On one summer day in 1915, thousands of women walked off the job in Bridgeport, Conn., demanding the eight hour day and higher wages. It didn’t take long for the stunned managers of munitions plants, garment factories and laundries to cave in to their demands. Within months, arms factories throughout the Northeast granted their workers the eight hour day.
At the time, thousands of women were working in Bridgeport’s factories after World War I and the Russian Revolution broke out. The conflicts created enormous demand for arms, ammunition, machines to make them – and for the labor to work the machines. Bridgeport’s vast munitions plants couldn’t hire enough workers to churn out artillery shells and small arms, bullets and armored cars. The labor shortage gave women leverage over their employers, and they used it.
Much like today’s low-wage worker strikes, the Bridgeport walkouts were short, sudden and staged by non-union workers.
Though the 1915 eight hour day strikes in Bridgeport brought immediate improvements to the lives of workers, the strikes failed to lure many workers into union locals. Not only did management strongly oppose organized labor, but the wildcat strikes happened too fast and succeeded too quickly for the labor organizations to take advantage of any momentum they might create.
On Aug. 20, Bridgeport workers – mostly women – went on seven consecutive strikes at seven different plants. An exasperated union organizer tried to herd the last group of strikers back into the Remington Arms Factory, but failed. “I cannot have more than one strike at a time,” she lamented.
Arsenal of World War I
The Bridgeport strikes actually started an ocean away, indirectly. The wars in Europe transformed Bridgeport from a city of idled factories and unemployed workers to a boomtown badly in need of labor. European immigrants were no longer flooding into Ellis Island, and many were returning to their home countries to fight the war.
Bridgeport was a manufacturing center for milling machines, brass fittings, carriages, sewing machines, white goods (shirts and corsets), saddles and – most of all – guns and ammunition. After the war broke out, workers rushed to Bridgeport to get jobs in the munitions plants. In six months, jobseekers swelled the population of Bridgeport by 25 percent, to 125,000. By 1916, the population ballooned to 150,000. There wasn’t enough housing for the newcomers. Single men crowded into boardinghouses, and men who brought their families had to return home.
The war required a staggering amount of materiel. The American-British Company ordered $2.5 million of shrapnel shells for Russia. The Locomobile Company was making hundreds of three-ton trucks for England. The Remington Arms Company, which had just merged with the Union Metallic Cartridge Company, was building a 102-acre plant to fill the Russian tsar’s $168 million order for rifles. Remington Arms would be the largest arms plant in the world under one roof, and the company would hire 17,000 workers to produce artillery shells, ammunition, the Colt automatic pistol and the Enfield rifle.
The agitation for the eight hour day started with the building trades workers. In the tremendous expansion of factories for the war effort, building trades union members did dangerous, demanding physical labor for long hours. By March 1915 they were fed up. In the early spring, they walked off the job, demanding an eight hour day and union recognition.
The eight hour day was not a new idea. As far back as 1791, Philadelphia carpenters struck for a 10 hour workday. By the 1870s, “Eight Hour Leagues” sprang up, staging rallies and parades all across the country. In 1877, Pennsylvania eight hour advocates working on the railroad drove a locomotive into a roundhouse full of Pinkerton detectives, and in 1885 the Chicago Haymarket was bombed during a rally for the eight hour day. Slowly, the eight hour day was achieved in scattered cities and towns -- by coal miners, ship carpenters, printers and building trades workers. Still, in 1915 the vast majority of employees worked 12-hour days in America.
The Eight-Hour Day Reaches Bridgeport
With World War I and the Russian Revolution grinding in that spring, the orders kept coming in for more rifles, saddles, armored cars, ammunition and small arms. Remington Arms couldn’t find enough workers. Finally, management decided to hire the women of Bridgeport, then employed in department stores and garment factories.
When they found they could raise their wages from $6 to $8 a week to $10 a week in the munitions plants, thousands of women fled their sewing machines and their shop counters. By August, 5,000 women worked in the Remington factory alone, drawing out brass cartridges, filling cartridges with powder, inspecting rifle parts and running wire-winding machines.
The work was automated and didn’t require much skill, but the machines required steady maintenance. Munitions plant managers needed skilled machinists to automate and repair the equipment. The International Association of Machinists decided to seize the opportunity and build its membership.
The IAM used the campaign for the eight hour day to appeal to new members. It worked. The IAM’s General Vice President Pete Conlon said, "Everyone has the fever and all you can hear is eight hours. The sidewalks, the telegraph poles and even the office steps of the factories are chalked in large letters 'WE WANT EIGHT HOURS'."
The IAM distributed to Bridgeport workers 10,000 copies of a newspaper called The Labor Leader, carrying a verse that went:
We mean to make things over, we’re tired of toil for naught,
We haven’t enough to live on, nor even an hour for thought.
We want to feel the sunshine, we want to smell the flowers,
We know that we are worth it, and we mean to have eight hours.
The IAM leadership decided to begin their membership drive at the Remington factory. Walter Penfield, the retired army major in charge of construction, got wind of a planned strike. He was convinced the strike was a German plot to hurt the allied cause. Newspaper publishers gladly amplified the canard, running headlines like “Penfield Reiterates Strike Is Aimed at Allies.”
