NH’s First Red Scare

Inside the Palmer Raids

Nashua Telegraph, January 3, 1920

On Friday evening, January 2, 1920, federal agents and local police swept through eight New Hampshire cities and towns, searching for people they claimed were dangerous radicals. When the raids were over, nearly 300 New Hampshire residents, mostly immigrants from eastern Europe, were in custody, seized from private homes and meeting halls in Nashua, Manchester, Derry, Portsmouth, Claremont, Newmarket, Berlin, and Lincoln.  If they were both “aliens” and members of the Communist Party, they would be subject to deportation. 

The Palmer Raids, as they became known–in dishonor of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer–netted as many as 10,000 people in 33 cities nationwide, with the 141 captured in Nashua the largest single mass arrest in the country.  The raids also propelled the career of a young Department of Justice attorney, J. Edgar Hoover, whom Palmer had appointed to head the General Intelligence Division (originally named the “Radical Division”) inside the DOJ’s Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI).  Hoover began compiling a massive file of index cards and dossiers, one for each person suspected or accused of being a radical, no matter how slight the evidence. 

A. Mitchell Palmer
A. Mitchell Palmer, US Attorney General, 1919-1921

During World War I, crackdown on dissent had focused on German sympathizers and anti-war activists (including socialists and Wobblies).  But after the war and the Russian Revolution, it shifted smoothly to anarchists and communists, especially immigrants from eastern Europe.

Although federal wartime laws which had enabled the jailing of activists such as Eugene V. Debs were no longer valid, dozens of states stepped into the void.  According to historian Robert Murray, “by the year 1921, there were thirty-five states plus two territories (Alaska and Hawaii) which had in force either peacetime sedition legislation or criminal syndicalist laws, or both.”

New Hampshire was no exception.  According to historian David Williams, A. V. Levensaler, who headed the Bureau’s Concord office, drafted the state’s anti-Bolshevist bill, which was adopted by the legislature and signed into law by Governor John Bartlett in March 1919.  The law made it a serious crime to “advocate or encourage by any act or in any manner” the overthrow or change of government of the United States, the State of New Hampshire, or any of the state’s subdivisions.  In addition to criminalizing such advocacy in public or private settings, the law banned the publication, distribution, and possession of any printed or written material, including pictures, deemed to be of seditious intent.  Any such materials were to be seized and destroyed.  

Another section of the law made it a crime to advocate, incite, or encourage “the violation of any of the laws of the United States, or this state, or any of the bylaws or ordinances of any town or city therein.”

The penalty for violation was up to 10 years in jail, a fine of up to $5000, or both.

Under orders from Washington to compile lists of alien radical leaders, Bureau agents used warrantless break-ins, planted listening devices, cultivated informers, and hired infiltrators to identify subversives inside unions and ethnic social clubs, especially those from eastern Europe, often labeled “Russians” regardless of where they were born.

In the words of historian Regin Schmidt, the Red Scare, orchestrated and largely led by A. Mitchell Palmer, J. Edgar Hoover, and their Department of Justice colleagues, “was, at bottom, an attack on … movements for social and political change and reform, particularly organized labor, blacks and radicals, by forces of the status quo.”  But Palmer, Hoover, and the others faced a serious obstacle: they had no authority under federal law to prosecute people simply for being union members, Black, or radical.  That’s one reason why they targeted immigrants.  Immigration was regulated by the Labor Department, and its rules said anarchist aliens could be deported. 

By December 1919, following months of preparation, the agents were ready.  Following instructions from Washington, New Hampshire’s Bureau agents used the flimsiest of evidence or none whatsoever to draw up arrest warrants. 

Portsmouth Herald, January 3, 1920

Friday evening, January 2, 1920, began like most other Friday evenings, writes Williams.  “That evening people in the ‘Russian’ communities gathered together at their clubs, some to hear socialist speakers, while others danced, played cards, or shot pool. An unexpected knock at the door and the sudden appearance of government agents broke up the parties. The fact that the agents had no search warrants or warrants for the arrest of many of the people did not stop them from detaining everyone present.”

