1845 Allegheny Cotton Mill Strike

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Coverage of the 1845 Allegheny Cotton Mill Strike that appeared in the Voice of Industry. Allegheny was a separate city in Pennsylvania until it became part of Pittsburgh in 1907. The strike, of mostly female textile operatives, started on 15 September and lasted until 20 October. Among other demands, the workers struck for a reduction in the hours of labor to ten hours. Although the strike was not immediately successful, it did eventually pressure the Pennsylvania state legislature into passing a ten-hour bill in 1848, which manufacturers then sought to undermine.

Submitted by adri on March 26, 2024

Mass Turn Out At Pittsburgh—Demand for a Reduction in Hours of Labor, by the Factory Girls of Allegheny City, and Pittsburgh—the Cause of the Laborer Onward!

We are happy to lay before our readers the late proceedings of the operatives of Pittsburgh and Allegheny City, towards the reduction of the hours of labor and the establishment of a "ten-hour system" among the incorporated manufactories of those places. That any system of incorporation, or association which virtually obliges workingmen and women to labor more hours than their physical strength will allow, is unnatural, unjust and un-Christian, is beyond controversy. It violates every principle of equality among men, by taking advantage of the necessities and conditions of the poor and dependent, and making them slaves to capital and unjust combinations.

We deny the right of any man, body of men or government, to constitute any number of hours a natural and general day's work; this can be regulated only by the age, condition, constitution and nature of the employment of the operative. Hence the power granted to corporate bodies by legislative enactments through which they can require the unjust and oppressive number of twelve and thirteen hours per day from their operatives, is wholly assumed, in opposition to the declared natural rights of man, and no authority whatever, on earth or from heaven, can be adduced to sustain this slavish system; begat in despotism and now being nourished and fostered in "Republican America," and we call upon the operatives of New England, as they regard their moral, physical and mental prosperity, as they regard the rights granted them by their creator as an inviolate heritage, as they regard the good of posterity and the final prevalence of human justice and pure Christianity among the children of earth, to unite with the operatives of Pittsburgh and Allegheny City in resisting this system of manufacturing feudalism. God never created this fair world for a slave market, wherein the bones and sinews—nay the very life's blood of a large portion of dependent and defenceless females may be bartered away with impunity, upon the glutted auction stand of avarice. Then fear not workingmen and women of New England; by every consideration of duty to yourselves and your fellow laborers, you are conjured to disenthrall yourselves from this bondage. Heaven urges you on, and the sentiments of just men bid you go forward.

We assure our friends of Pittsburgh that the statement relative to the number of hours in Lowell is incorrect—for the honor of New England we are sorry to state it—for the honor of Massachusetts, the home of the pilgrim and the "land of the free and the brave," we regret to acknowledge to the world, that thousands of the daughters of the "Mothers of the Revolution"—thousands who are destined to be mothers, watch the infancy and give the moral tone and physical character to the future generation, are [in] this "very prosperous" and auspicious year of 1845 at work between twelve and thirteen hours per day, in corporation prison houses, to secure a little food and raiment for the body!—Shame on this state of things! And yet, "good old patriotic, Christian Massachusetts," through her "honorable legislative," says, "this is a subject upon which we cannot legislate." Workingmen and women, this is a subject upon which humanity can legislate! Will you act accordingly?

Voice of Industry, Vol. 1 No. 19, 2 October 1845

The Pittsburgh Strike.1

The female operatives of Pittsburgh could not succeed in obtaining their desire. Their employers, in petty spite, have increased the hours of labor.—Boston Post.

Such is the respect paid to the just claims of the people from whose labors our wealthy and aristocratic manufacturers derive all their princely fortunes. When they ask for their rights, they oppress them, when they ask for bread, they give them a serpent, when they ask for milder terms, they are scourged with whips of scorpions. O, how hard it is to be insulted and tyrannized over, by the worthless and unworthy, who vent their spleen on honest operatives, over whom chance has given them power! What can be more just than the request of the girls of the Pittsburgh and other factories, that they should not be confined to those unwholesome prison houses but ten hours per day; the least they could have done was to have denied their request in kind language. But not only is their reasonable petition denied, but new burdens accompanied by insult have been imposed upon them. Surely, if any fires in the prison house of the damned burn with redoubled heat, they will be reserved for the especial punishment of such oppressors and enemies of their kind.2

We have much to say on the murderous practice of working operatives, especially females, an unreasonable number of hours in our factories.—Olive Branch.

A Strike.3

We see by the Pittsburgh papers that four thousand of the operatives in the factories of that city are upon "a strike" for the "ten-hour system."—Ex. paper [example paper?]

