Hampden Heritage

Archaeology, History, and Heritage in Central Baltimore

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

New research on the 1923 strike at the Mt. Vernon-Woodberry Mills

This spring I had the opportunity to do some research on the 1923 strike at the Mt. Vernon-Woodberry Mills by members of the United Textile Workers union. I became interested in this strike when I read about it in Bill Harvey's book "The People is Grass." According to Harvey, when he interviewed people for the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project in 1979 and 1980, virtually no one either could or would remember anything about it, despite the fact that many of the interviewees had lived in Hampden at the time. He struggled to understand what could have caused such an incident of mass forgetfulness, and concluded that it was likely due simply to the fact that the workers lost the strike, and thus it was a painful memory. Thinking that there might be more to the story, I went back to the available primary sources and have emerged with a slightly different interpretation of events than did Bill Harvey.

Before getting to my interpretation of the source documents, I'll provide a basic summary of the events associated with the 1923 strike. After World War I, a time of booming profits for many industries associated with the war effort, the U.S. economy slumped in the early 1920s. In April of 1923 the Mt. Vernon-Woodberry Mills Co. announced that it was going to make its textile operatives work for 54 hours per week, up six hours from the then-current 48-hour work week. In addition, it was only going to give workers a 7.5% increase in pay (which, given the number of extra hours they would have to work, actually amounted to a cut in "real" wages). Workers quickly banded together, garnered the support of the Baltimore Federation of Labor (hereafter referred to as the BFL; the local branch of the American Federation of Labor), formed a local of the United Textile Workers union, and voted to strike on April 19th. At first the strikers were upbeat and sure of a quick victory. It soon became clear, however, that the company had no intention of negotiating with the strikers. BFL president Henry Broening called upon newly-elected Baltimore mayor democrat Howard Jackson to mediate between the two sides, and Jackson was to be helped in this endeavor by a representative from the U.S. Department of Labor. A meeting was set for June 6th, but when that day came representatives of the company failed to show up. The strike continued for another two or three months, but soon the company began evicting strikers from their company-owned homes and the strikers began to run out of money to support their families. Some finally returned to work at the Mt. Vernon mills while others refused to humble themselves in such a way, and found jobs elsewhere in Baltimore. Thus ended what was described by the Anuual Report of the Commissioner of Labor and Statistics for Maryland as the largest strike in the state that year.

The first important thing I noticed was the problem of just how many workers went on strike (at the time, the company employed about 1,800 workers). Estimates varied from as little as one-fourth to as much as 90% of the workforce at the Mt. Vernon mills. All of the higher estimates, however, were made by the BFL or the strikers themselves, and thus it seems likely that they may have been exaggerating the number of strikers in order to win support. A more likely estimate seems to be that about one-third of the workers eventually joined the strike. Why would so few have gotten involved? Again, a little-known feature of company town life may provide the answer: around the end of World War I the Mt. Vernon-Woodberry Mills Co. instituted an employee representation plan, what labor historians refer to as a "company union." Publicly, industrialists claimed that "company unions" were created for the benefit of the workers and provided a more congenial atmosphere for settling labor-management disputes. In reality, however, "company unions" were just an attempt by management to control collective worker action in the same way that it already controlled other aspects of workers' lives, such as their housing, consumer activities and places of worship. "Company unions" rarely brought important worker concerns about issues such as wages, hours and workplace safety before management. Apparently, the employee representation committee at the Mt. Vernon mills was good enough for many of the workers in 1923, despite the fact that it did not try to protect workers' interests by protesting the increase in work hours and drop in real wages.

The second interesting feature of the primary documents relating to the strike is the manner in which coverage of it ends. While the Baltimore Sun printed weekly updates from late April through early June, after the failed mediation meeting with Mayor Jackson the Sun carried not even a single article about the strike for the rest of its duration. Similarly, the BFL weekly meeting minutes (archived in the Maryland Room of Hornbake Library at the University of Maryland-College Park) do not make even a single mention of the strike after early June, failing even to mention the inability to get the company to show up for the mediation meeting.

There are more details about this strike in the primary documents, and there are many more primary sources I have yet to consult, but from the research I have done so far I have been lead to the following interpretation of why so few people were willing or able to tell Bill Harvey about the strike in 1979-1980: For those who participated in the strike, it constituted a painful memory not simply because they lost but also because they felt betrayed. They likely felt betrayed not only by the company itself, but also by the BFL, which moved on to other business quickly and more or less forgot about the Mt. Vernon mills workers, as well as the non-striking workers in their own company, who chose to stay with the "company union" rather than join the United Textile Workers. Perhaps more importantly, however, many people could not remember the strike not because it was a painful memory for them, but because at the time it simply had not been a big deal to them. Less than half of the Mt. Vernon mills workforce went on strike, and they were likely more concerned with holding on to their jobs regardless of their participation in the strike (by November of 1923, several months after the end of the strike, the company had reduced its workforce to under 1,000 people). Furthermore, a good portion of Hampden's workers didn't even work for the Mt. Vernon mills, but worked instead for the Hooper Manufacturing Company, which experienced no labor disputes that year. Thus, the supposedly largest strike in the state in 1923 (largest in terms of lasting the longest; there were shorter strikes that summer in Baltimore that involved far larger numbers of workers) seems not to have been as big a deal as we might assume, especially after its first month and a half.

If anyone has any more information regarding this strike or other perspectives on it (or even on organized labor activity at other times in Hampden's history), I'd love to hear from you.


Blogger Baltimike said...

Fascinating post. Thanks for sharing your research. I think it's remarkable how quickly the unionization and strike began if the vote occurred on the 19th of the same month the increased work hours were announced.

11:41 AM  

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