Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
The factory owner demanded sixty hours a week from the young women employed at the Government Envelope Works on South Ann Street. But apparently this was not enough for the boss, so he ordered “his girls” to work into the night on a regular basis.
Piecework rates for a six-day week earned the factory girls between $5 and $9. It was March 1907. At the time, the average union construction worker earned at least $18 a week for about 49 hours work.
The factory girls were tired of working in excess of 80 hours a week, and some of them decided to do something about it. Eight girls refused the mandatory overtime. Actually, they had only refused to work more than two additional nights a week, but insubordination is insubordination. They were fired.
The envelope factory was doing well. It had established both first and second shifts in order to keep up with demand. The first shift began at 7:00 a.m. and ended at 5:00 p.m. Any department that was short would be filled by mandating the first shift workers to stay over. Any girl who was even a moment late for her shift would not be allowed to work that day.
The young women complained that the 80 hours or more spent at their machines was dangerous to their health. Advocates like the Consumers League of Connecticut agreed. The League was created to improve sweatshop conditions. For the 4,000 factories operating in the state around that time, the state government had only three factory inspectors. At a conference at the Center Church in Hartford, Professor Willard C. Fisher called factory inspection “little better than a farce.”
The Government Envelope factory workers already knew that. When the eight workers were fired, the overtime situation only got worse. On March 18th, fifty factory girls went on strike to protest the intolerable conditions. Within a day, the eight were back to work and an “amicable agreement” was made to end the forced overtime.