Activity Guide: Workers on the Line
University of Massachusetts Lowell - Graduate School
Lowell National Historical Park
Workers on the Line is an interdisciplinary program designed to help students achieve
state and national standards in History/Social Science and Science and Technology. The working of standards varies from state
to state, but there is substantial agreement on the knowledge and skill students should acquire. The standards listed below,
taken from either the national standards or Massachusetts standards, illustrate the primary curriculum links made in
Workers on the Line.
Students understand how the rise of big
business, heavy industry and the labor movement transformed America. (National Standards)
Students learn about the contributions
of all parts of the American population to the nation’s economic development. (Massachusetts)
Students understand supply and demand,
price, labor, the costs of capital, and factors affecting production. (Massachusetts)
Science and technology
Students understand that technological
changes are often accompanied by social, political and economic changes that can be beneficial or detrimental to individuals
and society. (National Standards)
Students learn about using the manufacturing
Connections to National Standards and
State Curriculum Frameworks
The Tsongas Industrial History Center is a joint educational enterprise sponsored by the University
of Massachusetts Lowell and Lowell National Historical Park. Established in 1987, its goal is to encourage the teaching of
industrial history in elementary and secondary schools.
The Workers on the Line program consists
of a 90-minute interpretive tour and a 90-minute hands-on workshop. They provide students with the opportunity to explore
the causes and nature of the conflict between workers and owners that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. On the tour,
students discover firsthand the unique resources of Lowell National Historical Park. The hands-on workshop complements the
tour by bringing the significance of historic resources to life as students work on an assembly line.
Students tour the Boott Cotton Mills Museum,
where they conduct investigations of historical situations that caused workers to organize and protest. A visit to the Boott
Mills weave room, with the thunderous roar of eighty-eight power looms, is a graphic example of one important worker grievance.
In the workshop, students become workers on textile printing assembly lines. As they take on the role of production workers,
they experience a loss of control over their lives as equipment is "speeded up." When wages are cut, they must decide whether
to join a union and go on strike.
The Industrial Revolution was a defining
era in American history. All that we consider "modern" was significantly shaped by this period, whether it be in technology,
politics, art, culture, or the nature of work itself.
During the Industrial Revolution, control
over the workplace generally shifted from workers to owners. Workers reacted in different ways; a common response was to organize
into unions and fight back. This struggle took place in many different types of workplaces and, indeed, continues today.
After visiting the Park and completing
the activities in this guide, students will be able to:
• Discuss labor-management conflict
and how it was symbolized by a change in power relationships. This will be shown as students experience a deterioration in
the work experience, and a reduction in buying power.
• Discuss some aspects of the history
of organized labor: why it was a logical response to factory production; when it occurred; what some results were.
• Discuss what the nature of work
may be in the future.
• Describe the nature of factory
production and list some different types of
What is it like to work in
a factory? How is work on a production line organized? Who decides the kind of conditions under which factory goods are produced?
Who decides how profits are distributed? How can factory workers influence working conditions, wages, and hours of labor?
These are just some of the questions which are addressed in Workers on the Line.
Before the Industrial Revolution
Before the Industrial Revolution, most
Americans lived on farms or in rural villages and produced the goods that they needed for daily life. They also produced goods
-- food, textiles, clothing, and shoes for local markets. Bartering was far more common than selling goods for cash. Bulk
goods such as grain, tobacco, stone, and lumber were shipped to the small number of large cities for national or foreign markets.
American villages and cities increasingly
contained skilled craftsmen who worked in small workshops. Most of these craftsmen had trained for years as apprentices, then
as journeymen, before becoming masters as blacksmiths, tailors, printers, shipwrights, or other skilled trades. Masters often
owned their tools, and controlled the pace and quality of work.
