Hampden Heritage

Archaeology, History, and Heritage in Central Baltimore

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Hampden Workers and Labor Legislation, Part III

At last, here is my final installment on labor activism in Hampden-Woodberry in the 1880s. A few weeks ago I discussed a visit by some lawmakers from Annapolis to the mills in January 1884, and the favorable impression they were given by both the mill owners and the operatives themselves. But this was not the whole story.

In response to the public proclamations of hardship in business coupled with goodwill toward the working people of the city on the part of the mill owners, the Federation of Trades of Baltimore City (then the umbrella labor organization, much like the AFL-CIO today) sent a delegation to Annapolis to meet directly with the governor. This trip occurred one week after the visit by lawmakers to the mills. Mr. Thomas Weeks, legal counsel for the Federation, made the argument that given the national monopoly on domestic production of cotton duck enjoyed by the Hampden-Woodberry mills, it was preposterous for the mill owners to claim that their continued prosperity depended on either reducing wages (should a maximum hour law be passed) or increasing the number of daily work hours. Another official of the Federation, Mr. Alexander Camper, furthered the workingmen’s argument by noting that years earlier when a 10-hour law had been passed and the mill owners had made the same dire predictions about being driven out of the state, nothing of the sort came to pass. Camper attributed any decline in cotton production in Maryland to the existence of competing factories in the South, right in the heart of King Cotton country. (To be fair, it could be argued that the very existence of cotton mills in the South was due to their transplantation from other states, since most Southern states did not have the kind of protective labor legislation that Northern states did at that time.)

While Weeks and Camper were representing a Baltimore-wide delegation of workingmen, Hampden-Woodberry workers were certainly involved. Fifteen members of the Druid Assembly (the Woodberry chapter of the national of the Knights of Labor organization) were active members of the Federation of Trades delegation to Annapolis, with one G. Jones as their marshal. Furthermore, both the Federation and the Druid Assembly delivered petitions supporting the proposed legislation to Governor McLane and each member of the Baltimore County delegation to the state legislature; the Federation of Trades petition reportedly contained over 7,000 names. So clearly, not all of the mill employees agreed that their work environment was excellent and that they couldn’t be happier (see my previous post on this topic).

What was the outcome of all of this? In mid-February of 1884, the state legislature failed to pass a bill that would have established a state bureau of labor statistics, but apparently a similar bill had been passed by the beginning of 1886—Thomas Weeks is reported to have begun his job as state labor statistician in January of that year. Equally importantly, the 1884 push for workplace legislation did result in the legalization of unions in Maryland, a significant victory. At this time, I am unfortunately unaware of the fate of the rest of the articles of the proposed legislation.

(Sources: Baltimore Sun, February 6, 1884, “A Federation of Trades. The Excursion to Annapolis. An Interview with the Governor,” pg. 1; February 15, 1884, “Legislature of Maryland,” pg. 4; and January 8, 1886, “Labor Statistics,” pg. 1.)


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