Youth making positive changes in history.
The info you are about to read is simultaneously horrific and inspiring. In the very not-too-distant-past, children were a normal part of the everyday workforce. They were workers like adults today are 'workers', and all workers back then did not have it easy! It is amazing now to think of not only the heart-breaking sacrifices children made, but their seemingly unbelievable strength and straight-up intelligence & tenacity. This history serves as a reminder to protect and nurture our youth, whislt at the same time honour their skills, abilities and visions. Below are excerpts about incidents including the Paterson Textile Strike of 1835 where young people took on the ruthlessness of corporate greed during the Industrial Revolution. Although the strikers, aged 10 to 18 and mostly girls, were severely punished along with their families, (blacklisted from ever working again) their sacrifices sparked the fire for more freedom and fairness around the world.
Paterson Textile Strike. On July 3, 1835, in Paterson, New Jersey, USA, nearly 2,000 textile workers walked off the job. The strike was notable for several reasons. For one thing the strikers weren't demanding more money, despite the fact that they only made $2 a week (adjusted for inflation, that would be $44 a week today). Their central demand was an 11-hour day (as opposed to the 13.5-hour days they were currently working), and only 9 hours on Saturday instead of a full day. That in itself was significant enough. The first strike in American history to limit hours had happened only 7 years earlier, and was also in Paterson, New Jersey. That strike had been crushed after a week when the militia was called in. What made this strike worth remembering was who the strikers were - they were children, aged 10 to 18. Many of them girls.
Background: As the Industrial Revolution got under way, the 1830s were a time of significant labor unrest in the United States. Workers throughout the country had over the previous decade sought to secure shorter working days and higher wages, but a many of these efforts and strikes failed. The famous but unsuccessful 1834 Lowell Mill strikes in Lowell, Massachusetts, had garnered widespread public attention and were followed closely by workers in other mill towns. In 1835, construction workers in Boston struck seeking shorter hours. This strike failed as well, despite support from unionists in a number of other cities including Philadelphia, Paterson, and Newark. Inspired by Boston, workers in a number of trades in Philadelphia began a campaign to secure a ten hour day, and after receiving support from professionals in the city, were almost universally successful.
Workers in Paterson hoped to achieve similar success to those in Philadelphia. Just before Independence Day, they began a strike demanding shorter hours. They also demanded an end to the use of fines to enforce discipline in the mills, wage withholding, and the company store system - where the only store allowed in town was owned by the company /factory owner, so that whatever was left of your paycheck, went back to the company. In support of the strikers, an organization called the Paterson Association for the Protection of the Working Class was established. They also received monetary support from workers in Newark and New York City. The strikers were mainly children, mainly female, and many of them were of Irish descent. Due to this last fact, debate around the strike quickly became infused with nativist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, especially from the Lowell Intelligencer, a pro-management newspaper. Management refused to meet with the strikers, and as a result workers at other mills began to walk out and join in. At its peak, 2000 workers from 20 mills were participating in the strike. In response, employers reduced hours, not to eleven as the strikers wanted, but to twelve on weekdays and nine on Saturday.This reduction broke the strike, and most of the workers returned to the mills. A few strikers continued to hold out for an eleven-hour day, but unsuccessfully. Strike leaders and their families were permanently barred from employment in Paterson, having been blacklisted by the mill owners. Although the strike was broken, it achieved a significant reduction in work hours. According to historians David Roediger and Philip Foner, "...the strike, which added a dozen hours to each worker's weekly leisure, must have been counted a success by the children initiating it."
Before the month was out the parents of Paterson had joined together to form the "Paterson Association for the Protection of the Working Classes of Paterson". Through the Association a "vigilance committee" was formed to organize support. In 1835 there was no such thing as a labor union. Back then there were only guilds for skilled workers. Nothing like that existed for textile workers, much less for children. The management flat-out refused to negotiate with the Association, or any worker's organization. In response, the Association appealed to help from other workers. Women textile workers in other mills around Paterson walked out. Mechanics from Newark set up a committee to raise funds and investigate the working conditions in Paterson. This is what they found: "[conditions in the Paterson mills] belong rather to the dark ages than to the present times, and would be more congenial to the climate of his majesty the emperor and autocrat of all the Russians, than "this land of the free and home of the brave," this boasted asylum for the oppressed of all nations." After six weeks a deal was struck between the Association and the management. They would split the difference: the children of Paterson would only have to work 12 hours a day during the week, and 9 hours on Saturday; a 69-hour week. The children who continued to hold out for the 11-hour day were fired and blacklisted. In the writing of labor history, children have largely been portrayed as victims, and there is plenty of evidence for this view. However, that isn't the whole story. Nor does it do justice to their sacrifice. They weren't always helpless and weak. Sometimes they showed a lot more strength and courage than the adults. You should realize that these children weren't working weekends at a Burger King so they could have money to buy beer for their friends. Some of them were orphans, and this was their livelihood. Most others were earning money so they could keep their families from starving. Either way, going out on strike was a huge decision that a child should never have to make.Over and over again, in some of the largest, as well as the most unknown strikes, it was children that made the difference.