Within the textile crafts, the carding
of wool or cotton and the spinning of yarn were mechanized in America beginning in the late 1700s. Yet weaving cloth continued
in the rural home or remained the province of skilled urban weavers. Beginning in the 1810s
with the development of the power loom,
however, textile production shifted into factories. The textile industry soon emerged as one of the key enterprises that propelled
America’s Industrial Revolution.
Lowell and the Beginning of American Industry
Lowell was one of the most important industrial
cities in early America. Wealthy Boston merchants financed the harnessing of waterpower from the Merrimack River and the construction
of factories and machines to create the largest textile mills in the nation.
They bought cotton produced in the slave
south and hired primarily young women from New England villages to manufacture large amounts of cloth. Their investment was
highly profitable. Moreover, Lowell’s "mile of mills" and its tidy rows of brick boardinghouses where many of the "mill
girls" lived became an international attraction.
Visitors from around the world traveled
to Lowell to see its sights and write their impressions of the new industrial city.
Important innovations in the textile industry
included not only factories and machines, but also the organization of the business enterprise. Investors from Boston established
manufacturing corporations with capital raised through stock sales. Those who held large amounts of corporation stock elected
the corporation officers and greatly
influenced the running of the corporations.
In turn the officers hired the agent who was responsible for the operation of the factory, and the hiring and firing of the
workers. An overseer controlled production on the factory floor.
Early Labor Protests
It became clear to workers very early
that their interests were different from those of the owners. It is significant that some of the first strikes in US history
took place in Lowell in 1834 and 1836. Women led these strikes.
The strikers had three main grievances:
pay cuts, speed-ups (the speed of the machine is increased), and stretch-outs (where workers are required to watch more machines).
They also objected to the premium system, in which overseers received a bonus if their workers surpassed production goals
and to increases in the cost of their housing and food in mill boardinghouses.
Workers and Their Organizations
Most early strikes and protests failed
or achieved minor gains. Owners were very rich and powerful and could fire troublemakers. In addition there were periodic
depressions in the US economy, each one lasting for several years: 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893. These depressions were caused partly
by overproduction: plentiful goods led to low prices, layoffs, and factory shutdowns. Poor monetary practices, rampant speculation
and bad investments, large debts, and foreign trade problems also contributed to the economic downturns. Wage earners suffered.
No union could succeed when a large number of workers were willing to work for any wage.
In Lowell, as in many other industrial
cities during this time, most workers were immigrants. For many, returning home was not an option. They often entered low-skilled
jobs and worked for low wages.
Skilled workers organized themselves into
craft unions which at first gave them more control over wages and working conditions. Owners and managers gradually "de-skilled"
the work by dividing one complex job into several smaller jobs that any worker could be trained to do. Workers with little
or no job security were not as likely to join unions.
Despite the challenges, workers organized
themselves locally and nationally. The Knights of Labor (1869) and the American Federation of Labor (1886) were the most significant
labor organizations of the nineteenth century.
Bread and Roses
The Bread and Roses strike in nearby Lawrence
(1912) is perhaps the most famous labor dispute in US history. A new state law that shortened the workweek led to a wage reduction
by mill owners. The International Workers of the World (IWW) sent leaders to Lawrence to provide organization.Workers conducted
a lengthy strike that was marred by violence. Soldiers were summoned by mill officials, and several strikers were shot dead.
An outraged American public demanded justice
for the strikers and children of Lawrence.
Hearings were held in Congress, and Lawrence
children testified about the harsh
conditions in the mills.
The strike spread to Lowell. Once again,
police were brought in to intimidate strikers.
The various ethnic groups stuck together,
the strikers held firm, and the Lowell workers won the same concessions that had been won in Lawrence. The Bread and Roses
strike was the first major victory for textile workers in Massachusetts.
Victory was short lived. The majority
of workers in Lowell remained unorganized as the mills began to close in the 1920s. Federal laws made it much easier for workers
to organize in the 1930s (see p. 15 for a description of the National Labor Relations Act) and by the late 1930s and early
1940s, the city’s textile workers established unions. By that time, most of the textile industry had already abandoned
New England, moving to cheaper locations in the south, and it was too late to save thousands of manufacturing jobs in Lowell.
