect for their work.

The resolve of the striking laundresses—despite the arrests, fines and proposed fees—inspired other domestic workers. Cooks, maids and nurses began demanding higher wages. Hotel workers went on strike. Unlike past strikes, employers—aware of the magnitude of the black labor unrest—weren’t confident they could find replacement workers. So the following week, the City Council rejected the proposed fees. The laundresses had prevailed.

In the end, the strike not only raised wages—it, more importantly, established laundresses—and all black women workers—as instrumental to the New South’s economy. The white establishment was forced to acknowledge that black women workers, who were former slaves, were not invisible.

Sources

Hunter, Tera W. To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War. Harvard Press, 1997;Greenfeld, Carl. The Identity of Black Women in the Post-Bellum Period, 1865-1885. Binghamton Journal of History, Spring 1999

Lowell Mill Women Create First Union of Working Women
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In the 1830s, half a century before the better-known mass movements for workers’ rights in the United States, the Lowell mill women organized, went on strike and mobilized in politics when women couldn’t even vote—and created the first union of working women in American history.

The Lowell, Mass., textile mills where they worked were widely admired. But for the young women from around New England who made the mills run, they were a living hell. A mill worker named Amelia—we don’t know her full name—wrote that mill girls worked an average of nearly 13 hours a day. It was worse than “the poor peasant of Ireland or the Russian serf who labors from sun to sun.” Lucy Larcom started as a doffer of bobbins when she was only 12 and “hated the confinement, noise, and lint-filled air, and regretted the time lost to education,” according to one historian.

In 1834, when their bosses decided to cut their wages, themill girls had enough: They organized and fought back. The mill girls “turned out”—in other words, went on strike—to protest. They marched to several mills to encourage others to join them, gathered at an outdoor rally and signed a petition saying, “We will not go back into the mills to work unless our wages are continued.”

No one had ever seen anything like this. But if the mill girls were exuberant, managers and owners were horrified. “An amizonian [sic] display,” one fumed. “A spirit of evil omen has prevailed.” And they determined to crack down on the mill girls.

A showdown came and the bosses won. Management had enough power and resources to crush the strike. Within a week, the mills were operating nearly at full capacity. A second strike in 1836—also sparked by wage cuts—was better organized and made a bigger dent in the mills’ operation. But in the end, the results were the same.

Those were hard defeats, but the mill girls refused to give up. In the 1840s, they shifted to a different strategy: political action. They organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to press for reducing the workday to 10 hours. Women couldn’t vote inMassachusetts or anywhere else in the country, but that didn’t stop the mill girls. They organized huge petition campaigns—2,000 signers on an 1845 petition and more than double that on a petition the following year—asking the Massachusetts state legislature to cap the work day in the mills at 10 hours.

They didn’t stop there. They organized chapters in other mill towns in Massachusettsand New Hampshire. They published “Factory Tracts” to expose the wretched conditions in the mills. They testified before a state legislative committee.

What’s more, they campaigned against a state representative who was one of their strongest opponents and handily defeated him.

So what did the Lowell mill girls really win? In the short term, not much. That’s how it often is with the first pioneers in social justice movements. Both of their strikes were crushed. And the only victory they won in their 10-hour workday campaign was pretty hollow. In 1847, New Hampshire became the first state to pass a 10-hour workday law—but it wasn’t enforceable.

That was in the short term. But in the long term, the Lowell mill girls started something that transformed this country. No one told them how to do it. But they showed that working women didn’t have to put up with injustice in the workplace. They got fed up, joined together, supported each other and fought for what they knew was right.

One of the mill girls put it this way: “They have at last learnt the lesson which a bitter experience teaches, not to those who style themselves their ‘natural protectors’ are they to look for the needful help, but to the strong and resolute of their own sex.”

Today, millions of women in unions who teach our kids, fight our fires, build our homes and nurse us back to health owe a debt to the Lowell mill girls. They taught America a powerful lesson about ordinary women doing extraordinary things.

Sources

Foner, Philip S. (editor), The Factory Girls. University of Illinois Press, 1977. Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1845. Oxford University Press, 2009. Eisler, Benita, The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Women, 1840-1845. J.B. Lippincott, 1977. Dublin, Thomas, “The Lowell Mills and the Countryside: The Social Origins of Women Factory Workers, 1830-1850,” in Weible, Robert; Ford, Oliver; and Marion, Paul (editors), Essays from theLowell Conference on Industrial History, 1980 and 1981. Lowell Conference on Industrial History, 1981.

Nixon No Match for 200,000 Postal Workers
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Employers rethinking five-day workweek

Written by  on May 9, 2011

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly “Your Career” column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

updated 5/8/2011 6:55:48 PM ET

Bert Martinez, CEO of a business-training
firm in Houston, has decided to blow away the
five-day workweek for himself and his staff of
28.Starting next month the entire company is
going to work for four ten-hour days instead
of five eight-hour days, and the company’s
workweek will stay that way if productivity
and profits stay the same or increase. It’s all
part of Martinez’s strategy to take back his
personal life, and his general inclination to
shake things up at the firm.

