Pawtucket-episode-graphic

In this podcast episode, historian Joey DeFrancesco tells the story of the first factory strike in US history when in 1824, young women and girls working in the mills in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, organised themselves and walked out, winning better conditions. Joey also explains how the development of capitalist industry in the north was dependent on the labour of enslaved people in the south.

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E32: The Pawtucket mill strike Working Class History

More information

The episode graphic is detail from a painting of the strike by Christine Ashley, called the turnout of 1824.
This journal article has more information on the strike: Pawtucket village and the strike of 1824: the origins of class conflict in Rhode Island – Gary Kulik 

Check out Joey’s short history of the dispute here on Jacobin

DeFrancesco Headshot.png
Joey DeFrancesco

You can also connect with Joey on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook

Acknowledgements

Huge thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible.
Special thanks to Daniel Denvir of The Dig podcast for bringing this dispute to our attention and connecting us with Joey.
This episode was edited by Jesse French
Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can purchase it here: http://www.alabianca.it/en/store/bravo-records-en/le-canzoni-di-bella-ciao-aa-vv/ Or stream it here: https://open.spotify.com/album/7xD0JiZZ16DfN4RKGvlYYT

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Transcript

John:

In 1824, young women and girls, working 15 hours a day in Pawtucket, Rhode Island textile mills, shocked their bosses by organising the first factory strike in U.S. history. They walked out of the factories and into the streets, hurled abuse at the bosses, attacked working mills and won improvements to their conditions. This is Working Class History.

[Intro music]

John:

Today, we are very happy to be joined by Joey DeFrancesco, a public historian and musician, based in what is now known as Providence, Rhode Island but was traditionally Narragansett land. Joey has done some great work researching a strike which is little known but of huge historical significance, as not only was it the first strike in the U.S. organised by women but it was the first strike of wage workers at a factory in the country. We’d never even heard of it until Daniel Denvir from The Dig podcast contacted us on Twitter and let us know about Joey’s work. Long term listeners of our podcasts will know that our recent episodes have generally been in a narrative format but our discussion with Joey, we thought, worked a bit better as an interview Q&A like most of our earlier episodes. So the format today is a little different from most of our recent episodes but we hope you enjoy it. To start off, Joey explains the significance of the strike.

Joey:

The Pawtucket Strike in 1824 was the first factory strike in the United States and it was the first strike of any kind in this country that was led by women. This was, in many ways, the beginning of the U.S. labour movement and set off waves of strikes in textile factories throughout the area and ultimately, the country.

John:

That’s obviously a really significant milestone but this dispute is not well-known at all. It’s kind of what I spend all my time doing and I hadn’t heard about it until very recently. Why do you think it is so little known?

Joey:

I think there are a few reasons. I think women are often cut out of labour history and even today, when you say ‘working class’, the public imagination often goes largely to the white male workers. We, of course, know that that’s not actually who makes up most of the working class and that has always been the case. These first textile strikes, both in Pawtucket in the 1820s and then the next decade in Woonsocket, Rhode Island and in Lowell, were also led largely by young women workers. I think, subsequently, the labour organisation that formed definitely focused more on male workers and creating a very masculine idea of the working class. Unfortunately, that’s what historians, even within the labour movement, have focused on and so this really important part of our history has, unfortunately, been cut out. Even at the museum itself in Pawtucket where I work, it really wasn’t discussed too much before I came in and started doing this research and started doing this programming. This is very much history we have to fight to get out there.

John:

How did you first found out about this story?

Joey:

I started working at the Slater Mill Museum in Pawtucket coming from a labour organising background. I’d organised a union in a hotel in Providence for some years and coming to the museum, I had that mindset of wanting to look at people’s history and working people’s history in these textile mills. Some of that was upfront and obvious. We talked about child labour in the mills and the dangers of these factories but a lot of the history was very much focused on this ‘great men’ history. We talked about Samuel Slater, who was the entrepreneur who founded the factory and Moses Brown, a merchant who financed the factory. We talked about this ideology of progress coming in from the early Industrial Revolution and working people’s stories cut out. I started doing more and more research and found just a couple of academic articles that mentioned this strike, mostly by a guy named Gary Kulik who talked about this strike. I was reading those articles and I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is the first factory strike in the U.S. and we’re not even talking about it where it happened.’ There are really clear political, ideological reasons why someone might cut out this stuff, if you’re trying to tell a certain story of the early Industrial Revolution and that was clearly what was happening. Upon discovering it, I started doing more research and developing specific labour history programmes to talk about this strike and to talk about the issues that led up to the strike and the immediate aftermath because it was obviously a very important piece of our history as a country and specifically our labour history.

