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.
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.