On July 3, 1835, in Paterson, New Jersey, 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.
In Paterson, New Jersey, where women and children had to be at work at 4:30 a.m. and continue to work as long as they could see, with time off for breakfast and dinner...
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 Russias, 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.
Bread and Roses
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.
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 leaders
However, 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.