100 Years Ago, Wartime Inflation Causes Strikes
1916, the year Americans re-elected Woodrow Wilson — and Wilson promised to keep America out of war — 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.
These are events that I dramatize in my novel “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.
See my blog for an excerpt from a scene in “Suosso’s Lane” that leads toward the drastic decision to go on strike. Here;s the link http://prosegarden.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-garden-of-history-hundred-years-ago.html
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.
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