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This Day in Labor History: February 22, 1860

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On February 22, 1860, 3,000 shoemakers in Lynn, Massachusetts went on strike, beginning the nation’s largest strike before the Civil War.

Traditionally, shoemaking was a part time job for farmers and fishermen when the season allowed it. Men cut and shaped the leather while women and children sewed the main part of the shoe to the soles. But in 1852, Singer sewing machines began to be used, deskilling the labor and creating more of a proletariat than a skilled craft labor force. This also created a much more child-centric labor force. The employers could pay less. Children were soon working 10 hour days in pretty dangerous conditions.

The Panic of 1857, one of so many economic collapses in the boom and bust economy of the 19th century, was pretty rough on shoemakers. Lynn had become the center of American shoe production in the early 19th century, and while shoes have a relatively inelastic demand, it doesn’t mean that this could not be weaponized against workers. Mechanization took its toll on employment. As the economy improved, the employers raised the price of shoes and hurt the conditions of workers. The lives of these workers were atrocious. These people now worked 16 hour days and made almost nothing. Men made $3 a week and women and children all of $1 a week.

In response, in 1859 Lynn workers organized the first union of the shoemakers, though there had been some organizing as far back as the 1830s. The Mechanics Association elected the 24-year old law student Alonzo Draper to be its leader and newspaper editor and a English immigrant named James Dillon as its vice-president.

Workers had enough of this by 1860. In early February, they issued a circular that they had the interests of all workers at heart. It read, in part, “inasmuch as the wealth of the masses improves the value of real estate, increases the demand for manufactured goods, and promotes the moral and intellectual growth of society.’” They demanded to meet with employers and moved toward more organized action. Of course, the employers refused to meet.

Finally, they decided to strike. Moreover, wrapping themselves in the flag, they chose to start their strike on George Washington’s birthday. The strike spread rapidly. They split into committees and decided to publicly post the names of all scabs. Immediately, the strike spread to the town of Natick and from there, around the region. Draper traveled around the area, giving speeches, raising money, and encouraging other workers to walk out. Within a week, 25 towns had workers on strike, as far north as Maine and as far west as New York. Soon, 20,000 workers were on strike. Tens of thousands of other workers engaged in parades and other actions to support the strikers.

The strike began with the men, but the women soon joined them. Given that many of the workers were women, they played a big role in the strike. On March 8, a group of 6,000 workers, mostly women, marched through a blizzard with a huge banner reading “American Ladies Will Not Be Slaves: Give Us a Fair Compensation and We Will Labour Cheerfully.” I am curious that this is reported with the British spelling of “labour,” but don’t quite know what to make of it. Anyway, a follow up march on March 18 drew 10,000 workers and stretched for two miles. Schools closed and most of the town came out in solidarity to watch the parade and support the strikers. Boston sent up its police force to intimidate the strikers, but they were met with angry crowds hissing and jeering them. The strike also united the Irish workers with native-born workers, a perhaps unusual situation for this time when anti-Irish sentiment was so strong. Remember that the Know-Nothing Party had been prominent in the northeast just a few years earlier. Rather, a class consciousness was slowly appearing that recognized the poverty of all workers and the need to fight against an unjust system that created it.

The strikers got national attention. In fact, they actually managed to influence one Abraham Lincoln, preparing his run for the presidency. Lincoln stated, in support of the strikers, “I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New England Under which laborers can strike when they want to, where they are not obliged to labor whether you pay them or not. I like a system which lets a man quit when he wants to, and wish it might prevail everywhere.” This was actually a pretty standard definition of free labor ideology at this time, which in short was the idea that individuals contracted out their labor as equals with employers in a system where everyone was treated relatively equally, where people controlled their own destiny, and where the benefits of capitalism would be more or less shared without great wealth or great poverty. As great wealth and poverty was soon created, this would later be perverted into the Gilded Age contract doctrine that held onto the idea of the individual choosing to quit or be employed but which ignored the power structure that forced people into terrible jobs at low wages and with a great fear of strikes as combinations that threatened to destroy the nation.

It was pretty clear early on that the workers were going to win something. After about a week, the employers said they would raise wages, but would not recognize the union. The strike largely ended on April 10, when the employers gave in, more or less. Thirty employers agreed to raise wages by 10 percent and they even won union recognition, which is rare for this age. About 1,000 workers returned right then. The rest started to trickle back in after that. Many leaders wanted more, but it was still a very solid win for labor in an era when that was rare. In part though, this reflected the sexism inherent in the work relationship. The men did not want to fight for women’s wages. They felt if they did, the employers wouldn’t take them seriously. Therefore, the women did not trust the men at all to fight for what they needed. So they took what they could get. It is hardly surprising, given the long trajectory of American labor history, that men would prioritize their male identity over their class identity.

Alonzo Draper became a general in the Civil War and was killed in 1865.

If you want to read more on this strike, some of the older classics of labor history discuss it in detail, including Alan Draper’s 1976 book Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn and Paul G. Faler’s 1981 book Mechanics and Manufacturers in the Early Industrial Revolution: Lynn, Massachusetts, 1780-1860.

This is the 300th post in this series, which is a milestone of some sort I guess. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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