This Day in Labor History: April 1, 1913
On April 1, 1913, workers at the Draper textile factory in Hopedale, Massachusetts walked off the job in a strike led by Italian anarchists fighting for basic human rights. The company, working with the cops, would crush it mercilessly.
Eben Draper was the former governor of Massachusetts. To say that he was a Gilded Age Republican undersells his position on workers. He was like a combination of Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan and Rutherford B. Hayes all in one. He was a politically powerful figure who believed that workers should have absolutely no say over their working conditions and that he had no real power over his workers. After all, they didn’t have to work for him. They could starve. See, employer and employee were even in power!
The funny part about Draper’s factory is that it was built in the town of Hopedale, which was one of these early 19th century perfectionist Christian communities. But a lot of those people became capitalists anyway; private property was a god. Draper’s father had opened the factory and by the time Draper grew up, it was one of New England’s most dominant textile factories. Eben would rule it with an iron fist. He then became governor from 1909-11 and then returned to his factory empire. As governor, he vetoed a bill creating the 8-hour day for public employees. The company also employed detectives in the factory to report on any union activity. So yeah, he was not going to respond to a strike well.
In addition to all of this, Draper was at the forefront of the speed-up and other techniques to get workers to labor harder, faster. That could also mean fewer employees if successfully done. By the 1920s and 1930s, as the textile industry had mostly spread to the South to escape union campaigns like we see here, the speed-up was one of the main reasons for labor problems. Draper helped pioneer it in Hopedale.
By 1910, the workforce in Hopedale was mostly Italian. There were a lot of radicals in the Italian working class. This was a place where anarchism had really taken hold. The anarchist leader Luigi Galleani had a serious influence in this town, though he was operating out of Lynn. One of the Italians in this town was Nicola Sacco, an anarchist who had immigrated to the United States in 1908, at the age of 17. He only worked at Draper for a year before moving on to other jobs in area factories, but this future quite possibly not guilty person in one of the most famous cases of labor repression in American history gives you a sense of the kind of worker in Hopedale.
The 1912 Lawrence strike, started by workers themselves and then picked up on by the IWW who brought in organizations and funding, was of great interest to the workers in Hopedale, who wanted to improve their own lives. Strikes began to appear in the area and the Draper factory was clearly a target. Many, though by no means all or even a majority of these workers affiliated with the IWW, which fit their anarchist heritage. By late March, crowds of several hundreds were listening to speakers exhort them into action. By this time, maybe 500 Draper employees had signed a card with the IWW.
On March 31, the workers voted to strike and they walked off the job the next day. About 1,000 workers walked off the job. The workers had demands of a 9 hour day and a 22 cent an hour minimum wage. They also wanted the end of the horrible piecework system. IWW leaders rushed to Hopedale, including Big Bill Haywood, hoping to relive the glories of Lawrence.
Of course the bosses would do nothing to settle. On April 9, they announced a mass firing for any worker who did not return the next day. It then brought in scabs (French Canadians, mostly) and started evicting people from company housing. The company also painted the strikers as outsiders–Italians, not Americans; radicals, not good conservative Americans. English speaking radicals out of Boston shot back that it was Draper who hired these Italians; if they cared so much about American values, they should have hired Americans at higher wages. This Italian bating (and Armenian to a lesser extent; they were a minority in the workforce) did not help the company. In fact, for the workers, the open contempt for their race and religion had served to help organize them to action. The company did meet with the strikers on April 15 and told them it would do nothing for them and definitely not work with the IWW. The town council, owned by Draper, passed new anti-picketing laws too. Boston police chipped in too. After all, what was the point of being a cop if you couldn’t beat up a few workers?
The cops then shot and killed a worker named Emilio Bacchiocchi on April 24. This led to the kind of funeral march that served as an organizing tool itself. Boston had a native-born radical community that came to the aid of workers, including marching with them, writing, and raising money. And whereas the Catholic Church in most of these strikes stayed far away from uniting with workers, in this case, a priest named Rocco Petrarca threw the weight of the church behind the strike.
In the end, the company just completely crushed this strike. By the end of June, management did again meet with some workers, but that was just to tell them that as far as it was concerned, the strike was over and so bye bye.
Among other reasons, the Draper method of production led to the implosion of the textile industry after World War I because of mass overproduction in a giant race to the bottom that made life miserable for workers and led most companies to not make much money either.
I borrowed from Aviva Chomsky’s superb book Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class to write this post. This is one of my favorite history books written in the 21st century.
This is the 475th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.