Two dollars a day just
See the book "Rambles About Portsmouth"
A three-week strike at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is hard to imagine today - yet it happened about 150 years ago. And it happened through one of those weird convolutions that only federal officials can get themselves into.
In November 1854, the Portsmouth Navy Yard was running in full thrust to meet the demand for new vessels and repair of aging warships like the USS Constitution. Construction of the USS Santee and the USS Franklin were well underway. Yet there was a worm even in that garden of military preparedness. Word came on December 2, according to the Portsmouth Chronicle:
The ship carpenters had met on December 2 in Hayes' Hall, Kittery, and adopted the following resolutions:
Apparently that little insurrection was quelled. The Chronicle said on December 4 that the strikers had gone back to work, "satisfactory evidence being presented to the Commodore, that their wages were no higher than was paid in private yards. The payroll of the yard remains about 750 names."
For a daily paper the Chronicle seems a step or two behind the times. The December 4 issue reported that the strikers had gone back to work at that the strike had been quelled. The shipyarders had to buy an ad in the paper on December 8 to straighten out one reportorial error. Not all shipworkers refused to work, the ad read. "There were a few who did go to work, against the wish of the great majority --and whose conduct in so doing was strongly censured by the meeting afterwards. Their names were Charles Williams, Wm. W. Brooks, Alpheus Brooks and Ira Delano." Through the power of the press and peer pressure, the strikers named their "scab" colleagues and their own strike leaders openly.
Then the Navy's bureaucracy compounded the on-going mess. Orders were received at the Navy yard, according to the newspapers, to discharge all those persons who were publicly mentioned by name as inciting the strike. Wages for carpenters were restored to their original rate of $2.25/day, but the instigators were fired. Remember, this was an age long before labor unions.
The Chronicle said on December 14 that reinstated workers now were refusing to return to work until the jobs of their leaders were also restored. They held another labor union-like meeting Wednesday morning that now included the blacksmiths and joiners, and a committee of one man each from other navy yard trades. The suspended workers were appointed to repair to Washington, DC to seek justice at the hands of the Secretary of the Navy. Five days later the paper reported that the men had returned and would probably be allowed to resume their old jobs.
The Navy Yard workers met again and agreed that they should have taken their case directly to the Secretary of the Navy via their NH Senators. On December 23, the Chronicle heralded the end of the strike. In essence what the meeting decided was that complete capitulation to the Secretary of the Navy was the best course that could be followed. By surrendering, they were rewarded with an order restoring them to employment.
The Portsmouth Journal noted that the order to return to work, technically, did not state that the workers would regain their 25-cent per day pay cut -- but all assumed they had prevailed. The cost of the three-week strike was estimated at $15,000. The money came out of the pockets of the workers, and the newspaper moralized that such aggressive action by workers tended only to harm the workers themselves. Had the Secretary of the Navy not been forgiving and restored the original wages, the paper noted, workers who were unhappy with the wage cut could certainly move on and find work elsewhere. A major strike by workers, the newspaper warned, might cause the employer to pack up and go to a distance place where the workforce was more cooperative. The idea of worker's rights in 1854 was one that few employers even wanted to consider.
For Related Info Read:
A Brief History of the Portsmouth Navy Yard
Edited by SeacoastNH.com from:
Copyright © 1994 by the Portsmouth Marine Society Reprinted with permission of Peter E. Randall Publishers
[ History Themes | Early Images | Site Map | Talk | Search | What's New ]