Reform Politics in Hard Times: Battles over Labor Legislation during the Decline of Traditional Manufacturing in Massachusetts, 1922-1928

By Koistinen, David | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Reform Politics in Hard Times: Battles over Labor Legislation during the Decline of Traditional Manufacturing in Massachusetts, 1922-1928


Koistinen, David, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


[L]abor in this state is watching, watching closely what is going to happen to the 48-hour law. Labor put that law here. Labor is going to fight to maintain it.1

A concerted business campaign for cutbacks in social legislation and corporate taxes is a characteristic response to the demise of long-established industries, or de-industrialization.2 Business groups typically claim that social regulations and taxes - inordinate even in prosperous times - constitute an intolerable burden when companies in declining industries are struggling to survive. Such arguments have particular force when de-industrialization occurs in locales where social restrictions are robust and producers downsize due to pressure from competitors elsewhere. All of these realities prevailed in 1920s Massachusetts.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts experienced sharp declines in traditional manufacturing in the years after World War I. Along with neighboring New England jurisdictions, Massachusetts was one of the first parts of the country to experience de-industrialization. As a result of downsizing in textiles, shoes, and other sectors, manufacturing employment in the Bay State dropped by sixteen percent between 1923 and 1929. Cotton textiles, Massachusetts' largest industry, was particularly hard hit. Between 1923 and 1929, the number of cottonmaking establishments in the Commonwealth fell from 191 to 135 and cotton mill employment plunged by 38 percent.3

A competitive assault from producers in the Piedmont region of the American South undermined the cotton textile industry of the Bay State and other northeastern locales. Southern firms had gained control over U.S. production of the cheaper grades of cotton fabric during decades of expansion beginning after Reconstruction. By the early 1920s, Dixie companies had sufficient capacity and skill to take over even the markets for higher-quality cotton goods in which the older mills of the Northeast had come to specialize. The key advantage of textile manufacturing in the Piedmont was the low wages that could be paid in a poor, heavily populated, mostly open-shop region. Less restrictive social legislation and a smaller tax bite were additional benefits of a Dixie location. Confronted by lower-cost southern competition, over-saturated markets, and weak prices, scores of Massachusetts cotton manufacturers shut their plants in the years after World War I.4 Some firms transferred production to the South, but most simply went out of business.5

As textiles and other traditional sectors downsized in the 1920s, the Bay State saw a major corporate campaign for cutbacks in social legislation and taxes. Attention focused on laws limiting factory working hours for women.6 Massachusetts' restrictions in this area were considerably more stringent than those in other cotton-making jurisdictions. The statutes had a significant effect in textiles since much of the sector's labor force was female. Bay State cotton manufacturers spearheaded the push to roll back the hours of work restrictions and took full advantage of the depressed condition of their industry in doing so. They argued that the regulations had to be eased for the Commonwealth's remaining mills to continue operating. Labor was the principal defender of Massachusetts' existing work hours restrictions. Bay State unions had won approval of the statutes in more prosperous times after fierce political struggles and were determined to conserve these gains in the harsh new context of industrial decline. Social reform groups had provided key support in the earlier drive to pass the laws and joined labor during the 1920s in fighting to retain the status quo.

The corporate drive to roll back Massachusetts' hours of work laws was unsuccessful. Bills to ease the regulations were introduced regularly in the state legislature, beginning in the early 1920s, and went nowhere in most years. Advocates of change came somewhat close to altering the most restrictive of the statutes in 1928, as the Republican governor called for action and the list of shuttered factories lengthened. …

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