In the spring of 1912, Connecticut newspapers were filled with accounts of the successful Bread and Roses textile workers strike in Lawrence, Mass. Thousands of textile workers, mostly immigrant women and children, had gone out on a two-month strike against the American Woolen Co. The epic struggle resulted in pay increases, double pay for overtime and amnesty for strikers.
Workers at the Quidnick-Windham Mill in Willimantic, Conn., took notice. Whole families worked in the cotton fabric mill earning poverty wages. The textile workers lived in substandard housing and many relied on public assistance just to survive. On the day after the Bread and Roses strike ended, Quidnick officials told the local newspaper it was extremely doubtful their workers would get a raise.
The Doffers Start
In response, 12 doffers, the mill’s lowest paid workers, went on strike. Their job was to remove full spindles of thread from the looms, a simple but crucial task. The Quidnick general manager feared the doffers’ walkout could spread to the other workers, and he quickly agreed to give the doffers a 25-cent-a-week raise, from $7.25 to $7.50.
Word got around, and two days later 70 Quidnick ring spinners and warpers walked off the job. The doffers joined them in solidarity, though they’d already gotten their raise. The next day, the striking textile workers picketed the Bridge Street office of Quidnick manager W. B. Knight, demanding a 10 percent raise and an end to unpaid overtime.
The weavers had yet to join the strike, and without them it would fail. So the strikers joined hands and formed a human chain in front of the mill’s entrance. As the weavers approached, the strikers urged them to stop work. They did, and 400 striking Quidnick workers marched to Town Hall. They decided to send a workers’ committee to meet with management, and to call in an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, union.
Within 48 hours, the Quidnick company agreed to the workers’ demands. Then the day after the Quidnick victory, a thousand workers at the nearby American Thread Company went on strike -- and won a pay hike.
That wasn’t the end of the Willimantic textile workers’ struggles, not by a long shot. But as IWW organizer Ben Legere said in a speech to the workers, “This fight for the uplifting of humanity is no pink teas engagement or afternoon party.”
With thanks to Steve Thornton, whose book A Shoeleather History of the Wobblies, recounts the Willimantic strike. This story was updated in 2019.