Forgotten Salem: The Pequot Mill Strike

by Hayley Wood

Photograph of Naumkeag's nine-acre weave shed in the 1940sThe exhibit “Stopping the Clock: A Time to Remember Salem’s Pequot Mill Strike of 1933” is surprising viewers with a slice of labor history. The product of a collaboration between Salem State College history professor Aviva Chomsky and the Executive Director of the Salem Harbor Community Development Corporation, James Haskell, the exhibit, premiered in the summer of 2004 at the Salem State College Enterprise Center, explores immigrant workers’ strong response to mill conditions they found unacceptable.

With a recent grant from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, the panels telling the story of the strike will be redesigned, translated into Spanish, and expanded to include the more recent history of Latino immigration into Salem. The expanded exhibit opens at the National Park Service Visitors’ Center in Lawrence in September 2005.

The Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company, popularly known as the Pequot Mill, gained national attention in 1933 when workers initiated a wildcat strike—a strike undertaken without union support. United Textile Workers Local 33, in an unusual “collaboration” with mill management, failed to address workers’ concerns about layoffs, job research (the efforts of industrial engineers to observe, time, and analyze workers on the job in order to devise ways to improve efficiency), rules ensuring that raises and layoffs would be determined by seniority status, and the requirement that workers tend several machines at once (“speed-ups”).

The Pequot Mill was Salem’s largest employer with 2000 workers. Many workers were first-generation immigrants from Poland and French Canada. The strikers formed alliances with the Communist Party, the local shoemakers’ union, and the Unitarian Church. These groups were particularly helpful in organizing relief efforts for the families of strikers, who were without pay for the eleven weeks of the wildcat strike. The company eventually yielded to the workers’ demands of “no research, no layoffs.” Twenty years later the mill did close, following the trend of deindustrialization throughout New England. The effect of the layoffs was economically devastating to Salem.

It is the current relevance of this story, and the link between immigration trends and labor history, that Chomsky plans to amplify with enhancements to the exhibit made possible by the MFH grant. The phenomenon of businesses relying on new immigrants willing to work for low wages is not unfamiliar. Salem, like many other former mill towns in Massachusetts, is home to many Latino immigrants, mostly from the Dominican Republic. These immigrants, instead of filling manufacturing jobs that were a part of the burgeoning industrialization of the early twentieth century, now fill service-economy jobs, which are low-paying and offer workers few benefits. In contrast, factory work, due in part to the efforts of New Deal legislation and labor union activism, eventually joined ranks with the primary labor sector, enjoying the benefits that define that sector: safe workplaces, regulated working conditions, job security, and living wages.

Nyman, Richmond C. and Elliott Dunlap Smith. Union Management Cooperation in the Stretch Out: Labor Extension at the Pequot Mills. New Haven: Insitute of human Relations/Yale University Press, 1934.Unearthing a little-known but significant facet of twentieth-century Salem history has been a goal well met by the project thus far. Salem is known as a cultural tourist destination because of the witch trials, its early colonial architecture, and its maritime tradition.

“The commercialization of history has been a survival strategy,” Chomsky says, citing the example of Salem’s new Samantha Stevens (played by Elizabeth Montgomery in Bewitched!) statue. Since major industrial employers like GTE Sylvania and Parker Brothers left Salem, the city has increasingly relied on tourism to survive.

Chomsky asserts that stories that get told as history and people who are celebrated as history makers, as taught in schools and memorialized in cities, have been selected by politicians and power brokers, not historians. The issue is far from unique to Salem; until the 1960s, the stories of “heroes” (generally men) were the stuff history lessons were made of. Eventually the paradigm shifted—in some classrooms—and the stories of women, people of color, working people, and poor people began to be regarded as teachable and significant.

Historical memory and how it is shaped by subsequent events is another theme the exhibit explores. “Several people said to us that the strike was a mistake because it made the mill close,” Chomsky says. “The mill didn’t close until 20 years after the strike . . . [but] because the mill threatened to close during the strike and public officials threatened workers with the mill’s potential closing, people associate the two events in their minds.”

Others remember the power of the strike as an amazing community success story, when the solidarity of the striking workers and the groups that stepped in to help them ensured the survival of the families living with no wages and the victory of the workers. And Chomsky reports that “everybody remembers the devastation that was felt when the mill closed in ’53.”

The exhibit has already enjoyed a large audience of people who might not normally choose to visit a history exhibit displayed at a college, and surely this is partly due to the success of joining college and community development resources. Both project partners, Chomsky and Haskell, have inroads to their respective communities: the exhibit can be shown at both the Salem Council on Aging and an academic conference on women’s history. Jim Haskell’s connection with Salem’s Dominican community has created an opportunity for Chomsky to think about the historical connections and parallels between different generations of immigrants and the structural changes in the U.S. economy that have made their experiences so different.

The goal they share is to make this history accessible to the community. It is also making its way into the local school system by way of a U.S. Department of Education grant called “Salem in History.” Salem public school teachers have attended workshops conducted by Chomsky, and several of her graduate students are public school teachers eager to bring the project to Salem High School. It’s hard to think of a better way to promote critical thinking about the past and the present—and how they’re linked—than by uncovering lost history about the world of the workplace.

©2005 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2005