In the US and Canada, the first Monday in September is Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer vacation (even if you’ve been back in school for weeks already). Acorns are falling, pumpkin spice is in the air, and we’re all looking forward to sweater season (even if it’s still 95 degrees out). But as this Labor Day weekend winds down, let’s have a look at a fascinating 19th century landmark in the history of labor reform—and the crucial role played by some brave girls.
Labor Day has its origins in the labor movement—workers banding together to improve wages, benefits, and conditions in the workplace. It has been a national holiday celebrating the working man (and woman, boy, and girl!) in the United States and Canada since 1894, as the observance had been growing in local communities for several years.
Workers have always stuck together and looked after one another. In 18th century England, in the days before insurance, coworkers formed clubs to collect money for injured fellow workers and their families. Calling themselves by such names as The Friendly Society of Millworkers or the Benevolent Brotherhood of Weavers, these friendly societies were the precursor to modern labor unions (sometimes called “combinations” in Britain). [Some were also the precursors to secret societies… but that is another story.]
Drawn by the promise of independence and good wages, young women and girls flocked to New England’s cotton mills. Massachusetts factory owner Francis Cabot Lowell touted his mills as an improvement over the horrific conditions textile workers faced in English factories. But in time, competition increased, profit won out over worker welfare, and more and more workers worked longer and longer hours for less and less pay.
Girls as young as ten worked fourteen-hour days around noisy, dangerous machinery, risking life and limb for pennies a day, leaving little time and even less energy for education or leisure. In 1824, when millworkers in Rhode Island had their workday increased, they went on strike. In 1828, striking workers in New Hampshire won back an hour of time. And in 1834, workers in Lowell, Massachusetts formed America’s first women’s labor union, the Factory Girls Association, led by president Sarah Bagley, a longtime Lowell millworker.
Lowell became the hub of the millworkers’ labor movement. But despite their efforts, the pace of work (and the machines) continued to increase and wages continued to fall. Strikes were crushed by mill owners—scores of striking workers at one mill were fired and blacklisted (unable to work at other mills in town) after one 1842 walkout.
The mill girls did not give up! They continued to organize and strike, demanding safer working conditions, shorter hours, and better pay. In 1840, they took their fight to the state government, under the aegis of a new union, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, pressing for legislation to reduce the workday to 10 hours. It took another 34 years and the support of other industries’ unions before the ten-hour workday became law, and through it all, millworkers across the region stepped up, walked out, and made their voices heard.
Today, the textile heritage of Lowell—including its brave and pioneering young labor reformers—is preserved as a national historical park.
Labor Day is a holiday now, a chance to kick back and relax. But while you’re basking in the last days of summer freedom, spare a moment to recall the young workers of yesteryear who stood up against oppressive industries to fight for their rights. (And remember that millions of kids worldwide still work in dangerous or poorly-paid conditions.)