One hundred years ago, it seemed as though every other American was on strike. In early 1919, New York waterfront workers walked out and a general stoppage paralyzed Seattle. Major strikes then occurred in the coal and steel industries. In September, Boston policemen walked away from their posts, leading then-Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge to declare, famously, that “(t)here is no right to strike against the public safety, anywhere, anytime.”
These and smaller, less visible strikes were buoyed by rapid advances in unionization during World War I. Labor organizers no longer felt constrained by wartime compromises or a prior commitment to arbitration. In the face of runaway inflation that devoured workers’ income, unions sought to assert their growing leverage.
In most cases, workers’ high hopes were not realized. The struggles of 1919 were drowned out by a potent cocktail of xenophobia and anti-radicalism — the Red Scare. The detonation of bombs targeting government officials fueled fears that foreign agitators might be preparing a Bolshevik revolution in the United States. The ideological rhetoric surrounding the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian-American socialists accused of murder, was emblematic of the period.
In latter part of 1920, the country slowly returned “normalcy.” With Warren Harding’s election to the White House, Americans entered what we often imagine as a happy period of laissez-faire capitalism. But the prosperity of the 1920s — replete with Fords, flappers, and electric washing machines — was to an extent a creation of the Depression, when people romanticized earlier times.
Nor were the 1920s a period of perfect labor peace, least of all in Vermont. Beginning in 1921, a strike in Bellows Falls halted operations of the International Paper Company for over eight months. When managers brought in strikebreakers to end the deadlock, residents swarmed the trains to keep the men away. For the first time in Vermont history, the governor dispatched the militia to uphold order amidst labor unrest.
The following year, a national railway strike made its mark on the state, with shopmen walking away from the yards in St. Albans, St. Johnsbury, and Lyndonville. Events in Barre were even more dramatic.
Deflation led employers in the granite industry to cut wages. They joined a nationwide campaign for the “American,” or open-shop, plan. Henceforth, the owners of quarries and sheds (where the granite was finished) would make no distinction between union and non-union men when hiring, thus sapping the power of organized labor.
The granite strike formally began on April 1, 1922. At first glance, success might have seemed unlikely. Barre was deeply fractured between ethnic groups — notably Italians, Scots, Spanish, and French Canadians — with little to unite them aside from the granite they quarried and carved. The employers projected a common front under a Board of Control. Weeks into the strike, they too began to “import” scabs from neighboring states.
But “Wanted” ads in newspapers across the region suggest that the owners were perpetually short of employees. The strikebreakers lodged in Barre were made to feel unwelcome and, in any event, the work of cutting and carving granite was a specialized trade requiring trained men, over whom the unions had a near-monopoly.
In December, the Board of Control’s front collapsed under separate contracts with union locals. Scarcity had raised granite prices and each company sought an edge in the market. Strikers could not declare full victory but, as companies re-signed with unions, they could at least claim to have fought to a draw. There was enough fervor left in the movement to justify a sympathy strike when Sacco and Vanzetti were sent to the electric chair in 1927.
Still, testimony from the following decade suggests that the granite strike left lasting wounds, a sign of the larger woes of the interwar period. When Barre residents accused French Canadians of scabbing and exaggerated their role in the end of the strike, they were responding to other concerns of the era, including unregulated immigration, illicit liquor trafficking across the border, and continued antagonism between labor and capital.
Contemporary reports show that these were live issues through the 1920s. The way in which they played out in Barre and all across the state may help us pierce the dubious veneer of the decade. Indeed, in Barre lies a more honest image of American history — and an opportunity to assert the wider relevance of Vermont’s past.
Patrick Lacroix lives in Exeter, New Hampshire. He is a historian of immigration and religion and teaches at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.