For instance, in April of 1933, during the height of the Great Depression, tens of thousands of factory workers in the Allentown region of Pennsylvania went on strike. It was children that turned the tide for the strikers."I don't believe the strikers should be entitled to any unemployment relief, because they don't have souls."- Mrs. Charles Fox, wife of D&D shirt factory owner testifying before a congressional investigation. On April 19, 1933, 400 "Baby Strikers" (as they were dubbed), ranging from 14 to 16 years of age, went to see Governor Gifford Pinchot in Harrisburg to explain the plight of their lives in sweatshops. The girl on the right of the picture above is Anna Miletics, age 15. She packed shirts in boxes for 9 cents an hour. Her earnings for eight days were $3.50, less a 10 percent cut and two cents deducted from her earnings to pay the "check tax." One boy said he worked from 7 a. m. until 5 p. m. and then returned to the factory three nights each week to work from 7 p. m. until 3 a. m.; others told of being ordered to hide in the cellar and on fire escapes when State inspectors came to the mill; many of the girls testified they had been forced to accept the attentions of their employers or face instant dismissal. The effort by these children had a dramatic publicity value - the governor's wife joined the children on the picket line. When a young girl asks Mr. Pinchot if its ladylike to picket, Mrs. Pinchot responds, "You are obliged to do it out of the consideration from the many others who are suffering from the low wages if not for yourself. Our ancestors fought their revolution. We must fight our economic revolution." Before long the sweatshop owners in the Allentown area agreed to raise wages by 10% and cut back on mandatory hours.
Lawrence, Massachusetts strikes
Quite probably the most famous instance for children making a difference in a strike was also the most unintentional. In the early part of the 20th Century, Lawrence, Massachusetts, was one of the most important textile towns in America. The woolen and cotton mills employed over 40,000 people, mostly immigrants. The mortality rate for children who lived in company housing was a scandalous 50% by age six. 45% of the factory workers were women, and 12% were children A study by Dr. Elizabeth Shapleigh discovered that: "A considerable number of the boys and girls die within the first two or three years after beginning work. Thirty-six out of every 100 of all the men and women who work in the mill die before or by the time they are twenty-five years of age." When a new Massachusetts law was passed in 1912 that reduced the maximum number of hours that women and children could work to 54 hours a week, the pay of these immigrants was also cut accordingly. Since they were making less than $9 a week this meant starvation.The American Federation of Labor never tried to organize these workers because it assumed that immigrants, largely women and children, were a lost cause. The Industrial Workers of the World, OTOH, took a different approach and enthusiastically embraced the cause of these downtrodden immigrants. In doing so the I.W.W. had their singular defining moment. It was the point where the I.W.W. went from historical footnote to labor history legend. And it never would have happened if not for thousands of nameless children.The company and government cracked down in a disproportionate way. When the police turned firehoses on picketers, the picketers threw ice back and broke some windows. The judge sentenced 36 strikers to a year of hard labor for those broken windows. Mass arrests and attempts to frame strike leaders followed.When the strike wasn't broken the governor declared martial law and called in the state militia. Public gatherings were banned despite the fact that all the violence had been caused by authorities. The I.W.W. responded by setting up soup kitchens and gathering volunteer doctors. The wobblies also worked overtime getting national attention to the cause of the strikers (even while the AFL tried to break the strike).One of the ways the wobblies helped was by organizing a network of supporters in New York and Philadelphia for strikers to send their children to in order to keep them fed and safe during the strike. It was here that things would get completely out of control. Alarmed at the publicity this exodus was receiving, the Lawrence authorities ordered that no more children could leave the city. On February 24 when a group of 150 more children made ready to leave for Philadelphia, fifty policemen and two militia companies surrounded the Lawrence railroad station. They tore children away from their parents, threw women and children into a waiting patrol wagon, and detained thirty of them in jail. A member of the Philadelphia Women's Committee testified under oath:
"When the time came to depart, the children, arranged in a long line, two by two in an orderly procession with the parents near at hand, were about to make their way to the train when the police closed in on us with their clubs, beating right and left with no thought of the children who then were in desperate danger of being trampled to death. The mothers and the children were thus hurled in a mass and bodily dragged to a military truck and even then clubbed, irrespective of the cries of the panic-stricken mothers and children. We can scarcely find words with which to describe this display of brutality. Not only was this unconscionable act of brutality by the police done in public, it was done right in front of the press who were at the train station in order to cover the event."
Outrage pored in from every corner of the country. Politicians in Washington called for an investigation, thus allowing the strikers to speak their case on a national level. The testimony by child workers provoked yet another round of outrage, and this time President Taft ordered an investigation of industrial conditions throughout the nation.About a month after the spectacle at the train station the Lawrence mills caved into all of the strikers demands. Afterwards the I.W.W. was on a roll after Lawrence, and that is when they got overconfident. Instead of wrapping things up for the strikers of Lawrence, they went onto bigger fish.Which is an ironic twist, because the bigger fish happened to be the textile mills of Paterson, New Jersey, where we started this diary. Once again the wobblies were creative, and once again the A.F.L. tried to break the strike and failed.Paterson strike leadersHowever, unlike Lawrence, the strike was eventually broken. The wobblies never recovered in the east. They turned to the miners and loggers of the Rocky Mountains, as well as the shipping ports of the Puget Sound. But that's another story. Here is more history of youth-inspirers.