Barry’s Report to the Knights of Labor, 1887
Source, Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor and Industries of New Jersey (Somerville, 1888), pp. 202-204.
This is an excerpt from the 1887 report of Lenora M. Barry, the national women’s organizer for the Knights of Labor, in which she describes her work in New Jersey. With 4,400 women members of the Knights of Labor in New Jersey at the time, it was important for Barry to visit the state. In 1886 and 1887 she inspected working conditions for women and girls at Trenton’s woolen mills and potters, at garment factories in Newark, and at the notorious linen mills of Paterson, where she found evidence of illegal contract labor practices.
“In 1886, the General Assembly of the Knights of Labor, in session at Richmond, VA., appointed as general investigator of woman’s work and wages, Mrs. Leonora M. Barry, with the main object of furthering the cause of the order (Knights of Labor) among the female wage-workers of the land, whose very unsatisfactory condition is due, primarily, to the absence of organization. Here are a few extracts from Mrs. Barry’s first report, from October 1886-7, which are particularly interesting because the scene of a considerable part of her labors was in this State:
…December 6th I went to Trenton, N.J., in compliance with the request of L.A. 4925. While there made an investigation in three woolen mills, and found the condition of the female operatives to be in every respect above the average. Also visited the potteries, where many women are employed. Those people stand greatly in need of having their condition bettered, as they receive poor wages for laborious and unhealthy employment. Also visited the State Prison, and noticed with regret, the vast amount of work of various kinds the inmates were turning out to be put on the market in competition with honest labor. While in the city, I addressed five local assemblies and held one public meeting of working women.
December 10th went to Newark to investigate the matter concerning the sewing-women of that city, which was referred to our committee at the General Assembly at Richmond. Found, after a careful study of the matter, that the case reported by the boys’ shirt-waist makers was not only true, but that in general the working-women of Newark were very poorly paid, and the system of fines in many industries was severe and unjust. Instance: A corset factory where a fine is imposed for eating, laughing, singing or talking, of 10 cents each. If not inside the gate in the morning when the whistle stops blowing, an employee is locked out until half-past seven; then she can go to work, but is docked two hours for waste power; and many other rules equally slavish and unjust. Other industries closely follow these rules, while the sewing-women receive wages which are only one remove from actual starvation. In answer to all my inquiries, of employer and employed, why this state of affairs exists, the reply was, monopoly and competition. On January 6, 1887 took up the work again in Trenton, N. J., per instruction. Held several meetings, both public and private, of working-women for the purpose of getting them into the order, as the women of this city are not well organized. Went to Bordentown to a shirt factory there, but the unjust prejudice which they have always held toward organized labor cropped out on this occasion and they refused me admission.
At Lambertville I found a good local assembly, but no women had as yet joined the order there. I held several open meetings, and addressed eight local assemblies with such words of instruction as I was competent to give.
…March 14, was sent to Paterson to look into the condition of the women and children employed in the linen-thread works of that city. There are some fourteen or fifteen hundred persons employed in this industry, who were at that time out of employment for this reason: Children who work at what is called doffing were receiving $2.70 per week, and asked for an increase of 5 cents per day. They were refused, and they struck, whereupon all the other employees were locked out. This was what some of the toadying press called “Paterson’s peculiar strike”, or “unexplainable phenomena”. The abuse, injustice and suffering which the women of this industry endure from the tyranny, cruelty and slave-driving propensities of the employers is something terrible to be allowed existence in free America. In one branch of this industry women are compelled to stand on the stone floor in water the year round, most of the time barefoot, with a spray of water from a revolving cylinder flying constantly against the breast; and the coldest night in winter as well as the warmest in summer those poor creatures must go to their homes with water dripping from their under-clothing along their path because there could not be space or a few moments allowed them wherein to change their clothing. A constant supply of recruits is always on hand to take the places of any who dare rebel against the iron-clad authority of those in charge. The law is evaded in this matter; but the passage-tickets on the Inman Steamship Line, that are advanced at from $5 to $7 more than they actually cost to the friends of those employed here or in the factory of this firm in Belfast, Ireland, and which are paid for after they commence work for the firm on this side of the ocean in $1 installments, at their semi-monthly payments, furnish good ground for a test case in the near future. Add to this the most meagre wages, crowded, badly ventilated rooms, want of proper sanitary conditions, and many other cruelties, and a fair-minded public can form some solution of this unexplainable “phenomena”. A thorough account of all this was placed in the hands of State Deputy Factory Inspector Hall. Also notified L. T. Fell, Chief Factory Inspector, and through his efforts much child labor has been abolished and other defects somewhat remedied. But there is very much yet to be done.”