In Manchester, agents found and arrested 54 people at the Tolstoi Club, a hangout for Russian workers on Central Street.  In Nashua, agents arrested 141 people at the St. Jean Baptiste Hall on Chestnut Street, which had been rented for the evening by the Lithuanian Club.  In Portsmouth, they sought members of Open Forum, a leftwing caucus within the local labor movement.  And In Claremont, agents arrested 23 people, mostly at Joe’s Russian Baths on Main Street.  “The prisoners were astonishingly ignorant of anything pertaining to Sovietism, and it required considerable ingenuity and threatening persuasion to get anything out of them,” a Claremont paper reported. 

66-68 Russell Street
John and Stanley Bellows were arrested at Stanley’s grocery store on Russell Street in Portsmouth. (photo courtesy of Portsmouth Athenaeum)

In addition to ethnic social clubs, agents targeted private homes and businesses.  John Bellows, a member of Open Forum, was arrested while playing cards with his brother Stanley in the back room of Stanley’s Portsmouth grocery store on Russell Street.  Stanley was arrested, too, for good measure.  Koly Honchekoff, another Open Forum member, was at home in bed when he was captured.  Asked at a hearing if he was a union member, he answered in the affirmative, adding he had been one for three years.  As Williams recounts, “the interrogator put down three years in the Communist Party and the questionnaire became part of the official record.”

Two days later, Manchester police “took 140 men and women from Manchester to Boston aboard the train labeled ‘the Red Special,’” writes David Williams.  “Arriving in Boston, the prisoners marched handcuffed and in chains through the streets to the ferry landing. Officials made a special effort to attract attention to the spectacle, inviting newsmen and photographers to record the event.”  There, the New Hampshire detainees joined some 400 others at Deer Island, where they were held incommunicado in frigid and unsanitary conditions. 

The exact number who were arrested, convicted, and/or deported is unknown.  Probably, most of the New Hampshire contingent was released based on the lack of evidence and reaction to the way they were treated.  It was the climax of the Red Scare. 

But the Red Scare never went away, and in the words of Regin Schmidt, “institutional and bureaucratic anti-radicalism, once introduced and established in 1919, became a permanent feature.” 

Although a peacetime sedition law never came to be, Congress in 1920 made it a deportable offense to even possess radical literature.  And in 1921 and 1924 they tweaked the immigration laws yet again to set quotas aimed at reducing immigration from countries in eastern and southern Europe where most of the radicals came from.  Congress also barred Asian immigration entirely and established the U.S. Border Patrol. 

J. Edgar Hoover
The young J. Edgar Hoover

As for J. Edgar Hoover, he became Acting Director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924. From that perch, he continued spying on and attempting to destabilize radical groups all the way through the 1960s.  

New Hampshire’s sedition law stayed on the books until 1973.  In the second Red Scare, New Hampshire adopted a law banning “subversive activities” in 1951 and two years later appropriated funds to enable Louis Wyman, the attorney general, to investigate cases of subversion.  Wyman looked high and low, sent two men to jail for refusal to cooperate with his inquisition, and published a lengthy report detailing his findings.  But he never charged anyone with the crime of being a “subversive.”  A 1949 act stating that “No teacher shall advocate communism as a political doctrine or any other doctrine or theory which includes the overthrow by force of the government of the United States or of this state in any public or state approved school or in any state institution” is still in force at the time of this writing. 

You can read a longer, more detailed version of this story at InZaneTimes.

For more about New Hampshire’s second Red Scare, read about Willard Uphaus and Hugo DeGregory

Sources for this story included:

David J. William, “’Sowing the Wind’: The Deportation Raids of 1920 in New Hampshire,” Historical New Hampshire, Spring 1979.  This article was based on Williams’ dissertation, “’Without Understanding”: The FBI and Political Surveillance, 1908-1941,” completed in 1981. 

Regin Schmidt, Red scare: FBI and the origins of anticommunism in the United States, 1919-1943, Museum Tusculanum Press 2000.  Downloaded in 2021 from Open Access, ,https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/34930

Robert K. Murray, Red Scare – Study Of National Hysteria, 1919-1920, McGraw Hill, 1964.