John:

In terms of it being the first, has that been established by a particular study or could it be possible that other stuff happened that hasn’t been recorded?

Joey:

Yeah, it’s certainly possible and when you’re looking at history from this time period, we’re going off of pretty small amounts of sources. You’re looking at a few newspapers from the time that were reporting on this strike and then diaries and letters from the mill owners and their class. Unfortunately, we have very few documents from the workers themselves from this time period. Certainly, it’s possible in the preceding 30 years, from when these factories start popping up in the U.S. in 1793, that there were some strikes. In fact, even with the resources that I have, there are certain situations you could call strikes, like parents pulling five to ten children out of the factory at a time to force a wage settlement, for instance, where you do have workers (in this case, child workers) withholding labour to get something from management. You have those sorts of situations. This is the first factory strike but before this, you had groups of artisans, like cobblers, who would strike even before industrialisation. From everything I’ve read, in terms of factories, this appears to be the clearest strike of a substantial amount of people where hundreds of people participated to withhold their labour in order to extract concessions from management.

John:

What was the general situation like in the mills in that area before the dispute happened? What were the conditions like for workers?

Joey:

Factories first start popping up in the U.S. in 1793 in this same city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island which is in northern Rhode Island just north of Providence. The first factory was built in 1793 by a guy named Sam Slater, who was a British immigrant, who grew up in the U.K. surrounded by the Industrial Revolution that had already been going on there for a couple of decades. He was apprenticing under a guy named Jedediah Strutt, who was already this famous, wealthy industrialist, and was learning how to both create this machinery but also create the kind of social conditions required for industrialisation. He reaches adulthood and decides he’s going to come to the U.S. which he does and brings with him all these ideas for the machinery but also for all of the social conditions required to create industrial workers and an industrial society. He eventually makes his way to Rhode Island and gets financing from a guy named Moses Brown, who was this very wealthy merchant, who had made all this money in the West Indian trade, the slave trade and various other sources. They start the first factory in Pawtucket in 1793. Initially, it was entirely child workers and so Slater started with what we call ‘pauper apprentices’ who were orphans or people taken by the state from families that were considered to be itinerants and dependents and put in the employ of some artisan and farmer, preindustrially. Now Slater is adopting the system that they had already been using in the U.K. to put these kids to work in factories. These kids were working for free in exchange for board and food but still had to work 12, 13 or 14 hours a day in the factories. Slater found it was actually too expensive to be housing and feeding these pauper apprentices, so he quickly just changed over to other young children. For the first decades of these factories, really till the 1820s, we’re talking about mostly young kids aged 7-13-year-old working in these factories for very low wages. They were maybe making 30-60c per week to work these 12-15 hour days. Of course, these are very dangerous factories with all these things you associate with the early Industrial Revolution. Accidents are very common and fires are common. These are literally toxic environments with the cotton dust flying around. These kids are protesting from the beginning, largely by leaving. Lots of these kids run away and, in some cases, parents are taking kids out of these factories. For instance, when Sam Slater first lit candles in the factories to force the kids to work at night time, which was a violation of preindustrial norms around work, the parents were so upset about this that a number of them pulled their kids out of the factory. For these first few decades, it was extremely rare for workers to remain in one factory for more than a year at a time and really, even for more than a few months at a time. You already have this kind of individualised protest going on against the management and as the years go on, you start to see more intensified individual protest. There’s quite a number of arsons going on in the factories. You see theft of cotton and cloth increase. Workers leaving and fleeing continues to go on. Communities are even fighting these mills in many cases. For example, when Slater first built the factory, he had to build a dam to provide the water power to the factory. When he was constructing the dam, residents in Pawtucket attacked the dam and dismantled it in a really early act of industrial sabotage, maybe the first one, in the U.S. You see workers and community members throughout New England attacking dams as these mills are being built. By the 1820s, things begin to change with the introduction of the power loom. Previous to 1820, in these textile mills, all they were creating was thread by spinning cotton into thread. That thread was then given to a system of outworkers who would then, by hand, weave that thread into cloth. They would sell that back to the factory and the merchants who would then sell that. In the 1820s, in a big way, they start to introduce power looms which use water power to automatically weave cloth. These are first introduced in the U.S. in 1813 in Lowell and then start to get adapted in Rhode Island in the 1860s but in a big way in 1820s. When this happens, we go from having children being the biggest part of the workforce to still a substantial but a much smaller part of the workforce. From about 1820 to 1830, kids go from being 70-80% of the factory workforce to around 30%. Most of that change is made up of young women who begin to enter the workforce to staff these power looms which are a bit too complicated and fast for really young kids to operate. In the mill owner’s mind, young women were the next cheapest, most exploitable source of labour. You start to get these young women coming into the factories in big ways but mill owners are still, of course, treating them like young kids and paying them half to a third as much as the men and exploiting them in these ways. That’s kind of where we stand in 1820 right before the strike begins.

