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Radical Mainers: Mainers Agitate, Organize and Strike for the 10-Hour Day

Direct action in the workplace trumps political reforms in 19th century New England

by | Sep 11, 2021

By the 1840s, the labor movement had spread throughout the Northeast. In addition to organizing to change laws, Maine workers took direct action in the workplace. Although strikes — or “turn-outs,” as they called them in those days — were relatively rare before the Civil War, workers did occasionally withhold their labor to demand better treatment. 

The first recorded strike among shipyard workers in Maine took place in Kittery in 1815, when carpenters at the Navy yard walked off the job over wages. The result of that strike was not recorded, and remains unknown.  

In July of 1836, French-Canadian laborers working on the Kennebec Dam in Augusta — who were “readily recognized by their dress and features, not to mention the patois in which they are vehemently talking,” the Kennebec Journal observed — were fired after they went on strike to protest rules against pipe-smoking. The KJ reported that while the Francos were “athletic and active men,” who did “more work than most of the laborers employed,” they were also the “most incorrigible smokers. … When they talk much, they have to hold the pipe in their hands [and] of course lose much time.”

One of the earliest recorded strikes over hours of labor in Maine happened in April of 1835, when carpenters working on the Mill Dam in Bangor walked off the job. The men argued that they were entitled to leave work earlier because working on the water entailed greater exposure to the elements. After the master carpenter docked them each a quarter a day for their action, the workers organized a committee that delivered a report to their boss demanding full pay. When he refused, 130 men paraded off the worksite, accompanied by two clarinetists. 

Meanwhile, the workers’ committee “occupied a room, with the gravity of a body of Legislators, while the company marched off under their commander,” according to the Bangor Mechanic and Farmer. After receiving a message about the labor unrest, an agent for the Mill Dam Corporation arrived to find “a long regular line of hardy determined men with music playing under the command of a most gentlemanly Captain.”

According to the Mechanic and Farmer, “the agent, a former military man, removed his hat and saluted the entire length of the line.” He and one of the company’s directors then sent a message to the workers announcing that the master carpenter’s decision to dock their pay had been reversed. The workers’ committee “received [the message] by three long deafening cheers.” The Mechanic and Farmer described the strike as “the most gentle, manly turn-out we have ever heard of.”

Female textile workers were also getting organized and fighting back against wage cuts, speed-ups and overwork — first with a strike in New Hampshire in 1828, and then in Lowell, Massachustetts, in 1834. By 1841, the labor movement had reached textile workers at the York Manufacturing Company in Saco (a struggle we’ll discuss in more detail in a future column). 

The most influential labor literature of the time was the “10-Hour Circular,” published by Seth Luther, A.H. Wood and Levi Abell in 1835. The fiery pamphlet ignited a new wave of strikes for shorter work days. Drawing upon scripture, natural rights and the nation’s revolutionary heritage, the authors declared they would “no longer be mere slaves to inhuman, insatiable and unpitying avarice.”

“We have been too long subjected to the odious, cruel, unjust, and tyrannical system which compels the operative Mechanic to exhaust his physical and mental powers by excessive toil, until he has no desire but to eat and sleep, and in many cases he has no power to do either from extreme debility,” the tract read. “The God of the Universe has given us time, health and strength. We utterly deny the right of any man to dictate to us how much of it we shall sell. Brethren in the City, Towns and Country, our cause is yours, the cause of Liberty, the cause of God.”

A Journeyman House Carpenters’ Association banner, circa 1835, promoting the 10-hour day. image/courtesy United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America Records

That same year, the circular, as well as a strike in Boston, helped inspire 20,000 workers in Philadelphia to win the first general strike in North America for the 10-hour workday, including increased wages to make up for the shorter schedule. 

In 1834, trade unions in 13 cities across eight states, including Massachusetts, formed the National Trades Union, the first national federation of such unions. It influenced debates over work hours, conditions in factories employing women, and the issue of child labor. 