The above paragraph is going the rounds of the papers as an ordinary item of news. While "miraculous escapes," "horrid calamities," and "shocking accidents," are made the hinges upon which to turn very interesting homilies for the good of the public, an attempt of four thousand men, women and children to prolong their lives, to loosen the bonds of monopoly—cold calculating avarice, is placed before the public in a paragraph of half a dozen lines, without "note or comment." This fact shows a lamentable want of interest in the welfare of the laboring classes, the welfare of the country at large; for who is there that does not acknowledge the producers to be the heart, bone, sinew, of the body politic. Yet avarice dictates, and the welfare of this class is no more cared for—aye, not so much cared for as the welfare of classes of the lower orders of animal creation. This state of things should not exist, public policy, government policy should discountenance it. But it will exist, monopoly, avarice, will carry the high hand, prey upon the life blood of the masses, until the masses, the laboring classes move in this thing themselves. They should define their duties to community to them. They should demand their rights, and say to the proud, overbearing, oppressing monopoly—

"Thus far, no farther go,
Here let thy proud waves be stayed."—Manchester Democrat.

Voice of Industry, Vol. 1 No. 20, 9 October 1845

The Strike—Our Course.4

We have been asked whether we do not intend to give up the effort to introduce the ten-hour system, since the operatives have returned to work on the old terms. Certainly not. We see not why we should even hesitate one moment. True it has been proven, as we feared from the first, that the rich manufacturer, even in this great country of ours, can compel his poor operatives to work just as many hours as he pleases, or starve, if the community will countenance and aid him in doing so; but we do not believe that the infamous means employed to array the community against the operatives and their friends will succeed again. We believe in the omnipotence of a good cause; we believe that every mechanic and laboring man is interested, and can be made to see it, in the establishment of the system; that the humane of all classes will yet join with us in endeavoring to introduce it; and that we shall not always be regarded as a demagogue and meddler for endeavors to secure justice to woman. Men who look only to interest—who think it is of more importance that trade shall flourish than that justice be done—may be swayed by the selfish appeals which for a time have checked this movement, but the wise and good of all classes have been led to think, and we are satisfied that the apparent defeat will be found a victory for our cause.

Woman is wronged in every occupation and condition of life. She labors but for a pittance in the workshop, or as a domestic servant. She is debarred from every means of righting her own wrongs, by her present social position. She must have others to plead for her, and if the high and mighty and talented will not speak in her behalf, we shall face calumny and misrepresentation to do what we can for her.

Though professing Christians denounce us—though a Christian preacher of this city says we should not meddle with the world, 'tis a bad world, and we should get along as comfortably as possible till we are ready to leave it for heaven! (we wonder what he preaches for?)—we think it our duty to do all we can to improve the condition of man. For that reason we are a temperance man, an antislavery man, and an advocate of social reform. We have no more interest than others have in any of these movements—we have not been a drunkard, nor slave, nor a factory operative—but because fellow beings have been, are, and more may be, we feel bound to warn them—to meliorate their condition. It does not appear to us that any right of refusal to act against evil is left—we must do what we can, or be criminal. Perhaps we might become habituated to that king of non-committalism which always looks to make a safe leap for popularity, and we dislike to be frowned on by old friends, but conscience would ever and anon be reminding us that we had shaken hands with the devil only to learn to despise ourself; and neither he nor the world can tempt us to that folly.

We labor not only in hope, but in confidence of ultimate triumph in the ten-hour movement. We have made arrangements for continuing the warfare by meetings, associations, &c.; a correspondence will be opened with the operatives eastward [in New England]; a publication devoted to the cause is projected; and we have received the first number of a monthly tract commenced by the Lowell operatives, since the strike took place here. They are blind who do not see that we have every reason to stand fast, and be confident of triumph. The manufacturers will not risk another five weeks' suspension for a slight consideration. They have lost three hundred and forty hours by the suspension—more than half a year's loss, at two hours per day.—Pittsburgh Spirit of Liberty

Voice of Industry, Vol. 1 No. 21, 7 November 1845

Note: spelling and punctuation have been slightly modified.

  • 1It seems the Voice reprinted this commentary from both the Boston Post and Olive Branch.
  • 2This passage could perhaps be a reference to the Great Fire of Pittsburgh that occurred earlier in April 1845.
  • 3The Voice reprinted this article from the Manchester Democrat.
  • 4The Voice reprinted this article from the Pittsburgh Spirit of Liberty.



2 weeks 3 days ago

Submitted by westartfromhere on March 28, 2024

Should we regard the American "yeoman" farmers, whom these social reformers (George Henry Evans, John Farrel, Horace Greeley, et al) advocated for, as "settler-colonialists"? After all, the "free land" was already occupied although not legally recognised as such. Or, more crudely, should we regard these yeoman farmers as exploited proletarians, as "white slaves", cultivating the land for future industrial use of capital?


2 weeks 2 days ago

Submitted by adri on March 29, 2024

Should we regard the American "yeoman" farmers, whom these social reformers (George Henry Evans, John Farrel, Horace Greeley, et al) advocated for, as "settler-colonialists"? After all, the "free land" was already occupied although not legally recognised as such.