Also worth reading: 

Ann Hagedorn, 1919: Hope and Fear in America, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2007.

Berlin’s Left-Wing Government

View of Berlin, c. 1920, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Arthur Bergeron returned to his hometown of Berlin, New Hampshire, after attending Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, the city’s workers were agitating for change.  The year was 1934, and the Great Depression had forced cutbacks in the paper industry that left the city reeling.  The Brown Company, the city’s dominant economic power, had cut wages by 10% in March 1931 and laid off all unmarried men.  That fall they cut wages another 10%, did so again the following spring, and abolished extra pay for overtime.  

Not only that, but with political leadership tied to paper company interests, there was little restraint on corruption.  The city’s treasurer, John Labrie, had a habit of depositing city funds in his personal bank account, probably pocketing the interest until he turned it over to the City.  When the bank was shuttered in 1932, the funds were frozen.  Berlin was out $72,000. 

William Corbin, who served as mayor while working for Brown and running a bank, was willing to sue to get the money back.  But when his term ended, the new mayor, Ovide J. Coulombe, pulled out of the lawsuit.  Instead, he blamed Berlin’s ills on welfare payments to “men who are loafing.”

Members of the community, many of them millworkers, responded by forming the Berlin Taxpayers Association with plans to file a new lawsuit.  But none of the city’s well-established lawyers, all tied to the dominant economic interests, would take the case. 

Enter Arthur Bergeron, fresh out of law school.  He agreed to represent the Taxpayers and in 1934 won a judgment against Labrie and a bonding company.  Bergeron did not stop there.  With his help, members of the Taxpayers Association formed the Coos Workers Club, which soon had thousands of members.  According to Eric Leif Davin and Staughton Lynd, “Its first success was the restitution by the Brown Company of extra pay for overtime work. Then the club procured a higher minimum wage for mill workers and a twenty-five cents per cord raise for Brown Company loggers in the woods.”

Bergeron was named editor of the club’s newspaper, the Coos Guardian, which he called the “official mouthpiece of the Coos County Workers Club, the veterans, the farmers, the taxpayers and all other individuals or groups who have a just cause.”

Brown Company, photo public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Holding that “the class of people who had the least to do with bringing about the depression nevertheless has to suffer the most, simply because they are not in control of the government,” the Workers Club launched itself into politics by forming the Berlin Labor Party and running candidates for mayor and city council in 1934.  Its platform included calls for transparency in government, such as requiring that meetings be held in public and that salaries for all public officials be disclosed.  Phillip Glasson, a Brown employee who served as the Party’s secretary, later said, “One of the main reasons for the party was to get control of the political setup so that they couldn’t bring in the National Guard in case of a strike.”

David Feindel, the Labor Party nominee for mayor and president of the electricians union, was elected.  Three more party members were elected to the City Council.  But with the major parties holding onto a majority of Council seats, Feindel was unable to move much of the Party’s platform.  

While local organizing continued in Berlin, efforts to expand connections in more rural parts of Coos County and an affinity with similar political developments in the Midwest led to a name change.  Meeting on July 10, 1934, the Workers Club changed the party’s name to “Farmer Labor Party.”  According to Linda Upham-Bornstein, “By and large, the Coos County Farmer-Labor Party was not comprised of strident ideologues. Nevertheless, the party platform was certainly radical for its time, at least to the extent that it proclaimed that fundamental social change was imperative.”

In the 1935 election, with the bilingual Arthur Bergeron topping the ticket, the party’s outcome improved. “The predominantly French-Canadian city voted overwhelmingly in favor of the entire Farmer-Labor Party slate of candidates, giving the party control of the city government,” writes Linda Upham-Bornstein.  With allies at City Hall, the Workers Club agitated for higher pay at Brown and rejected the company’s offer of a 5% raise.  Workers threatened to strike, but plans changed when Brown threatened to declare bankruptcy. 

When a bail-out plan with pay cuts was proposed, workers and their friends at City Hall said no.  Instead, Mayor Bergeron led negotiations for a different bailout scheme, one with no pay cuts.   They did, however, let Brown pay reduced taxes, then cut a deal with the State for a $650,000 emergency loan to cover the shortfall in their budget.  

