RMA History Blog

Research Seminar

Walker Swindell

The Futility of Strikes?

Walker Swindell – Research Seminar 2022-2023

Walker Swindell and a digital primary source utilized during the research work.

In the last few decades, western democracies have seen the topic of immigration become more and more pronounced as a political, social and economic issue, especially in the United States during the Trump presidency. The surge in populist politics has led to the legitimization of anti-immigrant sentiment, as more and more opportunistic political actors seek to trade in social discontent for the attainment of political office. Populist politicians characterise immigrants as drains on national economies and blame them for breakdowns in social cohesion. However, the irony of this is that the United States, much like other western countries, are themselves the products of immigration. I studied this during the first year of my research masters in history at Utrecht University. The research was conducted as part of the Research Seminar course under the supervision of Dr Katharine Frederick, Assistant Professor of Economic and Social History at UU. The research was part of an ongoing project exploring the history of the global cotton textile industry. My own research saw me explore the role of immigrant labour in the New England textile industry in an effort to understand the social consequences of late nineteenth-century industrialization. 

Immigrants in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries travelled in their millions to the United States in the hope for fresh economic opportunities. One of the regions that saw the greatest influx of migrants was the region of New England. These immigrants, coming from places as diverse as England, Ireland, Italy and Poland came to New England to work as spinners, weavers and craftsmen in the region’s flourishing textile industry. Here, they hoped to build a better life for themselves and their children.

That is not to say that the textile industry of New England was an idyllic paradise. Much like other industrialising regions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, New England was characterised by periodic episodes of labour unrest as workers from diverse backgrounds waged struggles against systemic exploitation. With that being said, historians are in agreement that these strikes largely failed in advancing workers rights, leading some to even conclude that these failures were down to ethnic tensions between workers from different backgrounds.  

However, my own research sought to test these claims and demonstrated that far from inhibiting strikes, workers from immigrant backgrounds were leaders in the process and that strike failure was not necessarily down to actions of workers but to other factors, such as the underlying economic conditions of the day. In so doing, I sought to illustrate that far from being the cause of tensions, immigrants were the victims of conditions far outside of their control such as economic downturns and the oftentimes callous decision-making of their employers. I hope that this research serves to demonstrate  that, far from being the cause of present day political, social and economic issues, immigrants are themselves subjects of forces outside of their control.