The financial crisis known as the “Panic of 1837” wiped out the National Trades Union and dampened most labor organizing for several years, as half of the nation’s banks failed, businesses closed, and thousands of people became unemployed. But in 1840, Democratic President Martin Van Buren issued an executive order mandating that all manual workers hired through government contracts be required to work no more than 10 hours a day. This was a right that clerical workers employed by the government, who worked no more than eight hours per day in the winter and 10 hours in summertime, had enjoyed since 1836. 

Van Buren’s order only applied to federal facilities, like the Navy shipyards in Kittery, so privately owned shipyards were exempt. But it helped inspire shipbuilders in Medford, Massachusetts, to organize and win the 10-hour day.

Shipbuilders in Bath soon took their cue from their brothers in the Bay State. According to historian George McNeill, the failure of previous strikes had made the men “extremely cautious,” but public sentiment had grown strongly in favor of a shorter work day. A local judge reportedly told a meeting of Freemasons that the day should be divided into “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for God and the brethren.”

“In 1841 a firm of Bath boat builders, consisting of four partners, mutually agreed to adopt the ten-hour system,” McNeill wrote, “and in 1844, one of the firms, which was in charge of a marine railway, adopted the system on the repair of vessels. The feeling was so strong in favor of a reduction of hours of labor that a general trades union was formed, some of whom were not directly connected with either house- or shipbuilding. Public meetings were held, and public sentiment was aroused.”

All but two of the shipyards in Bath finally agreed to adopt the 10-hour rule, and soon it expanded city-wide. “[I]n 1847 employers attempted to break the ten-hour day hour system,” McNeill wrote. “But the ship builders bound themselves together under heavy penalties to insist on the old hours. When the short days of the winter season had passed, the employers demanded a return to the old system of working from sun to sun, and for some weeks not a stroke of work was done in any of the yards.”

The community backed the workers, and the bosses were forced to relent. Henry T. Delano, then a manager of the marine railway, sympathized with the strikers. When he realized the employers were weakening in their resolve to enforce the old schedule, he visited workers in their homes and “engaged the best skilled labor in town, setting them to work on the ten-hour system,” wrote McNeill.

Delano’s boss tried to fire him for his organizing efforts, but in an act of solidarity, his would-be replacement refused to take his position. Delano kept his job. He later moved back to Boston, became the senior deacon of the First Congregationalist Church in Charleston, Massachusetts, and worked as a ship caulker at the Charleston shipyard until his retirement. In 1872, Delano and McNeill helped found the Christian Labor Union, the first union organized around Biblical principles and an early promoter of what became known as Christian socialism.

The same year Delano helped lead the Bath shipbuilders to victory, ship carpenters in Portland launched the 10-hour day movement in their city with a mass meeting on February 25, 1847. At the meeting, 44 carpenters passed a resolution pledging to “use all fair and honorable means” to advance the cause for a 10-hour day. They also resolved that “if any carpenter after working for one employer ten hours shall hire himself to the same, or any other, for a greater number of hours (extreme cases excepted) he shall be considered as an enemy to the best interests of the laboring classes, and a foe to the great object we are so anxious to achieve.”

The assembled carpenters formed a committee to request that city officials have one of the city bells rung to call the men to and from work at 10-hour intervals. The Portland Transcript reported that the men subsequently went on strike and “obtained the ten hour system.”

In that spring of ’47, workers across Maine were filled with excitement and hope as the movement for the 10-hour workday picked up steam in shipyards up and down the coast. Following the strikes in Bath and Portland, Mechanics and Laborers’ Associations formed there and in other Maine cities and towns to fight for the 10-hour day. 

A state law instituting the 10-hour day was on the horizon, but it would be riddled with loopholes. The only way most Maine workers would be able to achieve this reform would be through collective struggles in their workplaces during the decades that followed.

 

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 andy@maineworkingclasshistory.com

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