The first union of working women in the United States

Slater Mill, a water-powered mechanized textile mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, became America’s first factory in 1790. The Slater Mill was revolutionary in itself, particularly as the pioneer of the “Rhode Island” factory organization system.

Despite this, Slater’s and all other similarly organized factories served the sole function of converting cotton into cotton yarn and rarely employed more than 30 odd workers, severely limiting the scale and scale of their production.

A qualitative leap forward occurred in 1813, less than ten miles from the Boston University campus, when the Boston Manufacturing Company opened a shop in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Haley Alvarez-Lauto | Senior Graphic Designer

The Boston Manufacturing Company, often referred to as the first “modern” factory, and other similar factories used the “Waltham system”.

The Waltham system was the first to bring every step of the textile production process under one roof, a principle called “vertical integration” that massively minimized costs and maximized efficiency.

In addition, these mills of the Waltham system hired almost exclusively unmarried women, ages 15 to 35, who ate, slept, and lived together in boarding houses on the factory grounds. While the Rhode Island system relied on converting small farming communities into small “mill towns,” the Waltham system combined daughters from the many different rural communities around and attracted a much larger workforce.

These factories have a strange duality. The conditions inside them were objectively terrible, the work meant being cooped up 12 to 14 hours a day, crammed shoulder to shoulder on a factory floor – the air full of deafening noises from machines and respiratory tracts damaging cotton fibres.

The boarding houses sometimes housed eight women to a room, and vigilant guards imposed strict curfews and a repressive code of conduct.

However, they were still flooded in droves. What was the appeal? Being a “mill girl,” as they were called, meant financial and other independence.

There were very few jobs available to women then, apart from unpaid housework, and the factory was a haven from their patriarchal family farms to be surrounded by other like-minded young women.

These boarding houses became extremely close-knit communities, where the millwives ate, slept, worked, and socialized together throughout the day.

The mill may have been the lesser evil for some, but it was far from idyllic. By 1834, mill women saw their wages suddenly reduced, and the delicate balance that led them to tolerate their own exploitation had shifted for good.

In February of that year, hundreds of workers left their stations and marched through the streets, rallying from plant to plant across Lowell – but, unable to garner sufficient support, the strike ended unsuccessfully within days.

In 1836 there was another much larger strike, involving over 1,500 workers, which successfully prevented an increase in pension rents. In 1845 they began publishing a newspaper called the Voice of Industry that advocated social reform and founded the Lowell Female Labor Association, the first union for working women in the United States.

Textile mills, as exemplified by the Slater Mill, took over a production process previously performed by and for local communities. By privately owning the means of production, they found a way to make a profit.

To achieve this, as Lowell Mills see, they massively increased productivity by bringing people from many different communities together and working them towards a common goal with common interests.

Garment mills illustrate how capitalism entrenches and how it can be improved to create a better system that is more beneficial to all. Property is passive and creates no value. Work is what operates the machines that make the luxuries of modernity possible. This system does not require ownership to continue to function. Without work, however, everything would grind to a halt.

Therefore, in this day and age, as in the days of the Lowell mill women, the most radical nonviolent act you can do is to hold back your work and assert yourself as an autonomous being who refuses to be a cog in an exploitative machine. as well as organizing, coordinating, and strategizing with enough of your peers to do the same.

The collective labor of the working masses, from every factory floor to the fast-food drive-through, has built the modern world and our current epoch of unprecedented prosperity.

In many ways we have come so far since the early days of the industrial revolution, and yet essentially nothing has changed. Until we snatch the means of production from the hands of those who monopolize them for their own selfish gain, the true revolutionary potential of modernity will never be realized.


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