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Workers Strike at Portsmouth Shipyard

Ironsides at Portsmouth SHipyard / SeacoastNH.com

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 SeacoastNH.com 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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