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Workers Strike at Portsmouth Shipyard

Disagreement on the dock/

A three-week strike at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is hard to imagine today -- yet it happened about 150 years ago. And it happened through one of those weird convolutions that only federal officials can get themselves into.




In November 1854, the Portsmouth Navy Yard was running in full thrust to meet the demand for new vessels and repair of aging warships like the USS Constitution. Construction of the USS Santee and the USS Franklin were well underway. Yet there was a worm even in that garden of military preparedness. Word came on December 2, according to the Portsmouth Chronicle:

"A STRIKE: We learn that on Friday morning the ship carpenters and blacksmiths employed on the Navy Yard near this city were informed that their wages from that time would be cut down twenty- five cents per day, leaving the ship carpenters $2 per day and the blacksmiths about the same. When the roll was called after dinner, not one carpenter answered; and it was said that all the blacksmiths were to quit last night. The carpenters are to hold a meeting to consider the matter this forenoon, at 10 o'clock, at Mr. Hayes' on the Foreside."

The ship carpenters had met on December 2 in Hayes' Hall, Kittery, and adopted the following resolutions:

     * Resolved Ist that we consider the reduction in our pay unjust and uncalled for, and we will not submit to it.

    * Resolved 2d that we view with contempt the conduct of those who continued to work.

     * Resolved 3d we render thanks to the brother mechanics not employed at the Navy Yard, for their sympathy and efficient aid in our behalf.

The group also named three members to a committee to set firm wage guidelines for the future. Another committee was to inform the Naval Constructor that they would all resume work at the former (higher) rate. Then the labor group voted to have the entire proceedings printed in the local Portsmouth newspapers.

Apparently that little insurrection was quelled. The Chronicle said on December 4 that the strikers had gone back to work, "satisfactory evidence being presented to the Commodore, that their wages were no higher than was paid in private yards. The payroll of the yard remains about 750 names."

For a daily paper the Chronicle seems a step or two behind the times. The December 4 issue reported that the strikers had gone back to work at that the strike had been quelled. The shipyarders had to buy an ad in the paper on December 8 to straighten out one reportorial error. Not all shipworkers refused to work, the ad read. "There were a few who did go to work, against the wish of the great majority --and whose conduct in so doing was strongly censured by the meeting afterwards. Their names were Charles Williams, Wm. W. Brooks, Alpheus Brooks and Ira Delano." Through the power of the press and peer pressure, the strikers named their "scab" colleagues and their own strike leaders openly.


Ironsides at Portsmouth SHipyard /

Bad News at the Shipyard

Then the Navy's bureaucracy compounded the on-going mess. Orders were received at the Navy yard, according to the newspapers, to discharge all those persons who were publicly mentioned by name as inciting the strike. Wages for carpenters were restored to their original rate of $2.25/day, but the instigators were fired. Remember, this was an age long before labor unions.

The Chronicle said on December 14 that reinstated workers now were refusing to return to work until the jobs of their leaders were also restored. They held another labor union-like meeting Wednesday morning that now included the blacksmiths and joiners, and a committee of one man each from other navy yard trades. The suspended workers were appointed to repair to Washington, DC to seek justice at the hands of the Secretary of the Navy. Five days later the paper reported that the men had returned and would probably be allowed to resume their old jobs.

The Navy Yard workers met again and agreed that they should have taken their case directly to the Secretary of the Navy via their NH Senators. On December 23, the Chronicle heralded the end of the strike. In essence what the meeting decided was that complete capitulation to the Secretary of the Navy was the best course that could be followed. By surrendering, they were rewarded with an order restoring them to employment.

The Portsmouth Journal noted that the order to return to work, technically, did not state that the workers would regain their 25-cent per day pay cut -- but all assumed they had prevailed. The cost of the three-week strike was estimated at $15,000. The money came out of the pockets of the workers, and the newspaper moralized that such aggressive action by workers tended only to harm the workers themselves. Had the Secretary of the Navy not been forgiving and restored the original wages, the paper noted, workers who were unhappy with the wage cut could certainly move on and find work elsewhere. A major strike by workers, the newspaper warned, might cause the employer to pack up and go to a distance place where the workforce was more cooperative. The idea of worker's rights in 1854 was one that few employers even wanted to consider.

SEE ALSO: A Brief History of the Portsmouth Navy Yard

MORE on author Ray Brighton

THIS ESSAY edited by from: "Rambles About Portsmouth" by Ray Brighton, Portsmouth Marine Society Press, Peter Randall Publisher, 1994

Copyright © 1994 by the Portsmouth Marine Society Reprinted with permission of Peter E. Randall Publishers. Firest republished here in 1999.

Top photo of shipyard workers courtesy of Strawbery Banke Museum. Ironsides photo courtesy Portsmouth Public Library.

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