John:

Cool. Thanks, that’s really helpful of you. I guess I’d like to ask something about the slave trade because I think a lot of people, even people on the left, talk about the slave trade as if it was something that predated capitalism and was a pre-capitalist thing which was then superseded. In places like the U.K., obviously, slave owners were compensated for the loss of their slaves when it was made illegal. These slave owners were given huge injections of public cash which they then used to start businesses which fuelled the Industrial Revolution there. You’ve already mentioned that part of this factory was set up with money derived from slavery, so could you say something else about the relationship between slavery and the industry?

Joey:

There’s a deep, deep relationship between the rise of industrial capitalism in the U.S. and slavery and the slave trade coming from a few points. Firstly, the capital that went into industrialisation is largely coming directly from the slave trade and then also from merchants making enormous amounts of money in the northeast U.S. from the West Indian trade. This was largely New England merchants creating goods in the north and then trading them to largely sugar plantations which were these massive slave plantations in the West Indies and accumulating wealth that way. Just in this case, Moses Brown, who is the namesake of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, gained his fortune somewhat directly through the slave trade and also through this trade in the West Indies. He did later become an abolitionist but he did help finance some slave voyages. A lot of his capital, which then is going into these factories, is directly coming from the slave trade. This was also true of other Rhode Islands capitalists. For example, James DeWolf was one of the biggest, most infamous Rhode Island slave traders and also started the Arkwright manufacturing company in Rhode Island using his capital from the slave trade. You also have the Hazard family in southern Rhode Island, who were big slave owners and actually ran some of the biggest slave plantations in the northern U.S., largely during the pre-revolution era, use a lot of that capital to start the Peace Dale manufacturing company in Rhode Island. A lot of the initial capital starting these places is coming directly from the business around slavery. The factories themselves get even more deeply involved in that because they’re making cotton thread and that cotton is coming from the southern U.S. and this is the demand side of the cotton economy. When the first factory is opened in Rhode Island in 1793, it is incidentally the same year that Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin. The combination of the demand suddenly created by these northern factories, the invention of the cotton gin and, of course, many other factors results in a really rapid and dramatic increase in slavery because all of a sudden, the plantation economy is so much more valuable than it was immediately post-revolution. Now there’s this staple crop that can be grown down south, in the U.S., that there’s a huge demand for both in the U.S., in the U.K. and other factories in Europe. As industrialisation is developing in the northern U.S., you see a simultaneous massive growth of slavery where it is already in South Carolina and in Georgia and then the dramatic expanse of slavery further west. It gets more and more dense and continues to grow to fuel the northern factory economy right up until the Civil War. Especially in the north, we have this fantasy that slavery was something that built the southern economy but, in fact, this was one big, integrated cotton economy. In Rhode Island, you get this extra piece where a lot of these factories became specialised in what was, at the time, called ‘negro cloth’ which was cheaply made clothing specifically designed to clothe enslaved people on these plantations down south. The stats say some 80% of these textile mills in Rhode Island came to participate in this trade somehow, particularly that Peace Dale manufacturing company in southern Rhode Island which was itself built with slave trade money. You have this cycle going on with cotton coming from down south, being bought by these northern factories, being made into cheap cloth in Rhode Island and then being sold back to slave plantations to clothe enslaved people there. So there are really deep, deep intimate connections between all of these things going on.

John:

That much is clear. What were the demographics like, especially in terms of immigrant groups?

Joey:

At this point, most of the workers in these textile mills were white, American born workers and people of colour, of whom there were a significant number in Rhode Island, were systemically barred from the textile industry. We hadn’t quite gotten the waves of immigration that were going to come in subsequent decades into the mills. These are largely people from the surrounding towns who were recruited by the mills directly in some cases or who, again, had no other economic options and so were migrating into these industrial centres to work. In coming decades, you get bigger waves of Irish and French Canadian immigrants who are the first two big groups to come into Rhode Island factories in big numbers but at this time, it’s largely people from the surrounding areas.

John:

What were the main grievances of the workers that led to a strike?

