From an award-winning historian, a stirring (and timely) narrative history of American labor from the dawn of the industrial age to the present day.
From the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, the first real factories in America, to the triumph of unions in the twentieth century and their waning influence today, the contest between labor and capital for their share of American bounty has shaped our national experience. Philip Dray’s ambition is to show us the vital accomplishments of organized labor in that time and illuminate its central role in our social, political, economic, and cultural evolution. There Is Power in a Union is an epic, character-driven narrative that locates this struggle for security and dignity in all its various settings: on picket lines and in union halls, jails, assembly lines, corporate boardrooms, the courts, the halls of Congress, and the White House. The author demonstrates, viscerally and dramatically, the urgency of the fight for fairness and economic democracy—a struggle that remains especially urgent today, when ordinary Americans are so anxious and beset by economic woes.
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PHILIP DRAY is the author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and made him a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Stealing God’s Thunder: Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, and the coauthor of the New York Times Notable Book We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi. He lives in Brooklyn.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
CHAPTER ONE: THE OPPRESSING HAND OF AVARICE
It seems fitting that one of the first renowned activistsin the titanic struggle between labor and capital on this continent, Sarah G.Bagley, was an unassuming young woman off the farm, initially no different fromany of the thousands who emerged from rural New England in the 1820s and 1830s to become "operatives" in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, the nation's earliest industrial city. This original population of American factory workers was, for a generation, the pride of the youthful United States, and Lowell a model of enlightened industrialism that visitors were drawn fromacross the country and around the world to behold with their own eyes.
Bagley, like most of her peers, shared in the public's fascination; only after many years did she grow concerned about the system'sinjustices. In an era when few if any women spoke publicly she found her voice, first as a writer, then as a labor organizer, eventually leading the LowellFemale Labor Reform Association, which she helped create, in its historic fight for decent work conditions and a ten-hour day. At turns eloquent and caustic,her challenge to the status quo brought her into open conflict with Lowell'spowerful mill and banking interests, the legislature of the state ofMassachusetts, and even many of her cohorts and friends.
Born in Candia, New Hampshire, in 1806, where her parents, two brothers, and a sister farmed and operated a sawmill, Bagley worked as a schoolteacher before moving to Lowell in 1837. Beyond those fewfacts not much is known of her early life, although there are what may be intriguing glimpses into her background in two stories she wrote for the Lowell Offering, the independent literary journal published by women mill workers and celebrated here and in Europe as evidence of the superiority of America's factory culture. In one tale Bagley describes a young farm girl unhappy withher fate as a household domestic, who, smitten by "Lowell fever,"dreams of being a worker in the booming mill city thirty miles distant. So poor she doesn't own a pair of shoes in which to travel, the little heroine nonetheless defies her cruel mistress and runs away. A kindly stage coach driver takes pity on the barefoot child he encounters walking along the road, her few possessions in a knotted bundle, and, asking no fare, delivers her to Lowell.There, within days, she is reborn, with new acquaintances, a job in a mill, and even the beginnings of a modest bank account. In the second story, a Lowell mill hand named Catherine B., suffering from dire homesickness, receives the terrible news that her mother and father have both died. Stricken by grief but determined to save her younger brother and sister from poverty, she rededicatesherself to the steady job she is fortunate to hold in a Lowell factory. For her brave display of "practical benevolence," Catherine is wooed formarriage by a desirable man.
"Lowell fever" the lure of the textile mills, of factory work at good wages, was remarked upon by many who flocked to the teeming little city. Not only did mill work pay better than the other jobs opento Yankee farm girls, chiefly those of teacher, nanny, or domestic, it offered escape from the other common alternative-grueling, unpaid labor on the family farm. The role of independent worker better suited the freeborn American women of Bagley's time. The first young people to come of age in the postrevolutionary era, they "expected to make something of themselves andof life," Lucy Larcom, a Lowell operative who entered the mills at age eleven, later remembered. Young women like Larcom and Bagley, no less than John Greenleaf Whittier, a Lowell resident, Henry W. Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson-who would write that "the children ofNew England between 1820 and 1840 were born with knives in their brains" were swept up in the intellectual ferment, heightened spirituality, and openness to new ideas that characterized the nation in the age of Jackson. These expectations led increasingly from the countryside to the civilization of theindustrialized town.
