Women were not a part of the state\’s industrial work force when unions first began to form in Minnesota, but by the late 1880s times had changed. In that decade, the population of Minneapolis and St. Paul doubled and industrial growth boomed, especially around the Falls of St. Anthony. In addition to mills and heavy machine shops, lighter industry took hold, and blocks near the river in downtown Minneapolis sprouted factories that made sacks for grain and flour, mattresses and blankets, and work clothes for Minnesota farmers and lumberjacks.
Cheap and willing workers
These businesses found cheap and willing workers among young, unmarried women. Many came from country crossroads and isolated farms, where jobs were nearly impossible to find and social life was limited. The independence and excitement promised by life in the city drew them like a magnet. At the end of the century, Minneapolis was near the top of the nation in the number of working women living in rented rooms or boardinghouses.
The mills and factories that employed them would today be called sweatshops. The average working day was 10 hours and payment was by the piece. Rows of treadle or steam-driven sewing machines were mounted in lofts or basements, where ventilation and lighting were often poor, talking was usually forbidden, and a pass was needed to leave the room. A fast and skilled worker might earn seven or eight dollars a week (a living wage in those days), but a beginner was lucky to get two or three. Abusive treatment was common. One young woman told a reporter: "Our foreman says we girls wear too many feathers and fine clothes and threatens to cut our wages so we\’ll be glad to wear plain clothes. He says we act as if we thought ourselves ladies." But fear of being fired kept most employees from complaining to outsiders.
The first effort to organize these women was made by the Knights of Labor. More a movement for social change than a regular trade union, the Knights reached their peak of influence in the 1880s. In Minneapolis and St. Paul they enrolled many working men in locals that they called assemblies, and they also formed at least two Ladies Protective Assemblies. It was these beginnings of solidarity that gave the women at the Shotwell factory the resolution to protest the cut in their pay. Local leaders of the Knights claimed that they had advised against striking, but they doubted the company would have listened otherwise, and the women "knew their own business best."
Sympathy for the \’maidens\’
Judging by articles in the Minneapolis Tribune and the St. Paul Globe, there was a good deal of sympathy in both cities for the "striking maidens," as reporters called them. The papers noted (with condescending surprise) that strike meetings were orderly and efficient. Respectable folk were already uneasy about the social consequences of young women living away from the protection of families, and when one of them asked publicly "Does Mr. Shotwell or anyone else think that girls without homes can live on such wages and remain pure?" city fathers cringed. Several well to-do women pledged help, and a strike fund appeared out of nowhere.
Clergymen, too, felt called to take an interest. At a meeting held a week after the strike began, a prominent Minneapolis priest addressed the strikers. He told them that he had talked with their employers. "If you go back again and work and not exact anything or appoint a committee to exact anything," he said, "they will yield within a month. It is my advice to you to return and rely on their promises." He was taken aback when one of the women immediately stood and replied: "The firm has made those very same promises before. They never amounted to anything in the past, and why should we believe them now?" Others agreed, chiming in that the owners should come to them first, and that it was rumored the strike leaders would not be rehired.
The strike went on. A reporter who visited the factory found a handful of women sewing and learned that beginners were now guaranteed three dollars a week instead of the two they had formerly averaged. Two days later an effort at arbitration confirmed that the new minimum for beginners would be made permanent and there would be a rule that "no bad language would be allowed by male employees in the presence of the girls." The abusive manager would, however, be retained, and the owners defended him. Several of the women offered affidavits that he had struck and shoved employees roughly and threatened to kick one of them down the stairs. It was reported that he had said the girls would no longer run the shop as they had before, and he was sure they would soon "come sneaking back." They voted unanimously to stay out.
Two weeks later, a large public meeting in support of the strikers was held at Harmonia Hall in downtown Minneapolis. The house was packed. Knights of Labor and several ministers were present, but the main speakers were prominent women of the city, who again pledged their support and urged the workers to stand firm. The employers countered this the next day with a lengthy report from the city Jobbers\’ Association, which had investigated the pay and working conditions at Shotwell, Clerihew & Lothman and found them fair and enlightened in all ways. The strikers promptly pointed out that one of the firm\’s owners was president of the Association. They also brought representatives from the St. Paul clothing factory of Lindeke, Warner & Schurmeir who testified to piece rates nearly a third higher than those of the Minneapolis company.
The lines were hardening. Leaders of the Knights of Labor, who had urged moderation before, finally called for a general boycott of the company\’s goods. They were supported by the East Side Labor Club and other Twin Cities workingmen\’s groups. Meanwhile many of the strikers were finding jobs elsewhere, and some of the women had given up and returned to their families in the country. The company, on its side, tried unsuccessfully to draw workers from St. Paul and even threatened to move to Chicago. Whether its business suffered more from lack of an efficient work force or from the widespread boycott, which had the sympathy of an aroused community, no one was greatly surprised several months later when Shotwell, Clerihew & Lothman closed its doors.
The victory was more symbolic than real. It did not lead to widespread unionization of women workers in Minneapolis. The Knights of Labor were already declining nationwide, and the business boom of the 1880s was showing signs of slacking off. But the line had been drawn at certain practices, and women in the Minnesota work force were shown that they had rights their fellow laborers would support and that the community around them could be led to respect.
Rhoda Gilman is a St. Paul writer and editor.
Illustration by Ricardo Levins Morales, Northland Poster Collective.