By 1936, left-wingers in southern New Hampshire were looking northward for leadership.  Joined by communists, socialists, and leaders of Manchester’s textile worker unions, the Farmer-Labor Party went state-wide.  “At a time when science and invention have made possible an economy of abundance beyond all past dreams, the great mass of American citizens are subjected to lives of extreme frustration and helplessness. Such a condition makes imperative a new political party dedicated to the achievement of economic justice and ever higher standards of human welfare,” wrote Paul Rudd, chair of the party’s Platform Committee.

“The Farmer-Labor Party arises to demand a new era—fighting, not against individual millionaires or particular corporations, but against those elements in the economic and legal system and in popular psychology, which encourage monopoly and parasitic control of the nation’s resources,” he declared.

The new party called for a graduated income tax, a sales tax, reduction of property taxes, and “decent minimum-wage standards.”  Upham-Bornstein says they also backed “the right of workers to organize, to engage in collective bargaining without intimidation, and to strike without fear, and demanded old-age pensions and public ownership of utilities.”

The party hit a major bump when organized labor withdrew its support.  Disturbed by the presence of Communists among the party’s supporters, the American Textile Workers Union pulled out.  Meanwhile, at the national level, the AFL and the newly formed CIO decided to stick with FDR and the Democrats rather than heeding members’ call for a Labor Party.

Arthur Bergeron received the party’s nomination for governor, with hopes to get at least 3% of the statewide vote and secure ballot status.  The party did pretty well in Berlin, but elsewhere failed to get much traction and fell well short of its goal.  Although they hung onto influence in Berlin for a few more years, the Farmer-Labor Party lost relevance as New Deal policies took hold.  By the mid-1940s, Arthur Bergeron had joined the Republicans.

Despite its failures and short lifespan, it’s worth noting that Berlin was the only city in the eastern United States where a leftist party achieved electoral success in the 20th century.   Moreover, as Linda Upham-Bornstein writes, “the Farmer-Labor Party in Berlin and elsewhere and the other political protest movements of the 1930s were significant in that they influenced and informed Democratic Party domestic policy and thereby served as catalysts of political and economic change. Consequently, the reformers’ legacy was more extensive and durable than their brief ‘moment in the political sun’ might otherwise suggest.”

Ninety years later, Paul Rudd’s words bear repeating: 

“At a time when science and invention have made possible an economy of abundance beyond all past dreams, the great mass of American citizens are subjected to lives of extreme frustration and helplessness. Such a condition makes imperative a new political party dedicated to the achievement of economic justice and ever higher standards of human welfare.” 

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This article is largely based on two papers, “Citizens with a ‘Just Cause’: The This article is largely based on two papers, “Citizens with a ‘Just Cause’: The New Hampshire Farmer-Labor Party in Depression-era Berlin,” by Linda Upham-Bornstein, from the Fall 2008 issue of Historical New Hampshire; and “Picket Line & Ballot Box: The Forgotten Legacy of the Local Labor Party Movement, 1932-1936,” by Eric Leif Davin and Staughton Lynd, first published in Radical History Review (Winter, 1979-80) and republished as a booklet in 2018. 

Sarah George Bagley

Born in 1806 in Candia, Sarah Bagley was a founder of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association which led campaigns for shorter hours in the textile mills of the Merrimack Valley.

Daughter of Nathan and Rhoda Withal Bagley, Sarah moved with her family to the Laconia area after her father bought land in Gilford in 1814.  By 1827 they were living in Meredith Bridge, which is now part of Laconia. 

By 1837, Sarah was working at the Hamilton Company in Lowell.  There she became a leader of the “Mill Girls” movement, which used petitions, strikes, legislative testimony and publications to advocate limiting the workday to 10 hours .  In 1844, Bagley was a founder of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association and became its first president.  The following year she helped form an FLRA chapter in Manchester.

As a member of the editorial board of Voices of Industry, a weekly publication of the New England Workingmen’s Association, Bagley contributed regular columns and later became editor-in-chief.