For young women the initial benefits of the transition were abundant. The Lowell factory/boardinghouse system offered a safe living environment (a reassurance to their parents), a peek at the wider world, the chance to meet like-minded young people, as well as a sort of undergraduateeducation in its after-work classes, reading rooms, and occasional lyceumlectures. A girl from Maine reported that she was drawn to Lowell chiefly for access to the town's lending library, from which she was observed to withdrawas many as four novels per week. Some arrivals hailed from illustrious New England families. Harriet Curtis, editor of the Lowell Offering, traced herlineage to Miles Standish; Harriet Robinson's great-grandfather had sold Thomas Brattle the land on which much of Harvard College stood; Harriet Farley wasdescended from a long line of famous New England clerics, including the eccentric Joseph "Handkerchief" Moody, whose practice of hiding hisface behind a black veil inspired a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story. Curtis,even before arriving at Lowell, had made her reputation as the author of apopular novel, Kate in Search of a Husband, although, as an historian notes,"the earnings of a mill operative...were larger and more dependable thanany she could expect from the writing of fiction."
Bagley mentions these advantages and more in "The Pleasures of Factory Life," published in the Offering in 1840. She writesof the mill girls' wages assisting distant relatives, the broadening experienceof meeting women from other states and towns, and exposure through the lyceumlectures to the likes of Emerson and John Quincy Adams. But it was the busyfactories, the enormous workrooms of looms and spindles synchronized as onegiant, interlocking mechanism, that most impressed her. "In the mill we see displays of the wonderful power of the mind," she wrote. "Who canclosely examine all the movements of the complicated, curious machinery, andnot be led to the reflection, that the mind is boundless, and is destined torise higher and still higher; and that it can accomplish almost anything on which it fixes its attention!"
Thomas Jefferson would have liked Lowell. The hummingmill town that grew up at the confluence of the Concord and Merrimack rivers,with its systematized production methods and lending libraries, might havestruck the Sage of Monticello as an acceptable solution to his concerns about the development of manufacturing in America. He had prized the ideal of the United States as a pastoral world, its citizens enriched by their closeness tothe soil, free of the drudgery and regimentation of industry. "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God if ever he had a chosen people,whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue," he had written in Notes on the State of Virginia, published in1787. "While we have land to labor...let us never wish to see our citizensoccupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff."
His vision of America as a perpetual garden was not far-fetchedin the 1780s, for nine of ten Americans still lived on farms, land was available and affordable, and to the west of the Colonies lay vast unsettled territory. Large-scale manufacturing, he believed, might best remain in Europe, as the cost of importing factory goods would be worth the benefit of preservingthe American landscape, its people and government, from the baleful influences of industrial development already seen in British manufacturing cities. An immigrant who crossed the ocean hoping to make his mark in industry would quickly transfer his ambition to farming once he saw firsthand the benefits of such an independent calling.
Jefferson, however, was also known for his interest inanthropology, science, and mechanical innovation. To love America as he did wasto love its clockmakers, gunsmiths, shed-bound dreamers of a thousand tinkered mechanical schemes, as well as its "natural philosophers," men likeJohn and William Bartram of Philadelphia, who traipsed the Appalachians for plant specimens and Indian relics. As president, Jefferson filled the East Roomof the Executive Mansion with mastodon bones collected at Big Salt Lick on theOhio River. He appreciated, too, the ingenious homespun textile crafts ofdiligent American women.
These fabrics were also favored by George Washington, who spun cotton himself at his home at Mount Vernon and who disparaged the wearingof imported fabrics by Americans as a symbol of continuing reliance on GreatBritain. "I hope it will not be a great while before it will be unfashionable for a gentleman to appear in any other dress (excepthomespun)," remarked the first president. "Indeed, we have alreadybeen too long subject to British prejudices. I use no porter or cheese in my family, but such as is made in America."
Gradually Jefferson accepted that his belief in a"permanently undeveloped, rural America" was more a cherished idealthan an actual program for the country's future; by 1789 he was, in a letter toa friend, describing Virginia as a likely site for the development of textile mills. Manufacturing in the Colonies had been suppressed during the decades ofBritish authority, including such edicts of Parliament as the Hat Act of 1732,intended to keep Americans from exploiting the New World's ample supply of beaver pelts, and the Iron Act of 1750, meant to keep the Colonies reliant onimports. Reaction to such arbitrary laws and to British rule in general hadinspired self-recognition on the part of American workers as well as the first organized efforts to use consumer habits to thwart English profits. It was inthe period of resentment over the Stamp Act in the 1760s that artisans andcraftsmen began calling themselves "Mechanicks," coinciding with their growing presence as a political force. In the 1770s appeared the first "Buy American" campaign, as from Boston to Charleston the cry arose to eschew the purchase of British-made objects and sell and buy only indigenou...
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