The Voice did not really deal much with Native Americans, though it is certainly true that many American social reformers and anti-capitalists saw the opening up of public lands as a means of escaping the poverty and evils of the developing capitalist system in the northern states.[1] However, I don’t think that necessarily means these same people were all settler-colonialists in favor of murdering or replacing the indigenous inhabitants already living in the west. American westward expansion was certainly characterized by such violence (e.g. the 1830 Indian Removal Act, the violence against Native Americans during the California Gold Rush, and countless other examples), but many of the Americans and European immigrants who took advantage of the later 1862 Homestead Act were often simply looking for a better life. Nonetheless, I also think the social reformers and others who advocated for people moving west would have done better to confront the “worker/social question” where they already lived, especially considering how northern capitalism would eventually spread from "sea to shining sea."

Or, more crudely, should we regard these yeoman farmers as exploited proletarians, as "white slaves", cultivating the land for future industrial use of capital?

Regarding whether American (or European) wage-laborers were the “white slaves” to capital, such language can be problematic, especially when employed to diminish the horrors of black chattel slavery, but I generally don’t find its use by socialists (as opposed to right-wingers) to be an issue. Marx, for example, made quite a few analogies to American slavery in Capital when he spoke about the condition of nominally “free” wage-laborers. The use of expressions like “wage-slavery” is also ubiquitous these days, and it would be ridiculous to argue that we should stop using such terms because they supposedly lessen the significance or brutality of actual slavery. Bourgeois historians love to ridicule historical or contemporary opposition to American industrialization (just pick up any textbook) by pointing out how slavery’s supporters (e.g. George Fitzhugh) also attacked northern capitalism. However, such historians conveniently ignore how northern workers opposed the developing factory system themselves, in addition to southern chattel slavery; many northerners thus stood against all forms of unfreedom. Here's just one example from the Voice (or the New Era of Industry—they changed their name in 1848), in which the author was speaking about the upcoming (1848) US presidential election:

The question of the non-extension of slavery, taken by itself, provided that could be done, is a great question. But it is only a very small part of the question of which it forms a part, which is the great question of labor—the question of humanity's right to live in its own free impassioned action—by the fruit of its own free and voluntary pursuits. It is not enough to plant oneself against slavery's extension, but upon its extinction; not against negro chattel slavery alone, but also against white and black wage slavery, wherever it exists. It is of no use to say that a man shall not work as a slave, until you can establish conditions whereby he may work as a free man. It is not negro emancipation alone which the age is calling for; but for the universal redemption of labor. It is not fragments of social architecture, built up into detached and isolated individualities, but its unity, integrity, and the synthesis wherein each fragment finds its complement, in its association with each other. (New Era of Industry, Vol. 1 No. 9)

1. It’s interesting to note that Bakunin also referenced, in 1867, how going west was often an escape for many American workers. He was also writing after the 1862 Homestead Act:

Bakunin wrote: It has been otherwise in North America; offering a freedom which does not exist anywhere else, it attracts every year hundreds of thousands of energetic, industrious, and intelligent settlers whom it is in a position to admit because of this wealth. It thereby keeps poverty away and at the same time staves off the moment when the social question will arise. A worker who finds no work or is dissatisfied with the wages which capital offers him can in the last resort always make his way to the Far West and set about clearing a patch of land in the wilderness.

Since this possibility is always open as a way out for all the workers of America, it naturally keeps wages high and affords to each an independence unknown in Europe. This is an advantage; but there is also a disadvantage. As the good prices for industrial goods are largely due to the good wages received by labor, American manufacturers are not in a position in most cases to compete with the European manufacturers. The result is that the industry of the Northern states finds it necessary to impose a protectionist tariff. This, however, first brings about the creation of a number of artificial industries, and particularly the oppression and ruination of the nonmanufacturing Southern states, which drives them to call for secession. Finally, the result is the crowding together in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and others of masses of workers who gradually begin to find themselves in a situation analogous to that of workers in the great manufacturing states of Europe. And, as a matter of fact, we now see the social question confronting the Northern states just as it has confronted us a great deal earlier.

However, among other things, I wouldn’t really agree with his argument that the northern states were only beginning to confront the “social question” in the 1860s. As evidenced by strikes like the one in Allegheny, American workers were already expressing dissatisfaction with the emerging capitalist system by the 1840s and earlier.


2 weeks 2 days ago

Submitted by westartfromhere on March 29, 2024

Much appreciate your reference to "sea to shining sea." Reminds me of another contemporary reformist catchphase in the "settler-colonialist" context.

Wow. Interesting reading: It is not fragments of social architecture, built up into detached and isolated individualities, but its unity, integrity, and the synthesis wherein each fragment finds its complement, in its association with each other.

Reading Bakunin, it is hard to see why he and Marx would have any disagreement. That short piece reads like it could have come directly from the pen of Marx.