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The United States first union of working women | Bad Business

The 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 its own right, especially for pioneering the “Rhode Island” factory organization system.

Nonetheless, Slater’s and all other similarly organized mills performed the sole function of converting cotton into cotton yarn and rarely employed more than 30 odd workers, severely restricting the scale and scope of their production.

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

Haley Alvarez-Lauto | Senior Graphic Artist

Often called the first “modern” factory, the Boston Manufacturing Company and other mills like it employed the “Waltham System.” 

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

Additionally, these Waltham system mills hired almost exclusively unmarried women aged 15 to 35 who would eat, sleep and live 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 pooled the daughters from the surrounding area’s many different rural communities, attracting a much larger workforce. 

There is a strange duality about these factories. Conditions within them were objectively awful, the work meant being locked up for 12-14 hours a day, cramped shoulder to shoulder on a factory floor — the air full of the deafening sound of machines and respiratory system damaging cotton fibers. 

The boarding houses would sometimes house eight women to a room and vigilant keepers would impose strict curfews and an oppressive code of conduct. 

However, they were still flocked to in droves. What was the appeal? Being a “Mill Girl,” as they were called, represented independence both financially and otherwise. 

Very few other jobs besides unpaid domestic labor were available to women at the time, and the factory was an escape from their patriarchal family farms to be surrounded by other like-minded young women.

Those boarding houses became extremely tight knit communities, with the mill women eating, sleeping, working and socializing together all hours of the day.

The mill may have been the lesser of two evils for some, but it was still far from idyllic. In 1834 the mill women saw their wages suddenly slashed, and the delicate balance incentivizing them to tolerate their own exploitation had finally shifted.

In February of that year, hundreds of workers left their stations and marched through the streets, rallying from mill to mill all across Lowell — however, unable to garnish enough support, the strike ended unsuccessfully in a matter of days. 

There was another much larger strike in 1836 involving over 1,500 workers which succeeded at eliminating an increase in boarding house rents. In 1845 they began publishing a newspaper called the “Voice of Industry” advocating for social reform, and founded the Lowell Female Labor Association, the United State’s first union of working women. 

Textile mills, as seen by the Slater Mill, took a production process which was previously done by and for local communities. By taking private ownership over the means of production, they found a way to extract a profit.

To do this, as seen by the Lowell Mills, they massively increased productivity by bringing together people from across many different communities, having them work together towards a common goal with common interests. 

Textile mills illustrate both how capitalism entrenches itself and how it can be improved upon to create a better system more beneficial for all. Ownership is passive and does not create any value. Labor is what works the machines allowing for the luxuries of modernity. This system does not need ownership to continue functioning. However, without labor, it would all come to a grinding halt. 

That is why in the present day, as it was in the Lowell mill women’s time, the most radical non-violent act you can do is withholding your labor and asserting 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 fellow workers to do the same. 

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

In many ways we’ve come so far from the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, and yet in the most fundamental ways, nothing has changed. Until we rend 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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