Lords of Capital and Knights of Labor: Worcester's Labor Hisotry during the Gilded Age

By Cohen, Bruce | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Lords of Capital and Knights of Labor: Worcester's Labor Hisotry during the Gilded Age


Cohen, Bruce, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Abbreviations

Bureau of Labor Statistics BLS

District Assembly DA

Knights of Labor KOL

Knights of St. Crispin KOSC

Local Assembly LA

Central Labor Union CLU

Lasters' Protective Union LPU

Massachusetts Federation of Labor MFL

Labor News LN

Worcester Daily Times WDT

Worcester Evening Gazette WEG

In 1983, Roy Rosenzweig wrote an important social history: Eight Hours For What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920. In his introduction Rosenzweig states that "his first chapter (Part 1) ... describes some distinguishing features of Worcester: the power of the city's industrialists, the weakness of working-class political parties and trade unions, and the importance and cohesiveness of ethnic communities and organizations."1 In this chapter he dismisses much of Worcester's late nineteenth-century labor movement because "the absence of worker-politicians reflects the failure of explicitly pro-labor political movements (Knights of Labor and Socialists) in Worcester."2 He also finds little to cheer about in terms of labor organizations such as the Knights of Labor and the Central Labor Union.

It is not surprising that Rosenzweig concludes that Worcester's labor movement remained weak in subsequent decades. In the early twentieth century he finds a small labor movement, few strikes, and lack of labor communication among a diverse ethnic community. While he believes that the ethnic communities served as alternatives to trade unions and political parties, he concludes that a combination of paternalism and hardball tactics by an industrial elite committed to a policy of "solidarity as opposed to labor" would inevitably lead to the defeat of labor in confrontations such as the Machinists' Strike of 1915.3

Rosenzweig's grim appraisal of organized labor in Worcester is somewhat overdrawn. A further look at industrial, labor, and political development in the nineteenth century is in order. It is important to remember that the community was late in joining the first wave of the New England industrial revolution between 1810-1860. It is also important to remember that, after the Civil War, Worcester became the heart of an industrial area that encompassed the largest county in size in the Commonwealth. The Blackstone River Valley from Worcester south to the Rhode Island line was a textile swath permeated by textile machine firms, such as Draper (Hopedale), Whitin (Whitinsville) and Crompton & Knowles (Worcester). Rubber works could also be found on the Massachusetts-Rhode Island line in Millville. The shoe industry belt ran more on an east-west tangent from Westborough through Worcester to Spencer and the Brookfields. Textiles also dominated the area southwest of the city in Southbridge and Webster, and in the North County chair making (Gardner) and papermills (Fitchburg) could be found.

While Worcester had 7500 residents in 1840, its industrial development was hindered by lack of water power. Despite the opening of the Blackstone Canal in 1828, the water power problem remained a serious obstacle to manufacturing. Then in the 1840's, a combination of steam-powered buildings which provided "power for rent" to small manufacturers, the opening of the Providence & Worcester railroad, and innovative manufacturing including textile machinery, provided the incentive for the community's industrial take-off. By 1848, the community was chartered as a city. By 1850, its population had more than doubled from the 1840 figure.

Industries such as agricultural and textile machinery manufacturing were emerging alongside the more traditional ones. Several questions need to be asked: who comprised the industrial labor force? Was this work force organized, particularly in terms of the ten hour movement that was sweeping through the Massachusetts mills and factories in the 1840's and 1850's? A recent study by Bruce Laurie is very helpful in answering these questions concerning the antebellum period. …

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