Joey:

The introduction of factories brought with them a total transformation in just how people worked within a generation or two. These were largely people, in these early factories, who were farmers and maybe small artisans around Pawtucket. Because of an encroaching market economy due to dwindling land quality or just loss of land, they’re now being forced into this market factory economy. For example, they’re going from spinning and weaving their own clothes on, perhaps, their own tools at home to, within a generation, going into a factory where they don’t own the machine anymore. They don’t own the thing that they’re producing anymore. They don’t own their own schedule to produce that thing. The entire relationship to work has entirely changed. There’s already just this anger and distrust of these mills and you see this word ‘tyranny’ always popping up both from community members and workers in this time about being subjected to the tyranny of these mill owners. There’s that overriding change in work and then are the really long hours. Certainly, in an agricultural environment, people would work long hours some parts of the years, like in planting and harvesting seasons, but now you’re working in a mill, the same 13-15 hours every single day of the year, according to the bell. You have overseers watching your every movement. The structure of work and time is a big thing happening here. Ultimately, the wages were the tipping point here. Wages were pretty low, even by the standards of the time. The best evidence of that is, again, workers were just constantly moving between jobs trying to find the better wage in the area and that workers would simply leave the factories if they had any other options. This was not where anybody wanted to be unless they had to. In 1824, what happened that specifically set off the strike was that all of the mill owners in Pawtucket, and not just one or two mills but the mill owners in the city, colluded as a class to set and fix wages. They met in late May of 1824 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and decided to extend the workday for all workers in the city by an hour and then specifically, to cut by 25% the wages of weavers, and not accidentally all weavers were these young mostly teenage women in the city. This is what immediately set off the strike and the very next day, the strike began.

John:

Is it clear from the evidence how the strike began?

Joey:

Sadly, we don’t have documents from the workers themselves but we do have newspapers that were owned by the employing class who are reporting on this. You get this very biased thing where they’re putting down the workers and speaking in this very paternalistic way but you can read between the lines as to what’s happening. The newspapers say that immediately when the mill owners passed down this notice about the wage cuts and the hour increase, 102 women walked off their job and had a meeting. We’re told that ‘the most talkative’ of the women was placed in a chair and they collectively decided to not return to work until their previous wages were restored. You have this leadership of 102 women who all met and just decide, the very next day, to not return to work. The papers and documents suggest that a lot of the community and other workers soon joined them. I believe the phrase they use in this one article said that many who joined them ‘were not interested in the affair’. You could take that to mean probably community members who were upset about the mills taking over their communities politically and economically. By most guesses, you probably had at least a few hundred people involved, both the women workers but also men at these workplaces and the children all on strike together and walking out of these factories.

John:

Do you know how the strike spread to other workplaces?

Joey:

I can’t say exactly their communication strategies. These are relatively small places at the time. It’s still a small city, even though it was a large industrial village for the time. It seemed to spread quickly between workers and between community members where, again, after the first day, most of the newspaper accounts and the mill owners’ accounts say all of the mills in the city were shut down pretty quickly and the strike began to grow, develop and become increasingly militant in its tactics. At first, the mills are shut down and then we start getting reports of what’s described by these mill owner newspapers as ‘a mob’ going off to the mill owners’ mansions. At this time period, the wealthy hadn’t developed the pattern of building their mansions far away from everyone and in most cases, mill owners are building houses, very decadent mansions, directly overlooking these mills. What’s described is that hundreds of workers and community members marched over to the mill owners’ houses and were yelling and insulting them all day. On those same days, we have reports that windows in these mills were smashed and it continued to grow, accelerate and become more militant until, after about a week, one of the mills was set on fire under mysterious circumstances. No one publicly took credit but it was pretty obvious what was going on. One of the mills was set on fire and the day after this mill was set on fire, the mill owners conceded and agreed to negotiations.

John:

I think maybe there’s a lesson in there [laughter] for people in industrial disputes today or maybe not [laughter]. Who knows! The employers, presumably, had never seen anything like this before but did they try any ways to fight back and bring the strike to an end earlier?

Joey:

From what we know, during the strike itself, there’s no evidence of retaliation in the immediate by management afterwards. We see many things happen but during the strike, we don’t have good evidence that there was any immediate fighting back. I think part of it was that this was just unprecedented. This had never happened. Slater, when he was in the U.K. working under Strutt, had seen massive and more violent strikes than what we were seeing here but for the most part, these mill owners were really caught off guard. As revealed by their statements later, they really didn’t think this was going to happen. They made these statements saying, ‘Women in the town are already making extravagant wages for being women.’ I think they just expected people to just accept this and so were very surprised at this coming and within a week, again, agreed to come to the negotiating table. The strike didn’t have complete success because the workers didn’t get everything they wanted but it was successful in a way that, in a decade, you don’t see strikes being as successful because at that point, even a decade from now, mill owners had acquired more tools to more directly oppress and deal with these kinds of collective actions.

