Howard Zinn's history of the strike of 20,000 US shoe manufacturing workers - men and women - in New England. Lasting several weeks, the strike won wage increases for the poorly-paid workers.
It was the shoemakers of Lynn, Massachusetts, a factory town north east of Boston, who started the largest strike to take place in the United States before the Civil War. Lynn had pioneered in the use of sewing machines in factories, replacing shoemaker artisans. The factory workers in Lynn, who began to organise in the l830s, later started a militant newspaper, the Awl. In 1844, four years before Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto appeared, the Awl wrote:
The division of society into the producing and the non-producing classes, and the fact of the unequal distribution of value between the two, introduces us at once to another distinction—that of capital and labour. . . . labour now becomes a commodity. . . . Antagonism and opposition of interest is introduced in the community; capital and labour stand opposed.
The economic crisis of 1857 brought the shoe business to a halt, and the workers of Lynn lost their jobs. There was already anger at machine-stitching replacing shoemakers. Prices were up, wages were repeatedly cut, and by the fall of 1859 men were earning $3 a week and women were earning $1 a week, working sixteen hours a day. In early 1860, a mass meeting of the newly formed Mechanics Association demanded higher wages. When the manufacturers refused to meet with their committees, the workers called a strike for Washington’s Birthday. That morning 3,000 shoemakers met in the Lyceum Hall in Lynn and set up committees of 100 to post the names of scabs, to guard against violence, to make sure shoes would not be sent out to be finished elsewhere.
In a few days, shoeworkers throughout New England joined the strike—in Natick, Newburyport, Haverhill, Marblehead, and other Massachusetts towns, as well as towns in New Hampshire and Maine. In a week, strikes had begun in all the shoe towns of New England, with Mechanics Associations in twenty-five towns and twenty thousand shoe workers on strike. Newspapers called it “The Revolution at the North,” “The Rebellion Among the Workmen of New England,” “Beginning of the Conflict Between Capital and Labour.”
One thousand women and five thousand men marched through the streets of Lynn in a blizzard, carrying banners and American flags. Women shoebinders and stitchers joined the strike and held their own mass meeting. A New York Herald reporter wrote of them: “They assail the bosses in a style which reminds one of the amiable females who participated in the first French Revolution.” A huge Ladies’ Procession was organised, the women marching through streets high with snowdrifts, carrying signs: "American Ladies Will Not Be Slaves," "Weak in Physical Strength but Strong in Moral Courage," "We Dare Battle for the Right," "Shoulder to Shoulder with our Fathers, Husbands, and Brothers." Ten days after that, a procession of 10,000 striking workers, including delegations from Salem, Marblehead, and other towns, men and women, marched through Lynn, in what was the greatest demonstration of labour to take place in New England up to that time.
Police from Boston and militia were sent in to make sure strikers did not interfere with shipments of shoes to be finished out of the state. The strike processions went on, while city grocers and provisions dealers provided food for the strikers. The strike continued through March with morale high, hut by April it was losing force. The manufacturers offered higher wages to bring the strikers back into the factories, but without recognising the unions, so that workers still had to face the employer as individuals.
Most of the shoeworkers were native-born Americans, Alan Dawley says in his study of the Lynn strike (Class and Community). They did not accept the social and political order that kept them in poverty, however much it was praised in American schools, churches, newspapers. In Lynn, he says, “articulate, activist Irish shoe and leather workers joined Yankees in flatly rejecting the myth of success. Irish and Yankee workers jointly… looked for labour candidates when they went to the polls, and resisted strikebreaking by local police.” Trying to understand why this fierce class spirit did not lead to independent revolutionary political action, Dawley concludes that the main reason is that electoral politics drained the energies of the resisters into the channels of the system.
Dawley disputes some historians who have said the high rate of mobility of workers prevented them from organising in revolutionary ways. He says that while there was a high turnover in Lynn too, organising discontent.” He also suggests that mobility helps people see that others are in similar conditions. He thinks the struggle of European workers for political democracy, even while they sought economic equality, made them class-conscious. American workers, however, had already gained political democracy by the l830s, and so their economic battles could be taken over by political parties that blurred class lines.
This article was taken from Howard Zinn’s excellent A People's History of the United States.We heartily recommend you buy A People's History of the United States now.
OCRed by Linda Towlson and lightly edited by libcom - US to UK spelling, additional details, clarifications and links added.
For a contemporary news report of the Lynn strike, from the New York Times, see;