To the Streets and the Halls: Workers, Protest, and Organizing
Working-class protest in the mechanized factories of antebellum New England took a variety of forms -- from verbal and written criticisms of factories, to defiance of company regulations, to work stoppages, to the formation of labor organizations. Sometimes the expression of workers' discontent was spontaneous and not intended to be a conscious critique of industrial labor. In other instances, simple statements and acts resonated with a deeper feeling of opposition to the factory system. 1
Working-class protest was also quite rich and dynamic as it evolved in the antebellum decades. Operatives often experimented with new forms of protest and adapted their tactics to changing conditions in the factories and among the workers. Sometimes the changing character of protest also had rather ironic consequences. Workers often found themselves taking bold action in defense of rather modest goals, or laboring hard to build mass organizations that launched scathing critiques of the factory system but rarely directly confronted the power of the corporations.
Some workers engaged in anonymous and surreptitious protest against particular authority figures rather than publicly challenging the factory system as a whole. John Rogers observed how machinists in the Amoskeag shops of Manchester, New Hampshire, displayed their displeasure with the superintendent, C. P. Crane. He told his father: "Mr. Crane is not a popular man in the shop. . . . There are chalk sketches, all about, in the shape of a bird's body with a man's head & he is nicknamed the 'old bird.'" Such caricatures were a way for workers to vent their grievances without directly confronting the manager and risking dismissal. These practices of mocking management were also found in the poem The Price of Weavers in Greenville. The author noted that the rather suggestive name "Cock-sparrow" was "given by an ingenious yankee to the Boss weaver." And some workers in one of the Bristol, Connecticut, clock factories hanged their overseer, Levi McKee, in