John:

That’s another thing that I wanted to ask. At that time in Rhode Island, how was law enforced?

Joey:

This is a great question. Law enforcement in these mills towns, which were separated from the big, urban centres like Providence, did not have formally established police forces. Actually, the first ones that develop are requested by mill owners explicitly in reaction to labour action. The first one that I’m aware of is in 1814, a whole decade before this strike, when mill owners in Pawtucket petition the General Assembly of Rhode Island for the creation of a local police force because, even at that point, they were finding this new factory working class disorderly. Even just culturally, by most accounts, there are people drinking and freer sexual attitudes going on than these middle and upper-class mill owners would have liked and they were trying to enforce this Protestant morality, so establishing churches and moral societies. Part of that host of the moral machinery of the factory village was also the creation of a police force in 1814. After the strike in 1824, in the immediate aftermath, the mill owners again petitioned the Rhode Island State General Assembly for the creation of a night watch police force to monitor the mills from 9 pm until sunrise, I believe, to watch out for more arson, sabotage or whatever they feared was going to happen. In both cases in Pawtucket, you see the creation of the police as an explicit reaction to protecting the property interests of the mill owning class.

John:

Yeah, which I think is something that often gets forgotten nowadays where we think the police have always been around. Of course, that is not the case. In the media coverage of the dispute, can you see what you often see in disputes now that the media attempted to drum up fear or anger against the strikers?

Joey:

Yeah, definitely. There’s not a ton of articles and these publications weren’t coming out as frequently as now, of course, but for the most part, these were newspapers written by and representing the mill owning class. The next decade, in the 1830s, you get the first labour newspapers in the area called the New England Artisan and also the women in the Lowell mill start some of the first publications run by women in the country. They’re also run by these textile mill workers but, at the time, there weren’t many worker organs publishing things. They describe the strikers as ‘mobs’ or ‘disorderly assemblages of people’ and just make them seem terrible. Reading it nowadays, it’s almost comical because it seems like the monopoly man talking about workers or something but that is how they’re describing them at the time. To understand what’s going on, and it’s not that hard to read between the lines, the press is definitely against the working class in the city.

John:

When the dispute ended, do you know what were the terms of the settlement, specifically or roughly?

Joey:

Sadly, we don’t know exactly what they agreed upon. What we do know is the newspaper says ‘there was a compromise reached between the employed and the employers’ which is the specific phrase that they used. For the time, that’s extraordinary because, again, if you read about strikes around this time, they can be these heroic, well-organised things but are typically crushed by management and by the capitalists. So to have this first strike be even somewhat successful is a pretty extraordinary thing and, again, this is being led by teenage women here in Pawtucket. We also know that immediately after, the mill owners felt the need to issue a public statement which they released. Again, it was the same group of mill owners who had cut wages initially who put out this very defensive public statement in which they explain why they felt they had to cut wages. Again, they appeal to these gender divisions and suggest that these women were making even more money than unskilled men were and trying to instil that gender division among workers. However, they come off as defensive which, again for this time period, is unusual and speaks to the power of these workers and that they really caught these capitalists off guard by this collective action and succeeded, to some extent.

John:

You can imagine that they would not have been happy by that, especially these people who, back then, probably would have literally been the stereotypical capitalists, like top hat-wearing people that look down on their employees, especially as they would have been mostly women and girls who had beaten them. Did they try to subsequently take steps to penalise ring leaders and that sort of thing?

Joey:

It’s unclear if anyone was specifically targeted and fired in the immediate aftermath of the strike. What we do see is an immediate stepping up of means of control among the mill owners. Again, in the media aftermath of the strike, you get the creation of this night time police force in the city. You see an acceleration of these attempts to control workers through the moral machinery. In 1826, Pawtucket mill owners petition the state legislature to create a more extreme temperance law in the city to cut down on drinking. You see increased creation of more churches and Sunday schools in the area shortly after the strike. Mill owners start having these annual 4th July parades where they have all these banners celebrating American industry and tying it to a certain kind of patriotism. You also see a more direct means of control, like accelerating rates being demanded of workers, stiffer fines and punishments being installed across the working class inside of these mills and just a clamping down within all of these factories. Again, we can’t say specifically who was punished here but it was certainly a trend, at the time, that workers could and would be blacklisted. It was the trend for workers to really use their mobility against capitalists and to move and negotiate better rates across factories. Capitalists, of course, responded by colluding, having blacklists and by setting prices across factories. Everything becomes a bit more severe in terms of management inside of the factory and just this social management outside of the factory after these collective actions begin.

