Guiding Question:

How did the importation of Chinese workers affect the shoemakers' union the Knights of St. Crispin's ideals of worker solidarity, economic justice and civic equality?


By 1870, as the country was emerging from the Civil War, labor unions also were emerging as a means to deal with the wages, safety of workers, and security of jobs in the increasingly industrial economy. These nascent labor unions faced many issues as they attempted to control their members' futures. The paid labor force had grown with the granting of freedom to slaves, additionally there was an increase in immigration, an increase in workers returning from the war, and, with the completion of some of the larger railroad projects, an increase in unemployed laborers throughout the northeastern United States. The absence of government regulation of the labor force deprived the unions of any other method for bargaining other than requiring unity among its members in the event of strikes, slowdowns or stoppages. Because there were more workers than jobs, factory owners had a large available pool of workers to break strikes, split union shops and force longer worker hours, create cuts in pay and neglect worker safety.

Into this cauldron came the Knights of St. Crispin ("Crispins"). The Crispins were a union for shoemakers, and were very successful in organizing in large cities like Lynn and Lawrence. Indeed, by 1870, they even had a contingent for women, and were one of the largest unions in the state of Massachusetts.

Map of North Adams, 1881

By the spring of 1870, they had won grudging support among workers and citizens alike by a forward-thinking effort to get their members to settle into the towns in which they worked. The membership largely consisted of Irish and French-Canadian immigrants, who had, until this push by the union, been largely itinerant workers. The idea for settling into towns was twofold: it assured the unions a stable membership, and it justified higher wages. The members would be seen as good citizens, contributing to their community, and in need of a living wage to support their families. These families would then go to school and to church, and would spend money at the shops in the town. This was a win for all. Except, of course, for the factory owners, who wanted to control the issues of wages, hours and safety in their factories. As there were no laws regulating wages, and only a few regulating the work day and safety, the government supported the factory owners.

These pressures met in June 1870, in North Adams, Massachusetts at the local shoe factory. The Knights of St. Crispin were battling a Mr. Calvin T. Sampson for restored wages, protection of union jobs, and company policy toward workers when the economy slowed, and the amount of work for the factory decreased. The Crispins had successfully intervened when Mr. Sampson tried to hire non-union workers from a nearby town to break the Crispins. When that effort failed, Mr. Sampson tried something that set the entire country buzzing: he contracted to hire 75 Chinese workers from a management company in San Francisco. The union was astonished. The impact of this decision echoed across the United States and foreshadowed the coming turmoil as the United States debated the right of Asians to immigrate to the United States.

How would the interests of differing groups of immigrant workers, union and non, as well as the factory owner, the townspeople, and the government be reconciled?

Header Images: Boot images, retrieved from American Libraries Internet Archive, published in The book of the feet; a history of boots and shoes (1847), by Joseph Sparkes Hall, p.142

Inline and Background Images: Map of North Adams, retrieved from Library of Congress