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Radical Mainers: Maine workers launch the fight for a shorter work day

Shipbuilders in Bath are roused to take direct action for humane labor practices

by | Aug 19, 2021

In the 1880s, retired ship carpenter Henry T. Delano was nearing the end of his life when he told labor leader George McNeill about the time he organized Bath shipbuilders to turn out for the first general strike in Maine history. McNeill, one of the most prominent labor organizers of his day, was working with Terence Powderly, Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor, on “The Labor Movement: The problem of to-Day,” the first comprehensive history of the U.S. labor movement up to that point. Although neither McNeill nor Delano appear in school textbooks these days, both made major contributions to the labor movement in Maine and New England.

Having toiled fourteen hours a day in the carding room at the Woolen Company in Amesbury, Massachusetts, since the age of 10, McNeill was just 14 when he organized hundreds of child workers at the mill in 1852 to strike against the elimination of morning and afternoon breaks. His lifelong dedication to the fight against what he called the “physical and moral degradation of over-work” earned him the title Father of the Eight-Hour Movement.

Then in his 80s, Delano could recall the days when shipbuilders in Bath worked from sunrise to sunset. These workers had very little time for anything but toil, and labored until their bodies broke down in middle age. Ship carpenters in Philadelphia launched the first major strike for a shorter work day in 1791. But it took several decades of organizing and striking to build enough power to force employers to schedule the work day around a set number of hours, rather than the arc of the sun. It was a fight Delano and the Bath shipbuilders played a key role in winning.

From the early 1830s to the late 1840s, the movement for shorter work days picked up momentum. As competition between master craftsmen, entrepreneurs and merchant capitalists intensified, employers lowered the piece rates paid to workers for the products they made. Workers and wage-earning journeymen, who were used to the more casual rhythms of small workshops or farm chores, were forced to toil longer and longer, doing repetitive tasks to increase production. While large employers were making fortunes in the emerging industrial economy, workers were being squeezed by a 66 percent rise in the cost of living during this period.

Proponents of the long work day would often justify it on moral grounds, arguing that workers would only use the extra time for drunken mischief. Labor activists countered that the sun-to-sun system was inhumane, inefficient, dangerous, and prevented workers from spending time with their families and cultivating their minds. Belfast’s Republican Journal, a staunchly Democratic newspaper and early supporter of labor unions, even appealed to nativist sentiments in an 1847 editorial supporting the 10-hour day:

Those who think that even sixteen hours of labor may be exacted from the mechanic every day, and that labor is on average as valuable as, say, the labor for ten hours a day, overlook this fact, that the labor of a man is proportioned not to the length of time he works, but to the strength and ability he brings to the work.

And it is not merely in a physical light that this should be viewed. The ability to achieve a great amount of labor of any kind, depends as much upon the intellect as upon the muscles of the body. It is a well-known fact that American laborers do, in the same time, perform at least a third more labor than the same class in Europe. The cause of this is to be found in the superior intellect of our people, for in merely brute strength they have probably nothing to boast of over Europe mechanics.

Most labor activists during this era focused their energy on winning political reforms through the electoral system, but some workers began to take direct action in the workplace. The 1830s brought the first mass formation of trade unions, city trades councils, and even a national federation of trade unions. As many as 300,000 U.S. workers got organized during that decade, according to some estimates. Between 1825 and 1832, journeymen carpenters led the first strikes for the 10-hour day in Boston and Philadelphia. Although none were successful at first, strikes spread throughout the North.

The most influential labor leader in New England at the time was Seth Luther, a carpenter and union organizer who famously took part in Dorr’s Rebellion — an unsuccessful attempt, in 1841, to overthrow Rhode Island’s ruling rural elite and repeal a law that disenfranchised urban workers by requiring property ownership to vote. Despised by the mill owners of his day, Luther railed against the industrial capitalists who treated men, women and children like company property.

