Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Garden of History: A Hundred Years Ago in America

            A century ago, 1916, Americans re-elected Woodrow Wilson, regarded as a progressive Democrat, for a second term as President. In his first term he pushed some significant legislation through Congress: a graduated income tax; the anti-monopolistic Federal Trade Commission; a law prohibiting child labor; and another law that established the 8-hour day for railroad workers.

            This last achievement had been a goal of the American labor movement for 40 years, an aim taken up on the American example by the international labor movement. Eight hours for railroad workers created an important precedent for establishing a standard for all fulltime workers that still applies in many American workplaces. The prohibition of child labor was a goal that social reformers had urged for a century.

            Wilson also followed Theodore Roosevelt's example in asserting the right and duty of American Presidents to act in the interests of the American people, even when no "strict interpretation" of the Constitution gave his office that power. But though he had pledged to keep American out of World War I, a year after election (1917) he asked Congress to declare war against Germany, following persistent attacks on American shipping.  

            But while Wilson's Progressive agenda would ultimately improve working conditions, American factory workers 100 years ago were finding it increasing hard to feed their families.

            1916 was the year that workers at the Plymouth Cordage Company, the world's leading ropemaker, went on strike for higher pay. At the time, according to the revered Boston historian Samuel Elliot Morison, Cordage male workers earned $9 a week (women earned less). Morrison also pointed out that "the Plymouth worker of 1894 to 1900 with $8.10 a week had much better real wages" than his counterpart in 1916. Real wages for American industrial workers had been declining for 15 years, a condition made much worse after 1914 as wartime demand in Europe for American goods inflated consumer prices, while wages failed to keep up.

            Bartolomeo Vanzetti, one of two defendants in the famous Sacco-Vanzetti case, and the central figure in my novel "Suosso's Lane," took part in 1916 Plymouth Cordage strike although he had stopped working for the company and worked instead as a "pick and shovel" laborer. After he had nearly died from working in a pastry factory in his teens, Vanzetti believed that outdoor work was healthier than working inside a factory.

            But the North Plymouth family he lived with, and the entire North Plymouth immigrant community he was a part of for five years, depended largely on the Plymouth Cordage Company for its sustenance. A committed anarchist who believed in both the abolition of the state and the capitalist economic system, Vanzetti envisioned strikes as necessary steps toward the recognition that workers should cooperatively own and run the factories and all other enterprises that depended upon their labor. So antagonistic was he to established authority structures that he and other anarchists of his stripe also opposed the creation of labor unions, seeing them as a new layer of "official" oppression.

            In an account of his life written while in jail, Vanzetti described his role in the Cordage strike:

            "This company is one of the great money powers of this nation. The town of Plymouth is its feudal tenure. Of all the local men took a prominent part in the strike, I was the only one who did not yield or betray the workers... [and] I was the only one who instead of being compensated was blacklisted by the company, and subjected to a long, vain, and useless police vigilance..."

            Not surprisingly Morrison, an establishment figure who wrote a book about the company in 1950 ("The Ropemakers of Plymouth"), has a different, more circumstantial view of the strike. Despite his own calculation of how poorly workers were being paid (about 16.6 cents an hour), Morrison writes that ownership had no idea that wage dissatisfaction would lead workers to take action: "Then suddenly, wihtout warning, a strike exploded in the Plymouth plant Jan. 17, 1916."

            Since there was no Cordage union and would be none for decades, the strike developed, he states, when "A self-constituted committee, the membership of which was never disclosed [including] some employees and some who were not .. went to workers homes during a general strike the next day and making threats."

            These are events that I dramatize in "Suosso's Lane." I'm not sure about the 'making threats' piece of the account by a historian who tended to get his information from ownership, but I tried to imagine how a group of increasingly hungry, winter-strained factory workers began to think about and then plan a general strike at a large industrial site.  

            Here's an excerpt from a scene in "Suosso's Lane" that leads toward the drastic decision to go on strike:  

             "In Italia," Benno said, his words simmering with passion, "in the North, there is a war with Austria for a mountain. A mountain of ice and snow! Two years now the mountain consumes the men. Thousands on thousands!"

             "Si," said Joe, ordinarily a harried-looking man, one of the fathers whom Vanzetti suspected of joining the gathering less for the pleasure of the talk and the heat than to get away for a while from the complaints of his younger children. Now his thin features twisted. "But no matter how many die, the armies keep taking more from their homes and families. It is the armies who are buying up flour and oil and beans and macaroni."

            Benno looked angrily about him. "And this means that we must pay twice as much for such needful things!”

            Others raised their voices in shared outrage. 

            Vanzetti lifted his head. When the outrage ran its course, he pounced.

            “If the food costs twice as much to buy, does it not follow that the factory must pay its workers twice as much?” he asked. He looked from face to face, holding the glance of any man who would return his own.

            “Can a man or a woman eat half as much and still do the same amount of work making the rope?”

            No one expected the factory to double their wages. Such a thing was unheard of. Still, it was important to reason correctly. They must see their complaint is just, he thought. It was a step. One must establish the true facts, before one bargained. Of course, he did not even believe in the bargain. Still, again, it was a step.

            “Do I not speak simple truth?”

            No one disagreed. Yet no one rushed in to support a calculation that might point in a direction not yet made clear.

            "It is the rich men who make the war. It is the war that raises the prices. Now we must pay the cost of the rich men's war. Can this be endured?"

            Enough, he told himself. You cannot drive people to a place where they do not wish to go.

            "No," someone said.

            He was not sure who. One of those standing by the stove, perhaps. But the single word raised the tension in the room, an air of half dread, half anticipation like the moment before the yanking off of a bandage or the pulling up of a scab. A good thing, he thought, a needed thing. Though surely painful.

            "Everyone knows Vanzetti," he said. "I do not have the wife, the children. I work with the pick and the shovel. I do not work in the factory like the other men in this room. But if the workers demand what they are entitled too, I will support them every day. Someone must go to the other cities, to tell the story of this place. To raise the donations for the strike fund."

            Benno returned his look. And the man Joe. Some of the others stared off. Some of these squatting against the wall in the same room looked up at him in confusion.

            "I promise this will be done." The averted faces held out against hope. "By me."

            "A strike?" someone said, after these words. "You urge the strike?"

I will be talking about "Suosso's Lane" and reading some excerpts from the book on Tuesday, June 14, at the Crane Library in Quincy.