“Bagley’s writing expressed a consciousness of the need for reform at all levels of society,” writes Helena Wright (Labor History, Summer 1979).  “Indeed, many of the men and women active in the labor movement participated in other reformist causes as well, such as abolition of slavery and an end to capital punishment.” 

After leaving Lowell, Bagley attended Homeopathic College in Philadelphia, where she met and married James Durno in 1850.  Together, they practiced homeopathy in Albany and also lived in Brooklyn, where they manufactured and sold homeopathic remedies.  After Durno died in 1871, she returned to Philadelphia, where she died in 1889.  

Strikes and Strife in Manchester’s Mills

Home to what in the late 19th century was the largest textile mill complex in the world, Manchester is also home to a rich history of workers organizing for shorter hours, better pay, and a voice in their workplaces.

From its beginnings in 1807 and purchase by out-of-state investors a couple decades later, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company eventually grew to encompass more than 30 buildings with 17,000 workers.  Other companies, too, sprouted up along the banks of the Merrimack, producing textiles, footwear, cigars, and other products.  But “the Amoskeag,” as it was known, was by far the biggest, and Manchester was pretty much a company town for decades.  

As in other New England mill towns, the early workforce consisted largely of young women, who flocked from rural towns to the growing cities.  While managers may have preferred young women as workers out of a belief that they would be compliant, that reputation did not apply across the board.  “They protested against demands to work faster and faster. They objected to having their lives run by mill bells that told them when to get up, when to start work, when to eat, when to stop work, and when to go to bed,” says Dexter Arnold, an authority on labor organizing in the Merrimack Valley.

A year after Sara Bagley and others formed the Lowell Female Labor Association in 1844, Bagley helped establish a chapter in Manchester which joined the growing regional campaign for a 10-hour day.   Like other “mill girls” in Lowell, Exeter, and Newmarket, they published letters, wrote poems, circulated petitions, and threatened to strike if their demands were not met. 

Heeding their demands – almost – the state legislature passed a law in 1847 declaring that “in all contracts for or relating to labor, ten hours of actual labor shall be taken to be a day’s work, unless otherwise agreed by the parties; and no person shall be required … to perform more than ten hours labor in any one day, except in persuance of an express contract requiring greater time.”  In other words, the law gave employers a giant loophole, through which workers would only be hired if they gave their agreement to work as long as their bosses required.

As immigrants – first Irish followed by French Canadians followed by workers from southern and eastern Europe – gradually took the place of local “mill girls” organizing continued, including chapters of the Knights of Labor who went on strike in 1886 in Manchester and Newmarket.   Manchester workers rallied in support of the IWW-led “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence in 1912.  Members of the cigarmakers union in Manchester took in the children of strikers and donated to the Lawrence strike fund.  Manchester shoe-workers joined the IWW, but their strike was defeated.  Mill owners, fearing “another Lawrence,” raised the pay by 5%.  Scattered strikes and threats of more widespread walkouts pushed the company to raise wages again.  

While the Department of War (the more truthful name of the agency now called “Department of Defense”) pressed for supplies to the military, the growing United Textile Workers struck in 1918, winning a 15% raise. 

After World War I ended, rising xenophobia and reaction to the Russian Revolution catalyzed the first “Red Scare,” with Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his young aide, J. Edgar Hoover, launching a wave of repression against suspected radicals, especially immigrants.  The state followed the lead of the feds, passing a law to outlaw the teaching, advocacy, and practice of “Bolshevism.”  They also passed a ban on public assemblies and parades that drew criticism from the state branch of the American Federation of Labor.  In what became known as the “Palmer Raids” gathering points for immigrant workers, such as the Leo Tolstoi Club, the Ukrainian Club, and the Polish Club in Manchester were burglarized by federal agents.  Forty people were arrested at the Tolstoi Club.  Other raids targeted suspected radicals in Nashua, Claremont, Portsmouth, Derry, and Lincoln. 

