Strike – Labor Day Event at the Mill Museum

The Mill Museum presents its Third Annual Labor Day Strike! Two years ago, we reenacted the 1912 “Little Bread and Roses” Willimantic wildcat textile strike, led and won by the IWW. Last year, we reenacted Mother Jones’s famous March of the Mill Children from Philadelphia to New York. This Labor Day — Sept. 5 at 5:00 p.m. — we will reenact the 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike! Participants welcome! Dress as a coal miner (optional). Bring brooms and mops (also option, but you’ll find out why). Meet at the Windham Textile and History Museum, 411 Main Street in Willimantic, at 5:00 p.m. After a brief program, we will march a few blocks up Main Street to the site of the late-1800s / early-1900s meeting hall of the Loyal Order of Hibernians. All ages welcome.

Why a coal strike? Because at their height in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Connecticut’s mill towns relied on coal, most of it mined in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and shipped to New England by rail. Coal powered the trains. It drove the mills’ steam engines (which had by 1900 supplanted water wheels as the mills’ chief source of power). Coal heated most of Connecticut’s urban homes (because of a scarcity of firewood). Coal was central to life in industry in 1900 Connecticut in much the same way as oil is today. Between 50 and 100 trains arrived in Willimantic daily, many laden with coal.

Why the 1902 Anthracite Strike? The 1902 coal strike changed American history. Working conditions in the coal mines were dismal, and the United Mine Workers had long struggled for safer conditions, higher wages, and recognition of the union. Previous strikes had been bitter, and the UMW had usually lost, often because (as usually happened in the 1800s) the federal government had sided with the mine owners. The 1902 strike began just before winter, and once again the federal government — 

in the form of new President Theodore Roosevelt — intervened, but this time as a neutral arbitrator. In the White House-brokered settlement that followed, the UMW got higher wages and shorter working hours, and the mine owners got higher prices and did not have to formally recognize the union (that would come later). The role of the federal government changed in an important way, from supporting management to neutrality.

Why the Loyal Order of the Hibernians? The Mill Museum has a current exhibit on Irish immigration to Willimantic. When large numbers of Irish arrived in Connecticut in the 1840s and 1850s, Yankees often greeted them with hostility. Protestant Yankees objected to the Irish Roman Catholicism, deemed an alien and anti-American religion. The Irish were poor, and would work hard for low wages. And some of them had, in Ireland, participated in anti-British political activity, some of it violent — and Yankees feared that the violence would reappear in America. One of the anti-British groups organizing in Ireland were the so-called Molly Maguires, nationalist men who — to avoid arrest — dressed in women’s garb as they carried on clandestine (and sometimes violent) nighttime activities aimed at driving the British out of Ireland. Some of the Mollies came to America, and in the 1870s were involved in sometimes violent union activity in the Pennsylvania coal fields. 

To rehabilitate their reputation in America, the Mollies joined in organizing a nonviolent “front” organization, the Loyal Order of the Hibernians. And the Hibernians had a chapter and meeting space in Willimantic!

Coal, immigration, the textile industry, labor unions, strikes, fear of immigrants: all these things combine in the Mill Museum’s Labor Day Strike, Sept. 5, at 5:00. Join us!