The first working women’s union in the United States

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 in pioneering the “Rhode Island”.

However, Slater’s mills 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 limiting the scale and scope of their production.

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

Haley Alvarez-Lauto | Senior Graphic Artist

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

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

Additionally, these mills of the Waltham system almost exclusively employed unmarried women between the ages of 15 and 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 brought together the daughters of the surrounding area’s diverse rural communities, attracting a much larger workforce.

There is a strange duality in these factories. The conditions inside were objectively terrible, the work meant being locked up for 12-14 hours a day, shoulder to shoulder on a factory floor – the air filled with the deafening sound of machines and the respiratory system damaging the fibers of cotton.

Boarding houses sometimes housed eight women in one room, and vigilant caretakers enforced a strict curfew and oppressive code of conduct.

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

Very few jobs other than 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 tightly knit communities, with the women of the mill eating, sleeping, working and socializing together at 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 women of the mill saw their wages suddenly reduced and the delicate balance which incentivized them to tolerate their own exploitation had finally shifted.

In February of that year, hundreds of workers left their posts and marched through the streets, gathering from factory to factory throughout Lowell – however, unable to rally enough support, the strike ended unsuccessfully within few days.

There was another much larger strike in 1836 involving over 1,500 workers which succeeded in eliminating a boarding house rent hike. 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 of working women in the United States.

Textile mills, as seen from the Slater Mill, have adopted a manufacturing process that was previously done by and for local communities. By taking private ownership of the means of production, they have found a way to make a profit.

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

Textile factories illustrate both how capitalism takes root and how it can be improved to create a better system that is more beneficial to all. Ownership is passive and creates no value. Work is what makes the machines work allowing for the luxuries of modernity. This system does not need ownership to continue functioning. However, without work, everything would come to a screeching halt.

That’s why today, as it was in the days of the Lowell factory women, the most radical nonviolent act you can do is to hold back your job and assert yourself as an autonomous being who refuses to be a cog in a machine of exploitation, as well as organize, coordinate and strategize with enough colleagues to do the same.

The collective work of the working masses, from every factory to the fast food restaurant, has built the modern world and our current era of unparalleled prosperity.

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

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