Do not leave your work station without
your overseer's permission.
If you are late you will not be paid.
Workers who produce poor quality work
will be discharged.
There will be no talking except what is
necessary to run the assembly line.
Those who fail to obey orders will be
1. Cottage Industries to Factory Production
Before the Industrial Revolution, most
goods were created by hand by craftsmen classified into three categories: apprentice, journeyman, and master craftsman. A
master craftsman was a person who had mastered all the techniques and skills of a given craft. After many years of practice,
he was regarded as an expert who then passed along his knowledge and skills to apprentices, young boys who spent many years
under his direction. A journeyman was a craftsman who had completed apprenticeship but did not yet have the experience or
skill to be designated a master. A craftsman knew the whole process of creating an object; for example, each woodcrafter knew
how to create a chair from start to finish.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution,
the job of creating an object became broken down into many steps, each of which was done by a different person. In the case
of the wooden chair, one person might lathe the legs, another would create the seat, another would make the arms and back,
and all the parts would then go to yet other people who would assemble them. The advantages were that single tasks could usually
be done over and over faster than when one person did everything start to finish.
Craft Simulation Activity
Distribute the in-line skate page to every
student. Explain that they are each a craftsperson who will assemble the skates start to finish. They must be cut out, blades
glued on, and colored to the best of their ability. Each will be asked to track the amount of time it takes to complete the
task. After everyone has completed the skates, compile and average the different times it took all the students to complete
the task. This will be the "standard" time it takes to produce in-line skates by hand.
Point out the differences in "quality"
among the hand-created skates. Are there some who have apparently mastered the craft of making in-line skates and some who
still need some time as apprentices?
Factory Simulation Activity
Divide the class into production lines
of 5-8 students each. Each of the following tasks will be assigned to a different student on the line:
1. Cut out right blade 5. Glue blade to
2. Cut out left blade 6. Glue blade to
3. Cut out right boot 7. Color boots
4. Cut out left boot 8. Inspect final
product, put aside rejects, keep line moving
Using the "standard" of time determined
during the craft lesson, see how many skates can be created during the same amount of time. Do the same activity again and
see which of the production lines can produce even more skates.
Considering Each Method
Have each student complete a questionnaire:
Reviewing the Results
• What were some of the major differences
between the two methods?
• Why was the factory method so
attractive from a business standpoint?
• How would consumers be affected
by this new method?
• How would workers accustomed to
the craft method feel about the working in a factory? Why?
• What was your role?
• Which method produced more goods?
• Which method generally producedhigher
• Which job required more skill?
• Which method is more efficient/profitable?
Page 9: ---
2. Labor/Management Conflict
This activity is set in the Massachusetts
Chocolate Corporation with its large factory in Northeastern Massachusetts. Mr. Bernard Bigwig, Agent to the Board of Directors
for the Corporation has circulated the preceding letter to the company’s overseers:
May 13, 1915
To Factory Overseers:
Profits at the Massachusetts Chocolate
Corporation have been dwindling for the last few months. The Board of Directors attributes this to the high cost of labor
at the factory—as you know, we are already paying both our Wrappers and Packagers 16 cents per hour for a 54 hour work
week. Faced with several alternatives, the Board has chosen one which should increase profits and minimize potential conflicts
The following is the Official Improvement
1. Wrappers and Packagers will continue
to receive their previous wages, but will have to adhere to new requirements in order to avoid a pay cut.
2. Wrappers will be responsible for wrapping
an additional 5 chocolates per minute.
3. Packagers will have a 5 minute reduction
in time for packing crates with chocolates.
4. These changes will be implemented gradually
(over three weeks), so that workers can become accustomed to production changes.
5. Any workers unable or unwilling to
work towards the new goals will be dismissed.