“I want to spend more time with my family,
and I’m really curious to see if results are

going to stay the same,” Martinez said. “Will we
lose money or make money? We’ll see what
happens.”Martinez may be onto something. While his
experiment may sound unusual, it’s actually
part of a growing movement to rethink the
standard five-day, 40-hour workweek that
has been around in this country since the New
Deal.

One larger example of the phenomenon is
seen in Utah. In 2008, then-Gov. Jon
Huntsman launched the “Working 4 Utah” plan
to shift state workers who were putting in
five-day weeks to a Monday-through-
Thursday, 7 a.m.-to-6 p.m. work schedule.
The verdict: Employee satisfaction, energy 
savings
and a boon for the environment.

“I don’t think we have any plans to go back to
five days,” said Jeff Herring, executive director
of the Utah Department of Human Resource
Management. Still, he added that the state is<

Tom Grill / Getty Images stock

There’s a growing movement by some organizations to rethink the standard five-day, 40-hour workweek that has been around since the New Deal.
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Employers rethinking five-day workweek
Some see improved productivity, but old habits die hard
continuing to monitor the new work system to
make sure it’s saving money and working both
for employees and the public that uses state
services.It’s a radical idea and not without its critics.
Utah State Rep. Michael Noel called the
initiative “stupid” in a New York Times article
last week that said other states are
considering following Utah’s lead. Some
experts question whether we would ever be
able to abandon the five-day grind so
entrenched in corporations and society at
large.

But others are questioning the very notion of
the formal work day.

“We are in fact seeing many more companies
willing to be flexible in all areas of the
workweek — fewer days, fewer hours per day,
some long days and some short days, etc.,”
said Allison O’Kelly, CEO of Mom Corps, a
staffing and search firm.

The trend is driven more by the bottom line
than any desire to improve work-life balance
for employees. In the case of Utah, the move
to four-day schedules was driven largely by
the tough economy and budget issues.

Many companies also shook up their
workweeks at least temporarily, implementing
steps such as furloughs that sent employees
home without pay for a few days.

 

Today about 34 percent of employers offer
some sort of compressed workweek benefit,
up from 26 percent in 2008, according to the
Society for Human Resource Management. But
will these initiatives grow more widespread
once the economy accelerates?“I don’t see it happening,” said Robert
Whaples, a professor of economics at Wake
Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. He
said the traditional five-day, 40-hour week
simply has been in place too long.

Whaples said the move to the five-day week
began in the 19th century, when a six-day
workweek was more standard. Workers got
Sunday off for religious reasons, but as the
country’s affluence grew people wanted more
leisure time.

“The kind of jobs they were doing wore them
out. It was tough physical labor on farms, in
factories and mines,” Whaples said. “It made
sense to have time off.”

Since then there has been little movement to
change the basic five-day week. Calls for
change by some working parents represent
only a small subset of the population, he said.

The problem, according to Cali Yost, CEO of
consulting firm Work+Life Fit Inc., “is that
many if not all human resource policies and
corporate financial reporting systems are built

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around and reinforce the inflexible 40 hours,
five-days-a-week, in the office model.”Karissa Thacker, a management psychologist,
thinks it goes even deeper.

“The five-day workweek goes back to
kindergarten,” Thacker said. “The structure
and conditioning people have around the five-
day workweek is huge.”

Despite technological advances that should
have led to radical changes in the structure of
the workweek, she added, “we’re still very
early in the curve in terms of how the
workplace is changing.”

Some believe we’re actually going backward
when it comes to rethinking how and when we
work.

“It’s pathetic,” said Nadine Mockler, founder of
Flexible Resources Inc., a staffing firm. “Most
companies are not allowing flexibility. They
want people there, they want face time, they
want to make sure work is getting done, and
now people are working even longer.”

This is happening, she added, even though
providing such flexibility makes the workforce
more efficient.

Leigh Steere, co-founder of management
research firm Managing People Better, agreed
and pointed to a study done by Microsoft in
2005 that found workers who put in 45 hours
a week said they were only productive for
about three days.

“Employers should be paying based on results
delivered and not hours worked,” she said.
“Should a person who can deliver a project in
two days be paid the same as a person who
takes six days to perform the same work?”

While productivity is important, for many
four-day advocates it’s more about gaining
personal time.“I’m a better husband and a better father,”
said Utah’s Herring about his extra day off.
The state has also seen a rise in volunteerism
among its workers as a result of the four-day
week.

There were some early challenges, including
figuring out how to find child care with
extended hours for employees who were now
working until 6 p.m. Public transportation was
another issue. State officials worked with
transit authorities to adjust scheduling, and
officials put resources into helping working
parents find child care options.

Martinez, the CEO from Houston, is hoping his
experiment is as successful. The father of five,
including 10-year old twins, is optimistic he
can find a better work-life balance.

“We were told that by being connected to the
Internet we would get more done and have
more
time to ourselves and with our family,”
he said. “That didn’t happen. Now I’m looking
for my own rest and recovery. Let’s see if it makes us more productive too.”

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