Nevertheless, organizing continued, including by the United Textile Workers at the Amoskeag, which won a strike in 1918.  “With a union, Amoskeag workers were able to stand up to arbitrary supervisors, unfair treatment, and unreasonable production standards,” writes Dexter Arnold.  “They pressed for seniority rights and insisted that long service to the company gave them a stake in their jobs. Together with other New England mill workers, they won a forty-eight-hour work week.”

But Amoskeag cut wages by 22 ½ % in 1921 and 20% more in 1922, combined with a work-week extension from 48 to 54 hours.  By then the workers had had enough.  On February 13, 1922, 15,000 workers walked off the job in Manchester, and an equal number went out on strike in Allenstown, Suncook, Nashua, Dover, Somersworth, and Newmarket.  Ten thousand strikers paraded through downtown Manchester on April 10.  Thousands picketed the Coolidge mill to prevent strike-breakers from entering.   Manchester police made at least 18 arrests for “inciting to riot.” 

“Amoskeag used every trick in the employers’ book to break the strike,” writes Robin Read in a 2-part series for the Granite State Independence, published in 1975.  “Scabs were imported from Canada.  The use of child labor increased. Strikers living in company owned housing were threatened with eviction.  The company paid for advertisements in 40 newspapers in the state in a propaganda campaign against passage of legislation limiting the work week to 48 hours.”  The strike went on.

Five days after a Labor Day march of 8000 people, the company budged, offering to restore the most recent 20% wage cut but with no movement on the length of the work week.  With chants of “8 hours,” strikers refused the offer.  Efforts to mediate by Bishop George Guertin, leader of the state’s Roman Catholics, went nowhere due to the company’s resistance.  But with legislation to limit the work week to 48 hours gaining in popularity, union leaders recommended ending the strike.  By the end of November, Amoskeag workers went back to their jobs.  It would be more than a decade before a 48-hour work week would become established by law.  And the company refused to allow strike leaders back to their jobs, leaving the union weaker than it was out the strike’s outset.  

As Robin Read describes, the company shifted its profits to other ventures, including southern textile plants, while continuing to squeeze the Manchester workers.  “Despite speedups, layoffs wage cuts and the ever present owner’s threat that they would close the mills, the Amoskeag workers, in the ‘20s and ‘30s, continued to fight for higher wages and better working conditions. Every wage cut was answered with a strike, the threat of a strike, a work slowdown, and even sitdown strikes.”   This story ends with the 1935 decision by the Amoskeag owners to shut down their Manchester operation, leaving more than 10,000 workers unemployed.  It took Manchester decades to recover. 

Sources: 

Robin Read, “Their pay cut by 20 per cent, work week upped to 54 hours 30,000 mill workers pull the plug” Granite State Independence, November 1975, and “How Amoskeag owners broke the strike and scuttled the mills,” Granite State Independence, December 1975.

Judy Elliott, New Hampshire Mill Girls and the Ten Hour Struggle,” prepared for the NH AFL-CIO, 1999.

Dexter Arnold, “New Hampshire Labor History: a Bibliography,” included in New Hampshire Mill Girls and the Ten Hour Struggle.”

Dexter Arnold, “New Hampshire Labor History,” unpublished

David Williams, “’Sowing the Wind:’ The Deportation Raids of 1920 in New Hampshire,” Historical New Hampshire, Historical New Hampshire, Spring 1979.

The Longest Teachers Strike in History

Then, as now, it was illegal for public sector workers to go on strike, but that didn’t stop teachers in the Timberlane School District from walking off the job in 1974.  Although the strike failed, it pushed the state to adopt a law governing collective bargaining in the public sector.

The Timberlane teachers, members of the National Education Association (NEA), weren’t the first public sector workers to challenge the laws and traditions that stood in the way of powerful unions.  Nashua police walked off the beat in 1918.  Dick Molan, who served as a lawyer for the State Employees Association, recalled that a law adopted in 1969 enabled collective bargaining, but did not make it mandatory and did not cover pay or benefits. Nashua teachers struck in 1970, and firefighters in the Gate City walked off the job the following year.  A labor-management conflict in the Keene school district in 1972 led to the firing of the teachers union leader and the school board taking away a principal’s authority to hire staff.  