It is your responsibility, as Overseers,
to see that these changes occur smoothly, with minimal worker conflict. As an added incentive for you to carefully manage
the new Improvement Plan, we will initiate a premium system in which each Overseer will receive a bonus of $5.00 for each
week that your workers reach our new production goals.
By increasing the number of chocolates
produced and reducing costs, we are certain that the Massachusetts Chocolate Corporation will maximize profits and be able
to sell to new markets that we have not been able to reach before.
Agent of the
Board of Directors
Analyzing the Letter
Distribute a copy of Mr. Bigwig’s
letter to each student. Ask the students to write three questions they would ask Mr. Bigwig, based on the content of the letter.
After sharing some of these questions and answers, have the class as a whole discuss the letter and respond to the following:
• Why does the Board of Directors
feel that the Official Improvement Plan needs to be implemented?
• Find evidence from the letter
which shows that working conditions at the factory would not be considered acceptable in the U.S. today.
• From an overseer’s point
of view, what parts of the plan would you like? What parts would you dislike? Why?
• How do you think the workers will
react to the Improvement Plan? Why?
• To summarize, what did the Board
of Directors decide would be its plan to improve the Massachusetts Chocolate Corporation’s situation?
The Next Sequence of Events
On June 13 the new procedures begin. Many
workers are upset with the plan but do nothing. They are afraid of how the management might react. However, in spite of past
firings of "difficult" workers, many Packagers and Wrappers begin to protest this new plan. These Wrappers and Packagers request
a meeting with the managers. This unprecedented request is quickly rejected by the Board until the workers stage a one day
walkout which completely halts production. At first the Board directs the Overseers to fire those workers but then reconsiders
and tells the Overseers to meet with representatives of the workers at a hearing to explain why the plan is necessary. In
addition, the Board permits all Packagers and Wrappers to attend the hearing hoping this move will show their "good will."
Understanding Management and Labor’s
Point of View
• Divide the class into groups of
four or five students each- - one group plays the Overseers. Other groups contain Wrappers and Packagers.
• Workers — list three complaints
workers have with the new plan. Choose one representative from each group.
• Overseers — list at least
three reasons why the plan is necessary.
• Have the class as a whole share
their ideas and explore the reasons for the opposing points of view between workers and management.
The Board of Directors of the Massachusetts
Chocolate Corporation has pinpointed the reason for loss of profits at the high cost of labor. We are not told how much time
the board spent studying the possible reasons for the decline of profits. Are there other reasons that might explain profit-loss?
Factors to consider: the market for chocolate, origin of raw materials, technology required to produce the chocolates, advertising
strategy, management procedures, failure of the management to plan for the future, etc. Have the class brainstorm all the
possible reasons that the company is not producing as great a profit as it did in the past.
3. Working Conditions and the Rise of
The Conditions Which Workers Faced
Have students read these quotes on conditions
of the Industrial Era:
1. Discontent with the regimentation of
Lowell factory life in the Lowell Offering, 1841 (from Labor and the Rise of Industrialism in Lowell):
"I am going home where I shall not be
obliged to...be dragged about by the ringing of a bell, nor confined in a close noisy room from morning till night...We cannot
have time to eat, drink, or sleep; we have only thirty minutes...to...partake of our food, and return to the noisy clatter
of machinery. Up before day, at the clang of the bell—and out of the mill by the clang of the bell—into the mill,
and at work, in obedience to that ding-dong of a bell—just as though we were so many living machines."
2. The stretch-out*, which Lowell’s
female mill operatives faced, Voice of Industry, 1844 (from Managing the Mills):
"It is a subject of... general complaint
among the operatives, that while they tend three or four looms, where they used to tend two, making nearly twice the number
of yards of cloth, their pay is not increased to them, while the increase to owners is very great. Is this just?"