John:

From the workers’ perspective, unfortunately, like a lot of history about ordinary people, especially back then, was it’s not recorded and it’s not written down. You said none of the names of these people are known but is there any evidence that there were efforts made to forge any kind of permanent organisation or union from this?

Joey:

In the medium aftermath of the strike, you have all these efforts by management to clamp down on workers but a lot of these actions continue. The strike was settled on June 1st or June 2nd. We have newspaper notices over the next month or so from mule spinners, who were these more skilled, highly paid, male workers in the factory, calling for a public meeting of mule spinner workers on Monday, July 5th at noon, I believe. They specifically called a meeting to organise mule spinners during the middle of the workday, effectively calling another strike. Sadly, I don’t have minutes or other recordings of what happened at that mule spinner meeting but certainly, the energy from the strike continued and it’s also good evidence that these women were able to collaborate and have a sympathetic element and solidarity with male workers. Management’s efforts, at least at this time, to divide along gender lines were not successful as much as they hoped. You also see another mill was burned down by arson in this very same year. So these actions are continuing throughout the year. We don’t see an immediate creation, in this year, of a more permanent workers’ organisation but within the next decade, you have some of the first worker organs starting in New England. You have the New England Association of Farmers,  Mechanics and other Working Men which is formed in this time period. The New England Artisan, the labour newspaper is formed and some of the first women’s labour organisations are formed in the 1830s up in Lowell. In the immediate aftermath, we don’t see a more permanent labour organisation formed but certainly, many of these workers who are moving around a lot, who maybe even participated in the strike, likely went on to form some of these other organisations and take further actions.

John:

Why do you think it is that the contribution of women workers in struggle into the workers’ movement is so often either forgotten, ignored or even deliberately erased?

Joey:

It’s something you see going on even today where I think the mainstream image of a union member or a working-class person in the popular discourse is often a man and often a white man. On both sides of the political spectrum, too often, when you say ‘working class’, that’s the image that’s conjured up but, of course, if you look at who’s actually in the working class, it is mostly people of colour and mostly women. If you look at who’s actually leading the biggest strikes in the country right now, like teachers’ strikes, grocery workers’ strikes and hotel workers’ strike, it’s still mostly women in these roles. That’s really been the case since the first strike in the country in 1824. Part of it, I think, has been within the labour movement itself coming to get dominated, even in this time period, by men who sometimes often erase the work of women and so erase the contributions of women to the labour movement. Some of these early worker organisations, particularly those fairly narrowly focused on artisans, were mostly male workers, if not entirely. You see in their plans, in fact, the elimination of child labour (which is good) but with that, also the elimination of women in the workplace. They very narrowly saw women as competing with men’s labour and so should get out of the workplace. Even from the very beginning, you see these macho strains within the labour movement that are just totally disregarding the work of women. It’s a struggle both within the labour movement, I think, to get rid of that but also within history and within labour history to get rid of that. It’s something we’ve found, even in Rhode Island, that there’s been a lot written about the more male-heavy labour movements, like the Knights of Labour and some of the strikes in the 20th century but these periods of women taking the lead and really starting things in really heroic ways, in the very early period, have sadly been cut out and we have to fight to get them back into the literature and back into the public consciousness.

John:

Something that struck me at this point in the conversation was Joey’s mentioning of men opposing women even entering the workforce on the basis that they said they brought down the wages of men. Indeed, this is something which is true at various points for sections of the organised workers’ movement. While today it’s really clear that these unions and these men who said this were very much on the wrong side of history because now, we all acknowledge that the difference between male and female workers is completely arbitrary and that playing us off against one another weakens us all. However, some in the workers’ movement today make the same argument about people born on different sides of arbitrary lines drawn on a map and argue that people from different bits of the map shouldn’t be allowed into our bit of the map because it would bring our wages down. Logically, this makes even less sense and ultimately, it helps the employers by dividing us up and making us fight amongst ourselves.

Joey:

Yeah, absolutely. It’s still a big problem that people have this very nationalistic, protectionist view of how we’re going to win in the labour movement. Of course, we’re not going to win anything by just putting up walls around our city or country and just saying, ‘This is better because now we don’t have to compete with anybody else.’ It’s never worked. It didn’t work in the early 19th century and it’s not going to work now. In addition to being immoral and bad politics for so many other reasons, it’s not an effective strategy for anyone.

John:

I think there are some other interesting parallels and things you describe about the time and the ways that workers resisted. Do you think there are parallels between that sort of struggle and similar ones that were going on in industrial England at that time and more contemporary ones going on in the garment industry in places like Bangladesh?

