“We went back with what we thought was a 10% cut. Once we got inside it was 20%, and in some crafts it was more than that. A weaver who was paid piece work would look at his pay and realize the size of the cut. When he went to complain the boss would tell him, ‘Look, be quiet. If you don’t want it, move. The next guy will take it.’ There was nothing we could do.” –Pete Fauteaux, card room worker
On the morning of April 16, 1928, outside of the largest weave shed in the world, workers were ready to do something. Talk of a citywide strike by textile workers had been building for weeks. Inside Nashawena Mills, the machines ran as loudly as usual, but with only five cars in the parking lot, the workers knew it was just the bosses trying to put on a brave face. Outside, a shout went up, and Nashawena’s workforce walked away from the gates along with mill workers all over the city. The devastating strike of 1928 had begun.
Nashawena Mills began production in 1910, occupying a four-story spinning mill and an enormous single-story weave shed of more than 260,000 square feet, containing 6,100 looms. Built near the end of a 30-year boom in mill construction in New Bedford, the Nashawena weave shed utilized an innovation developed in the city. Previously, spinning and weaving were housed together in multistory mill buildings. However, beginning in the 1890s most newly constructed mills employed a single-story weave shed with a distinctive sawtooth roof pattern with angled windows to admit more light. The increased lighting allowed for better quality control of the finished product and improved ventilation, and with better working conditions came greater efficiency and production.
In 1928, an average textile worker in New Bedford made $1,037 annually, about half of the federal government’s estimate for health and “decency,” despite workers’ claims of record profits by mill owners. Initially, public opinion supported the workers, but as the strike dragged on through the summer, the economic impact became more widespread, and public opinion shifted. Newspapers began to associate trade unionists with the “red menace,” and mayor Charles S. Ashley called in the National Guard to assist police in breaking up worker demonstrations. Facing poverty and eviction, mill workers accepted a 5% wage cut negotiated by union leaders and mill representatives.
The strike of 1928 was over, but the Great Depression followed a year later. Falling demand for New Bedford’s quality cloths, an aging industrial infrastructure, and lower labor costs in the South led most mill owners to abandon the city.
Today, the Nashawena weave shed is the chief manufacturing location for the Joseph Abboud company, maker of suits and coats for men and boys. The company employs 500 workers at its various locations, at an average hourly wage of between $14 and $27.