Oh! isn't it a pity, such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,
For I'm so fond of liberty,
That I cannot be a slave.
- Protest song of the Lowell Mill Girls (from Wikipedia)
I think my entire ESL Humanities class was skeptical of our destination, though like many students they welcomed the field trip as a chance to get off campus and have a change in routine. But the Tsongas Industrial History Center in Lowell is truly excellent, as are the tour guides, and before the students knew it they were completely immersed in the 1830’s world of the Lowell Mill Girls.
While they were relatively well paid for the day, a function of the difficulty of recruiting new workers, these girls and women endured difficult conditions. From 5:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M., for about 73 hours a week, they worked in groups of about 80 in rooms where the clatter of looms was deafening, temperatures soared in the summer as windows were kept closed to protect the threads, and the air was contaminated by particles of thread and cloth. When a 15% wage cut was proposed in 1834, the mill girls took the “unfeminine” action of calling a strike which, though ultimately unsuccessful, laid the groundwork for future action. They successfully defeated a rent hike in 1836, and in 1845 formed the Lowell Female Labor Association which, after demanding a ten-hour day of the Massachusetts legislature, testified during the first-ever hearings on working conditions held by a governmental body in the U.S.
My students caught the fighting spirit of the Lowell Mill Girls, connecting it to their experience of feminism and the fight for women’s rights. However, as we jumped from that period first to the 1930’s and “Inherit the Wind” and then to the mid 20th century from Brown vs. Board of Education to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they missed out on the chance to learn the important role of unions in securing and consolidating basic human rights and in the process, as others have noted, not only working for equitable treatment for women but also creating the middle class. As a profession populated primarily by women for many years, teachers’ unions have also played an important role in that process.
My own school, as is true of most if not all independent schools, is not unionized. Sometimes, people mistake that to mean I don’t support unions. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this country, money is power (or at least one form of it), and by uniting large numbers of working people around a common cause, unions provide a needed counterbalance to those in whom financial power has been concentrated. This may take many forms, from ensuring healthy working conditions to negotiating fair wages and benefits to assuring due process is served when necessary and more.
So on this day of edu-solidarity, I stand firmly in support of unions. I am fond of fairness. I am fond of dignity. And I am fond of liberty.