Maynard Seider: Struggle and resistance in North Berkshire

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The author, an occasional Eagle contributor, has written a book entitled, "The Gritty Berkshires: A People's History From the Hoosac Tunnel to Mass MoCA."

NORTH ADAMS — In the construction of the nearly five mile long Hoosac Tunnel, historians have given us the names of the industrialists, the politicians and engineers who supported and supervised the huge undertaking. Little has been written about the thousands of men who actually did the digging and the dying, from 1854-1875, to bring that project to reality. One historian, Terrence Coyne, does give us a glimpse into their lives:

"Under [unsafe] conditions strikes were inevitable and apparently they met with a fair amount of success. The West Shaft workers conducted a successful strike after the bucket crushed the skull of one of their number. They refused to go back to work until the bucket's hemp rope was replaced with an iron cable "

In writing "The Gritty Berkshires," I too tried to focus on the lives of working people. I was struck by the words of James Woodacre, a Knights of Labor leader, at the first Labor Day celebration in North Adams, 1886:

"I have seen little children at the tender ages of eight, nine and ten years, some right here in North Adams, working right in the Union [mill] Is it not an everlasting shame and disgrace?"

On Jan. 12, 1912, 60 women struck the Waterhouse & Howard textile mill in North Adams after the company shorted them two hours pay. The Legislature had just cut the workweek from 56 to 54 hours with the assumption that employees would receive the same weekly pay. A spokesperson for the strikers stated:

"We are all girls who have to work for a living. Some of us are supporting our mothers but we talked it over and decided to walk out in a body We may as well play for nothing as to work for nothing We have no union for we believed that the company would do what was right by us."

VOICES FROM BELOW

What follows are nine more snapshots of voices from below, from the Great Depression to the present day:

Joseph White, a textile union organizer, speaking to an Adams crowd of 1,000, on Labor Day, 1934, responding to a request from Adams selectmen not to participate in a nationwide strike:

"Well, as soon as the selectmen start to tell you what to do, it's time to stand up and tell these politicians what they need to do [W]e will know who our friends are and what to do when they come up for election in the spring."

Rene Ouellette, Greylock mill strike leader, 1935, discussing the "systematizers" that the company brought in to check on workers' time rate for each job:

"The systematizer would watch us work. And if you had two minutes to yourself, he'd put that down. If I had five minutes to myself, he'd put that down, and the next day you had another pile of work to keep you busy "

Once, Ouellette stopped his car to pick up a hitchhiker. When he found out his passenger was a "systematizer," he told him to "Get the hell out."

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Mable Lewitt, on the origins of the first union at Sprague, 1937:

"I couldn't punch in until the work came down the line. Sometimes I wouldn't even work at all and they'd send me back home. Then, I would no more than get back home and they would send for me and I had to go back again [T]he foremen's wives were working with them, their aunts, their uncles, their brothers So we formed [a union]. The first thing we did was to stop foremen from having members of their family working for them...Next, we got four hours of guaranteed work if we reported to work "

Catherine O'Neill, on working nights at Sprague during World War II:

"Married women with children [worked at Sprague] [T]heir husbands came home at night and stayed with the kids, and [later] they went to work My husband took care of my kid at night, and I went to work. And in the daytime I was home [That] wasn't unusual [The men] had to help."

Jack Boulger, office worker strike leader, and later union president, on the lengthy 1970 strike against Sprague:

"[W]e were very happy about the fact that we had framed a contract that applied to almost every problem that we had [W]e had been able to move a corporate giant like the Sprague Electric Company into listening to us and into achieving some measure of fairness."

GET YOUR OWN COFFEE

1982, Jackie Rhinemiller, LPN, chief SEIU steward at at North Adams Regional Hospital, on representing her union at Pittsfield's Central Labor Council, and, as a woman, being asked to "pour the coffee and pass the sandwiches":

"No, that's not my job [I]f you want a maid, go out and get a maid I mean if you guys want a cup of coffee, you can walk up there and get it It's like they didn't see many women in labor being involved in those types of positions You know they would support GE [but] when it came to our organization [need for pickets at Hillcrest Hospital or NARH], it was like they're not there — and I hounded them on the phone I embarrassed them until they came."

Val Rodriguez, X-Tyal employee, one of 13 arrested for trying to stop the auction of company equipment in North Adams in 1986, responding to the personnel manager's negative treatment toward her: "And you know the guy that did this He was born and brought up in this area. And I was twice as angry at him because I thought, How can he do this to his people? We're his people. And I think I was more angry at him than the others because the others were from New York State."

Kathleen T. Hoczela, on being part of worker-owned Heritage Supermarket in North Adams, 1988: "It's more like a family. Problems can arise, but there's no one trying to be lord and master looking over your shoulder, or the fear of being on the outside looking in."

March 28, 2015, Dick Dassatti, letter carrier and North County Cares Coalition co-director, at a rally in front of Berkshire Medical Center:

"This is not about the closing of a factory or a business. It's not the loss of our local newspaper. It's not the loss of local ownership of our radio station. It's not that the state closed our employment office [and] our welfare office in North Berkshire When we lose our full service hospital, you've hit the tipping point If the government can bail out the banks because they're too big to fail, we have to let our government officials know that hospitals are too big to fail."

The book launch for Maynard Seider's "The Gritty Berkshires: A People's History From the Hoosac Tunnel to Mass MoCA," will be on Saturday, April 13, from 2-4 p.m., at the American Legion in North Adams. Music by Wintergreen and the public is invited.


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