3. The premium system*, implemented in
many of Lowell’s textile mills in the 1840s (from Women at Work):
"The premium system is a curse to us...I
have worked under this plan, and know too well the base treatment of overseers in many instances.-Often have girls...been
so afraid of the ‘Old Man’ they dare not ask to go out when sick; for they know he would have a great deal to
say. ‘The work must not be stopped, and if you are not able to work you better stay out all the time.’"
4. Children as coal miners in Pennsylvania,
as reported in the Labor Standard of May 17, 1879 (from The Labor Movement in the United States):
"These little fellows go to work in this
cold, dreary room at seven o’clock in the morning and work till it is too dark to see any longer. For this they get
one to three dollars a week. One result of their work is clean, free coal that burns away to ashes in the grate; another result
I found in a little miner’s graveyard...where more than every other stone bears the name of some little fellow under
fifteen years of age."
5. The privation of a Fall River, Massachusetts,
family in 1883 (from Bread and Roses):
"I have a brother who has four children
beside his wife and himself. All he earns is $1.50 a day. He works in the iron works at Fall River. He only works nine months
out of the twelve. There is generally three months of stoppage...and his wife and family all have to be supported for a year
out of his wages of nine months..."
6. The opulence which the wealthiest businessmen
enjoyed in the early twentieth century (from The Labor Movement in the United States):
"...the champion of all the turn-of-the-century
chateaux was George W. Vanderbilt’s ducal palace at Asheville, North Carolina...It had 40 master bedrooms, a Court of
Palms,...a Banquet Hall,...a Tapestry Gallery, and a Library with 250,000 volumes. It was surrounded by an estate which covered
203 square miles."
The assignment of additional pieces of machinery to each operative
The payment of cash bonuses to overseers whose workers produced the most goods
Reviewing the Quotes
• Why does the mill operative in
Quote 1 feel as though workers are like "so many living machines"?
• Why does the worker in Quote 2
feel that the stretch-out is unfair?
• Who is the "Old Man" in Quote
• Based on the description in Quote
5, why do you think so many children, such as the miners in Quote 4, have to work rather than attend school?
• Imagine you are one of the children
mining coal in Pennsylvania. Why would George Vanderbilt’s mansion probably make you feel even worse about your situation?
Front Page News
Divide the class into groups of three
news gatherers each. Have each group concentrate on one quote (from quotes 1-5) and write a front page news story based on
the information in the quote. Have them include a "photo," headline, and masthead for their newspaper.
Organizing into Unions
Students in the Workers on
the Line program will participate in their own union meeting and learn about the significance of union activity in Lowell
since the early years of textile mills. Have the class explain why organizing into a union might be the most effective way
to improve working conditions. Next, have each group from the above Front Page News activity
organize a union to defend the rights of the workers they write about in their newspapers.
The following are some of things their
unions will need:
1. a name,
2. a slogan,
3. a symbol,
4. a poster advertising an upcoming
union meeting, and
5. a speech that will convince workers to join their union.
Exploring Labor History
Have students research important people,
organizations, and events in Lowell and American Labor History. The following are some suggested topics:
• The International Workers of the
• Sarah Bagley, Lowell Female
• The Ten Hour Movement Labor Reform
• Samuel Gompers, AFL-CIO
• Lowell turnouts of 1834 and
• The Lawrence Bread and Roses Strike
1. Expression Through Songs and Poems
Examining Popular Songs
Faced with harsh working and living conditions,
factory workers and their supporters often wrote poems and songs which conveyed this plight. Similarly, many contemporary
songs describe particular political or social issues. Have the class listen to tapes, radio, and compact discs at home to
identify these kinds of songs. Have them list the title, artist, and message of each song. In class, have your students explain
the purpose of these contemporary songs. Next, have the class examine the following song expressing workers’ desire
for an eight-hour workday in 1886:
We mean to make things over
We’re tired of toil for naught
But bare enough to live on; never
An hour for thought.