His bluster didn't stop talk of a strike. Penfield was in a tough spot, as Remington had to fill Russia’s enormous order for rifles. So in July he caved in to the workers’ demand for eight hour days, without a pay cut. But union recognition was out of the question, as was any written contract guaranteeing the shorter hours.
So the IAM leadership called for a strike at Remington Arms at noon on July 20. As the hour approached, a crowd gathered in front of the plant: reporters, spectators, IAM leaders and most of Bridgeport’s police force. The noon whistle blew -- and no one emerged from the building. An hour passed, and still no one walked out. The IAM leaders paced the sidewalk, wondering what happened to their men.
Penfield had gathered the machinists and promised them a permanent eight hour day and a $1-an-hour raise. Then he ordered a meal from the company restaurant and left the workers alone to talk among themselves. They decided not to strike. Then the unexpected happened.
At the UMC plant nearby, 100 women walked off the job at the noon whistle. They put on their hats, a sure sign they weren’t coming back, and left the building. As the crowd cheered, they walked up and down in front of the factory. Finally the manager came out and told them they’d get a 65-cents-an-hour raise and an eight hour day if they returned to work quietly. The women went back inside the building and took off their hats.
Within hours of the Remington Company’s capitulation, another arms manufacturer announced the eight hour day for its workers: the E.W. Bliss Co., which made torpedoes for the U.S. Navy, across the Long Island Sound in Brooklyn.
Then followed a massive, unexpected uprising of unskilled immigrant workers – mostly women. On August 10, 3,000 Hungarian, Polish and Italian women walked out of the Warner Corset Company, nearly all the employees of the firm that had introduced the brassiere to the world. The women marched down the street to Eagle Hall, and announced to the American Federation of Labor that they wanted a union organizer to help them get the eight hour day, union recognition, a pay hike and an end to child labor.
A middle-aged organizer from New York got ahead of the parade that had started without her. Mrs. Mary Scully -- described as a “jolly feminine agitator” and “a scream for fun” – helped the Warner Corset Company women bargain with management. After three days, they got all they wanted.
The Warner women’s success led to the tumultuous events of Aug. 20.
Another Bridgeport company, Bryant Electric, had given male workers the eight-hour day, but women were still working 60-hour weeks. On Aug. 20, 500 women and a few men walked off their jobs at Bryant without making any demands. The company tried to ignore them. But then two other companies threatened by strikes – the Turnbull Company and the Wolverine Motor Company – gave in to their workers’ demands.
Two hours after the Bryant Co. workers walked out, the Star Shirt Company workers struck. Work then stopped at the Connecticut Electric Manufacturing Co., the Electric Cable Co. and the Crawford Laundry. The Bryant workers came back and demanded the eight hour day. The Salts Textile Company workers walked off the job.
Then the women at the Remington Arms Factory joined the strike. An exasperated Scully tried to persuade them to go back to work. “I cannot have more than one strike at a time,” she said. “If you want the eight-hour day, just wait until I can get it for you the right way.“
They stayed out, and they won. In August alone, 12,000 Bridgeport women won the eight-hour day, mostly without AFL involvement. They stopped work at corset factories, textile mills, rubber shops, graphaphone companies and laceworks. Within 2-1/2 months, 55 strikes were called. By the end of September, the majority of the strikes were settled, with employers generally agreeing to shorter workweeks, time-and-a-half for overtime, higher base pay and double time for Sunday. Many employers made concessions before the workers went on strike. The jubilant workers celebrated their victory with a parade, floats and a steamer excursion.
One year later, a customer walked into one of Bridgeport’s largest stores and asked a saleswoman, “Have you the eight hour day?” “Sure, we have,” she replied. “Got it last summer with the rest of the town. No, we don’t have a union, but we can always leave and get a job in the Arms Company if we like.”
Mary Scully told a reporter named Gertrude Barnum that she had “initiated the women of all nationalities into trade organizations of all sorts of crafts.” In reality, few employers agreed to recognize the union shop committees. American management was strongly, even violently, opposed to unions. In 1915, after all, union organizer Joe Hill was executed for a murder he didn’t commit and 20 strikers were shot and killed by factory guards in Roosevelt, N.J.
Still, Scully put a positive spin on the Bridgeport strikes, telling Barnum, that women had succeeded where men in trades other than machinists had failed. “Don’t make any mistake. It is the women of Bridgeport who have made it a union town,” she said.
Scully got something else right. She said the eight hour day would quickly come to other Connecticut cities and towns. “It took three weeks to turn P.T. Barnum’s old home town into an eight hour day,” she said. “It ought not to take so long in other Connecticut towns.”
That fall, the women’s eight hour movement was underway in New Haven, Meriden, Hartford and Waterbury, and it spread throughout the Northeast. So did the IAM’s organizing campaign. By 1916, the IAM called 128 strikes in 35 cities for the right to unionize. Membership doubled to 120,000 members; half of them were working under eight-hour day contracts. The machinists’ call for a national strike on May 1, 1916 was answered by 600 strikes that day. That year, railroad workers achieved the eight hour day under the Adamson Act.
By 1937, 20 percent of the American workforce was covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (29 U.S. Code Chapter 8), which set the maximum workweek at 40 hours, and required employees working beyond 40 hours a week to get additional overtime pay.
We are indebted to several books for this story, including Rosie’s Mom: Forgotten Women of the First World War, The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History and Our Own Time. This story was updated from the 2013 version.