Workers Organize

Winter quarrying in Barre in 1891.Men, women, and even some children labored six days a week, twelve hours a day doing repetitive tasks in hazardous environments. Working in quarries, factories, mills, on railroads, or in forests involved moving heavy materials that often shifted or fell unexpectedly, crushing and mangling hands, arms, and legs. Machinery had no guards or safety shutoffs. Textile workers’ lungs were constantly exposed to fiber dust. Granite workers died young from silicosis caused by inhaling the granite dust that filled the air in the finishing sheds. Little or no compensation was available for an injured worker. Mutual aid societies, fraternal organizations, and ethnic societies and clubs had funds, but these were never enough to support an injured worker and his family.

Salaries were determined by owners and could be cut or withheld with little or no notice. When workers at the Ely Copper Mines weren’t paid they went on strike and rioted for a week in 1883. But their fate was the same as the Irish railroad workers who rioted in Bolton for the same reason almost forty years earlier. The National Guard was called in to put down the strike as the militia had done in Bolton.

Workers at the Ely Copper Mine in the later nineteenth century.

Like many laborers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Vermonters began to join unions. Barre was the best-organized town. By 1900, ninety percent of the granite industry work force of Barre belonged to one of fifteen unions. But labor’s struggle would be long and progress incremental. The movement received little or no support from the leaders of local, state, or federal government, who viewed labor unions as subversive and radical. Labor organizers and supporters were usually tagged by industry and local press as un-American and under foreign influence, and the expression of this sentiment stirred up the already strong anti-immigrant feeling held by many native Vermonters.

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