We want to feel the sunshine: we
Want to smell the flowers
We’re sure that God has willed it
And we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces from
Shipyard, shop and mill
Eight hours for work, eight hours for
Eight hours for what we will!
Analyzing the Lyrics
Review the meaning of this song with the
class by asking these questions:
• Who are the "we" and the "forces"
mentioned in the song?
• What does "toil for naught" mean?
• Why can’t the workers "feel
• What does the song writer feel
a fair workday would consist of?
• If you were the owner of a shipyard,
shop, or mill, what would your reaction be to the sentiments of the song writer? Why?
Reflecting and Writing About Working Conditions
Next, have the students think about their
own experiences as workers on the Workers on the Line assembly line. What were some of the difficulties which they endured?
What improvements did they seek during the union meeting? With these things in mind have the students break into their workshop
assembly line groups and compose a short poem or song, with a title, describing their experiences and aspirations as factory
workers. Have the groups read (or sing!) their pieces to the rest of the class.
2. Investigating Labor Legislation of
the Twentieth Century
Based on their experiences in Workers
on the Line, have the students brainstorm and design laws which they feel would help protect workers from abuse.
Landmarks in Labor Legislation
Next, have the class research some important
legislation of the Twentieth Century which has protected workers. The following are some suggested topics for research:
• The Norris-LaGuardia Act, 1932
(forbade exclusion of union members from employment, limited use of injunctions in labor disputes)
• The Walsh-Healy Act, 1935 (forbade
employment of boys under 16 and girls under 18 for work performed for the federal government)
• The Wagner Act, 1935 (guaranteed
rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively)
• The Fair Labor Standards Act,
1938 (extended the ban on child labor to most occupations)
3. The Future of Work
The Workplace in 2050
Break the class into groups of 3-4. Have
the class imagine what a workplace in the year 2050 might be like.
They can consider the following:
• What kinds of products will be
in great need in the future?
• In what ways will the future workplace
be different/similar from the factory in Workers on the Line?
• Will automation eliminate many
• Will many factories continue to
relocate out of the U.S.?
• What additional rights will workers
enjoy in the future workplace?
Plan for the future
Have students create a floor plan for
their factory of the future, indicating some of the jobs and listing some of the rights workers will have. Next, have each
group present their ideas to the rest of the class.
Discuss the ways a future workplace might
be different and why they would or would not choose to work in a factory of the year 2050.
AFL-CIO - the American Federation of Labor (1886) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (1935)
were and continue to be the two largest groups of unions in the US. They merged in 1955.
agent - a man hired by a mill owner to manage a mill.
assembly line - production line of equipment, machinery, and workers along which successive operations
are performed until the final product is complete.
brown lung - debilitating, often fatal disease caused by breathing cotton fibers in a textile mill.
Also called byssinosis, it was common among mill workers.
craft union - a union where skilled workers are organized according to their craft or skill rather
than the industry in which they work.
industrial union - a union where all workers, skilled and unskilled, are organized according to the industry
in which they work.
Industrial Workers of the
World (IWW) - the first nationwide industrial union (1905);
helped lead Lowell's first successful strike in 1912.
lockout - a work stoppage caused by management's decision to "lock workers out." It is usually
done when a strike is anticipated or in an attempt to break a union.
National Labor Relations Act
(NLRA) - federal law which guarantees the rights of workers,
including the right to organize into unions and bargain with owners; it also forbids an employer from punishing workers for
overseer - factory floor supervisor responsible for meeting production quotas.
premium system - a system where overseers receive bonuses if workers exceed production quotas.
speed-up - increase the speed of machinery in order to increase production and profit.
stretch-out - increase the number of machines assigned to each worker in order to increase production
Ten Hour Movement - a petition drive by mill
workers in the 1840s which attempted to
persuade the legislature to reduce the work day from twelve to ten hours.
Union- an organization of workers that attempts to bargain with employers regarding wages and
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