It’s also worth noting that the NEA, one of the two major organizations for teachers, was hostile to strikes, seeing itself more as a professional association than as a representative of workers.  The American Federation of Teachers, which was (and is) part of the AFL-CIO, was only somewhat less averse to strikes.  But by the early 1970s, teachers were increasingly challenging the authority of association leaders and local school boards.  According to one study, there were 500 strikes in rural and suburban school districts between 1960 and 1975. 

On February 26, 1974, about 100 teachers – two-thirds of the teaching staff – went on strike in a district that educated students from Plaistow, Atkinson, Sandown, and Danville.  Wages and benefits were not the issue.  The issue, as it is at the root of all labor struggles, was power, in this case the power of the organized teachers to insist on a master contract with an arbitration commission.

For months, the teachers walked picket lines and taunted strikebreakers, among whom were their former colleagues as well as substitutes brought in by the administration.  When the school year ended on June 20 with teachers still on the line, the New York Times reported the labor action “the nation’s longest teachers strike.”  And in a passage that sounds disturbingly familiar, the Times stated, “New Hampshire has neither a state income tax nor a sales tax. However, it ranks 50th in state aid to education and local property taxes, which support the schools, have been going up rapidly.”

In mid-March, the superintendent informed all the strikers that they would not be hired back.  Tenured teachers insisted that it was illegal to fire them and insisted on a hearing.  After the hearing, the School Board stood by the superintendent.  When the teachers appealed, the NH Supreme Court ruled that the teachers’ right to a hearing had been honored and that their rights to keep their jobs were voided when they engaged in an illegal strike.   In related cases, the Court ruled that injunctions against public sector strikes could not be automatically granted and that the state Board of Education had no authority to permanently take away the teaching certificates of strikers.   

Governor Meldrim Thomson, who backed the school board, nevertheless urged the parties to seek a mediated solution.  The teachers union agreed, but the school board said no. 

While the teachers gave up their demand for binding arbitration in their contract, the strike’s major outcome was pressure to create a legal process to govern public sector collective bargaining.  RSA 273-A, the Public Employee Labor Relations Act, was adopted in 1975.  

Dexter Arnold says, “Even with the bargaining law, progress did not necessarily come easily. In 1978, Manchester firefighters risked jail by striking to force city officials to move towards a 42-hour week. The strike, which the union won with the solidarity of other New Hampshire firefighters and Manchester unionists, shaped relations between the union and city officials in the years that followed as the union won important gains for safety and other job conditions.”

The PELRB (commonly pronounced “PLERB”) is by now a well-established state agency, responsible for oversight of public sector union elections and oversight of hundreds of collective bargaining agreements.  The Timberlane teachers are now represented by the American Federation of Teachers.  And the law states, “Strikes and other forms of job action by public employees are hereby declared to be unlawful.”

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s Birthplace

“The Rebel Girl”

“Elizabeth Gurley Flynn-Paterson strike” by jimforest is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Is it not much better to even die fighting for something than to have lived an uneventful life, never gotten anything and leaving conditions the same or worse than they were and to have future generations go through the same misery and poverty and degradation?  The only people whose names are recorded in history are those who did something.  The peaceful and indifferent are forgotten; they never new the fighting joy of living.” 

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, from a 1917 speech

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was born in Concord on August 7, 1890 to radical parents Annie Gurley, a seamstress, and Thomas Flynn, a quarry worker, who were living at 12 Montgomery Street.  In 1895 they moved to Manchester, where Thomas was hired as a civil engineer.  By 2000, they were living in New York City, and by 2005, when she was 15 years old, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn had gained a reputation as a public speaker and radical agitator. 

She joined the Industrial Workers of the World in 1907 and established a national reputation based on public speaking tours that took her to the sites of strikes and organizing drives throughout the country, including IWW free speech campaigns in Missoula and Spokane and textile strikes in Lawrence and Paterson.  Criss-crossing the country, “Gurley” as she was often called, used her prodigious energy and oratorical skills to raise awareness and raise money in support of strikers and jailed unionists.  She was arrested multiple times, but never convicted of anything until she was over 60. 