Joey:

There are obvious similarities between the struggles happening simultaneously in Europe. In the U.S. textile industry, things were behind by a couple of decades. I am not an expert on U.K. labour history but from what I understand, there was a certain radicalism and violence which exceeded what was going on in the U.S. where workers, for at least this time period, had some other outlets. Many could settle and do homesteading either by moving north or west, which was fraught with a whole different politics and goes into a different topic but because of this early resistance and because of some of the other economic outlets, you didn’t see quite as much violent struggle as you did maybe in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe in the same time period. Although, you see some parallels with arson, smashing factories and this sort of thing happening. As for today, I think it’s in some ways useful to think of these comparisons. When I work at the museum, I often give tours to very young people as young as fourth and fifth graders. They’re people who were the age of the children first working in these factories. You’re presenting this information in a very different way when you’re speaking to someone that age but you can still convey the horrors of working in these factories and hopefully, by the end of the tour, the kids think it’s a bad thing that happened in that kids had to work this way. You can then make those connections and say, ‘There are kids your age or not much older than you who are still having to perform this work in this same industry.’ There are important differences, of course, today but thinking of the textile industry as this one connected phenomenon between the late 18th century until today is useful because you can see how it started in the U.K. and Europe [43:39 – unclear] northern U.S. and then moved to the southern and southwestern United States searching for lower and lower wages. There was this race to the bottom with the U.S. and then once capital could move even further, moving then to the global south and continuing to undercut wages and participating in the race to the bottom. I think knowing that history is useful in terms of thinking about how we can combat this industry and improve wages across the world within the textile industry. Of course, there are important differences like the capital flight that we just talked about. Workers in the global south have to compete with these companies that are often foreign companies, U.S. owned companies, so you have these twin evils of industrial capitalism; the factory system plus this aspect of colonisation going on where these companies and their allies and governments are working to undercut conditions and regulations. The government can also just move these factories wherever they want. What workers are dealing with in the global south is way more intense and exploitative than what workers had to deal with in the U.S. in the early 19th century.

John:

I did want to revisit something. You mentioned that there was some type of resistance before this strike which was people resisting, essentially, the imposition of factory life. I think that’s an important thing to realise which, again, is another one of those things which we forget now. For us being working class and for us needing to sell our labour power to live, it just seems like the most normal thing in the world. I’m born, I go to school and then I get a job. You work making rich people richer, if you’re lucky, until you retire and if not, until you die [laughter].

Joey:

It’s all we do now [laughter].

John:

But, again, I think looking at things in history does show us that that was not always the case. This is a recent situation that has been foisted upon us and when it was foisted upon people initially, they did resist it. I think we can sort of feel it often on a Monday morning [laughter] that this is not natural and this is not how we’re supposed to live but back then, people knew what it was like to live before that in other ways of making a living.

Joey:

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s part of why this history is so important because I give these tours to people and some come not knowing any of the history and it’s very surprising. You say, ‘This is the first textile factory in the U.S. in 1793.’ That presents the idea that there was a time before industrial capitalism ran the world which opens the possibility that there could be a time after it. Knowing that history can open up new possibilities for the future as well. You’re right that the conventional ideology imagines that these factories first came down by these merchant gods who gave us these factories and everyone was happy that they finally had jobs and they didn’t just have to sit around in the dirt anymore [laughter]. It’s very much the same imagination that a lot of people have for these factories moving to the global south. They say, ‘Oh, it’s fine. This factory is moving to Bangladesh and putting people in these terrible and dangerous working conditions but what else were they doing? What else are they going to do?’ It’s a similar ideology to how we imagine our factories emerged first but as we see, there was resistance from the very beginning. We were talking about the dams and the community members dismantling the dams. That was before the factories were even built which was in 1792. Even before the first factories there, people are resisting these factories and then from the first year, people are leaving if they can. There are these letters between Sam Slater and Moses Brown saying he can’t keep half the spindles in motion in the factory because they just couldn’t get people to work in the factory. You just didn’t do it unless you had to and when you could leave, you left. You see this resistance from the very beginning and people were just leaving. During harvest time or when a particular berry was in season, the whole workforce would just leave and do that. There’s this big fight on management’s part to train workers out of these pre-industrial work habits where they would do whatever they wanted and very much valued their time. One of the symbols of this that you can still see in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, if you’re driving up 95, is there’s a clock on what was then the congregational church in Pawtucket. It’s not the original one anymore because the church has burned down a couple of times but there’s still this clock face there. That was erected in 1828 by workers themselves because with these early factories, mill owners would ring in and out workers using the mill bell. Before the mill bell, which was the first alarm clock telling you to go to work at this time, nobody really used clocks. Only merchants and wealthier people who had clocks and maintained time on a strict schedule. The mill bells were the first time telling you you’ve got to work this 15 hours a day and do it every single day of the year. This is bad. Mill owners are taking monopoly of the concept of time and even introducing a very new concept of time and imposing it on all these people. They could manipulate that to however they liked. This still happens day. I know I’ve worked in restaurants, for example, where you get your paycheck at the end of the week and it says you worked 33.5 hours and you think, ‘No, I worked an hour more than that.’ You’ve then got to go back and forth and fight about it. It was even easier for them to do that when nobody had a clock and nobody had any other access to the concept of time. In 1828, an explicit reaction to this was workers and community members in Pawtucket raised, what was a big sum at the time, $500 and had this big clock face erected on this church. At the time, that was one of the highest points in the town, so people could monitor and take back the monopoly over this new concept of time that mill owners had established. From the very beginning, people are fighting this stuff and it gives us some sense that there can be a time after this stuff.