During the summer of 1832, Luther called on skilled and unskilled factory workers to unite and fight back in his “Address to the Working Men of New England on the State of Education and the Conditions of the Producing Classes in Europe and America,” a speech delivered to audiences in Portland and Saco. He explicitly took aim at the exploitative labor practices of the York Manufacturing Company, a modern textile mill built on Saco Island the year before.

“The whole system of labor in New England, more especially in cotton mills, is a cruel system of exaction on the bodies and minds of the producing classes, destroying the energies of both, and for no other object than to enable the rich ‘to take care of themselves’ while the ‘poor must work or starve,’” Luther thundered.

“The rich do take care of themselves,” he continued. “While the daughters of these Nabobs are ‘taking care of themselves’ while sitting gracefully at the harp or piano, in their splendid dwellings, while music floats from quivering strings through perfumed and adorned apartments, and dies with gentle cadence on the delicate ear of the rich, the nerves of the poor woman and child in the cotton mill are quivering with almost dying agony, from excessive labor, to support this splendor….”

During Luther’s appearance at Portland City Hall on August 22, 1832, mechanics and artisans organized a branch of the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Workingmen, which was agitating for shorter work days. Among the delegates who’d convened in Providence, Rhode Island, the year before to found that association was William Huntress, of Saco, who served on the committee that wrote up its constitution. Several people with that name lived in southern Maine in the early nineteenth century, but this William Huntress was likely a cabinet maker, born about 1806 in Lyman (just west of Saco), who lived for most of his life nearby in South Berwick.

Members of the new association were required to pledge not to work longer than 10 hours a day without extra compensation. The organization — which accepted all “producers,” including masters, journeymen, laborers, small businessmen and farmers — assailed the mills of Europe as “monuments to cupidity and avarice” that would crush the spirit of “American freemen.” The Association declared that while “the free laborers have not yet reached the level of the slave, some of them are fast descending to it, particularly young children of ‘workingmen.’” Members vowed to protect the small workshop from the “oppression of the idle, avaricious, and autocratic.”

In its first resolution, the Portland branch’s members expressed anxiety that the factory system in Europe was being imported here, threatening the freedom and autonomy of workers.

Whereas, The present condition of the Mechanics and the laboring men of Europe (whose ignorance causes them to be the half starved slaves of Manufacturing monopolists) convinces us, that unless such aristocratical institutions, which are now rapidly increasing in our country, are by the united efforts of the Farmer, Mechanic, and Laborer checked, in the course of their unhallowed system of treatment to the thousands of helpless children in their employ, that our next generation will be as ignorant as the degraded poor in Europe, as totally unfit for citizens of a free country and the wives and mothers of such, and more miserable than the slaves of the south…

[Therefore be it] Resolved, That we pledge ourselves to co-operate with our Brother Farmers, Mechanics, and other Laboring men, in their endeavors to diffuse intelligence, relieve the wants of the poor and oppressed, and equally protect and cause to be fully represented in our National and State Legislatures, the Farmer, Mechanic, Laborer and Manufacturer, and every other class of American citizens.

The Portland branch sent four delegates to the Association’s annual convention the following month. Topics discussed at the gathering included the 10-hour work day, the creation of workingmen’s lyceums for lectures and discussions, militia reform, extension of male suffrage, universal education, equal taxation, the abolition of imprisonment for debt, and a national bankruptcy law, among other concerns. The following year, Mainers again attended the annual convention, where they called for the formation of trade unions “in every town and city in New England.”

Some historians believe Bath shipbuilders also likely went on strike for shorter work days in the 1830s. Delano told McNeill the 10-hour-day question was debated in every Bath shipyard in the early 1830s. However, if there was a strike, it likely failed — when Bath shipbuilders formed the Bath Literary Institute, in 1839, they tellingly, and diplomatically, pledged to “avoid exciting topics.”

But the desire for dignity and humane working conditions wouldn’t die. Just a year later, in 1840, shipbuilders formed Maine’s first union, and a city-wide movement was again launched in Bath for the 10-hour work day.

 

Will Chapman is the Librarian and Archivist at Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO. You can reach them at will@maineworkingclasshistory.com and aobrien2008@gmail.com

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