As a campaigner for free speech and women’s equality, Flynn was among the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union at the time of the Palmer Raids.  She also formed to Workers Defense League to support labor activists, especially immigrants, who were targeted for repression in the first U.S. “Red Scare.”  Flynn also campaigned actively for women’s rights, especially access to birth control. 

She joined the Communist Party in 1936 and was charged under the Smith Act in 1951, leading to a two-year prison term.  She died in Moscow in 1964.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s life has been extensively documented, celebrated, and featured in literature and song.  She wrote two memoirs, The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography, My First Life, and The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner.  She has been the subject of biographies, Words on Fire: The Life and Writing of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, by Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall (Rutgers University Press, 1987) and Iron In Her Soul: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left, by Helen C. Camp (Washington State University Press, 1995).

She corresponded with IWW song-writer Joe Hill during his imprisonment.  In a letter to her shortly before his execution, he said she was the inspiration for his song, “Rebel Girl.” 

Dr. Willard Uphaus was one of the speakers at Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s memorial service in New York. 

Cocheco “Mill Girls” Walk Off the Job in 1828

Cocheco Mills, 2020

When 400 young women walked out of the Cocheco Mills in Dover in 1828 to protest cuts in their already low wages, it was the first strike by women in the United States.  While the strike – which the workers called a “turn out” – was unsuccessful, their action heralded a generation of organizing by “mill girls” in the growing industrial cities throughout the region.

Like other textile mills early in the Industrial Revolution in New England, the workforce at Cocheco was made up largely of young women, often referred to as “mill girls.”  An 1822 employment ad published in a local paper said the company was looking for “smart, capable girls between 12 and 25 years of age to work in the factory to whom constant employment and good encouragement will be given.”  If by “constant employment” they meant 12-hour days and 6-day weeks, the ad was on the mark.  What they didn’t advertise were the conditions of labor.  According to an article published by the New England Historical Society, “The girls worked with only one break from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. They breathed noxious fumes and worked with noisy, dangerous machinery that mangled fingers and limbs.  Managers forbade the girls from talking to each other during the 11-hour day. They were paid in scrip and required to shop in the company store, which raised prices higher than other shops.”

Another historian writes, “The factory owners required the women to sign a work contract titled ‘Conditions on which help is hired by the Cocheco Manufacturing Company, Dover, New Hampshire,’ in which the women agreed to the rules of the company. These rules included the agreement to work for whatever wages the company saw fit to pay and proper deportment at all times.”

If factory managers, like those who managed apparel factories in the globalized economy of modern times, believed that young women would be compliant despite the conditions of their labor, they had another thing coming.

Living in company-owned and managed housing, girls chafed at their ill treatment, denial of educational opportunities, and the disrespect they suffered.  When ownership of the Cocheco Manufacturing Company changed hands in 1828 and the new owners tried to restrict conversations, speed up production, and lower women’s wages by five cents a day (without lowering men’s wages), the “girls” decided they had had enough.

Roughly half of the young women left their looms, walked out of the factory, and formed a procession that stretched for half a mile with the accompaniment of a marching band.  A local newspaper, siding with the mill owners, reported, “The whole presented one of the most disgusting scenes ever witnessed.”  Threatened with being replaced, most of the women went back to their jobs, possibly with the ban on talking lifted.  Other protests against toxic air quality in the factory followed.

Six years later, cuts in wages at mills throughout the region prompted another walkout.  Meeting at the local courthouse, the workers adopted a resolution stating they would not work for such low wages.  “We view with feelings of indignation the attempt made to throw upon us, who are least able to bear it, the effect of this ‘pressure’ by reducing our wages, while those of our overseers and Agent are continued to them at their former high rate. That we think of our wage already low enough, when the peculiar circumstances of our situation are considered; that we are many of us far from our homes, parents, and friends, and it is only by strict economy and untiring industry that any of us have been able to lay up anything,” they agreed.  Decrying the fortunes being amassed by mill owners from their exploited labor, they resolved, “We will neither be cajoled by flattery nor intimidated by threats.”

This job action, too, was probably unsuccessful in the short term.  But within a decade, women were organizing for the ten-hour day at mills throughout New England.

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