John:

Yeah, completely and that talk about time is another really important concept that it’s something that we all take for granted now. It just seems like the most natural thing in the world, just like wage labour and being ruled by the clock. I think it’s good to think about these things because this is recent history. It’s not really old. It’s pretty recent and so many things, which now are inconceivable to think of differently, were completely different back then. We’ve got to try and set that mentality to thinking about a post-capitalist world being a possibility because things can change in ways which we do find completely inconceivable right now and that’s a really excellent point and illustration of that.

Joey:

Absolutely. I was just reading an article, because I was going back through information to do this interview, by a historian named Jonathan Prude who is studying mill villages around the same time period in Dudley, Massachusetts, which is nearby and much more isolated. The point he was making was that this was actually a more docile workforce there. There were comparatively fewer strikes and fewer work disputes than in places like Pawtucket which was this bigger industrial village but even then he says mill worker attendance at work was something around 70% in the best years. This was the most docile, complacent workforce which is still only showing up to work 70% of the time and that was much lower in some of these other factories, particularly in the early years. If you think about that, you think, ‘Man, we’ve just ceded so much ground that we have to go to work more than 70% of the time.’ It’s funny to think about now but not that long ago, that was as much as management could expect. As we discussed, we see the mill owners in 1824 were all colluding with each other and created a union of the capitalist class already 30 years into this thing. However, looking at letters from Moses Brown to Sam Slater in 1824, within the first decade. Moses Brown was the investor in the first Slater factory but then they split ways and each started their own factories which were, in some ways, in competition with each other. The letter from Moses Brown to Sam Slater says, ‘I think it’s in all of our best interests if we stop competing for workers and we stop competing for rates.’ So in the first decade of industrial capitalism, the capitalist class is already figuring out that they’re going to work in concert with each other which, of course, they’ve continued to do till today. We need to do the same thing back to them. They figured out very, very quickly that if workers can just play capitalists against each other, it’s going to be in the workers’ interests.

John:

The employers were very much taken by surprise with the strike, so they didn’t really know how to deal with it. Now, we’re in a very different situation as employers, with the help of the state, have had nearly 200 years since to develop mechanisms to try to combat their workers from police violence, to blacklists, to systems like Fordism and Taylorism, to complex union laws which tie workers’ hands behind our backs. We can still learn lessons from these past struggles and take inspiration from them to help us organise and fight in the present.

[Outro music]

John:

Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoyed this episode. We’ve got links to more info and further reading in the show notes. Like we said at the beginning, we just did this episode because someone happened to contact us about it. Have you taken part in a strike or a social movement, or have you researched one, or you know a lot about one that you’d like to talk about? If so, we want to hear from you. You don’t have to be an academic or anything like that. I’m certainly not and we especially would like to hear more voices of women and people of colour. So if you have a story to share, please get in touch with us. Just drop us an email on info@workingclasshistory.com. As always, thanks so much to our Patreon supporters who make this podcast and the WCH project possible. You can support us as well at patreon.com/workingclasshistory where you get benefits like exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus audio, access to our database of events and more. If you can’t spare the cash, that’s totally fine. Please just give us a five-star review on your favourite podcast app or share episodes you enjoy on social media or with friends and colleagues. For the latest updates from Working Class History, why not sign up to our email list? Just go to workingclasshistory.com and click ‘sign up’. This episode was edited by Jesse French. The theme music is courtesy of Dischi del Sole and links to stream it or buy it are in the show notes.

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One thought on “E32: The Pawtucket mill strike

  1. wonderful story. I live in Pawtucketts’s twin town Belper UK, a World Heritage Site because of the mills here and along the Derwent Valley and this podcast helps us to see the big picture of Belper’s place in Labour history

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