16 February 2012

The Growth of Holyoke Continued:

Probably the last post in this short series.  Unless I decide to share some stuff on the decline: 


            The first paper mill in Holyoke “Parson’s Paper” was opened in 1853, four years after the completion of the dam.  Many other mills followed, and within 25 years Holyoke had become the largest production center of writing paper in the world. By 1880 Holyoke had more paper mills than any other American local, including production of cheaper quality papers, with 17.
            This period is characterized by massive increases in the organic composition of capital and worker productivity in paper making.  The output of Parson’s Paper increased more than 25 fold from 1854 to 1884 without an increase in the physical size of the mill. By assumption the downward pressure put on the rate of profit by the increasing organic composition was more than offset by productivity gains and relative surplus value. 
The wage of paper workers was fairly stagnant through the second half of the 1800’s.  There were some small increases, especially in the more skilled jobs, but nothing close to the increases in productivity that went along side them.  There was some unionization of paper workers during this time, however workers remained mostly divided along skill divides as well as divides of ethnic origin.  The Holyoke paper worker was usually of Irish Catholic heritage (often first or second generation immigrants).  There was however a large French Canadian immigration wave into Holyoke during this period as well.  It seems a common complaint of the Irish that the French Canadians were willing to work for a wage that was far below V for the Irish workers.  The large population growth in Holyoke during this period seems to have put enough downward pressure on wages that they did not rise even as many more mills opened in the city. 
By 1880 the total population of Holyoke was 22,000 roughly 1900 of these people worked in paper mills.  About 9% of the total population and 25% of the total workforce!  The combined employment of the textile and paper industries totaled more than 50% of the total workforce.  This period, although characterized by increasing capital investment, was still a relatively labor intense one in paper production. There was also a vast difference in the types of labor and wages employed in the mills.   Machine tenders and beaters of the pulp were high skilled jobs and not easily replaceable.  Women in the “rag sorting” room and workers in the finishing departments (often French Canadian immigrants who were willing to work for far less) were easily replaceable.  Class antagonism seems to have been absent for the most part.  Most documentation of workplace disputes points to problems of the Irish owners and skilled workers with the French Canadian (and to some degree Polish) unskilled workers.  Class harmony between labor and capital and a blind eye to exploitation of workers was present from the beginning of Holyoke paper though much of the hundred years the mills were in operation. Even workers in more skilled jobs felt the pressure of a high local immigration rate, as well as ethnic bonds with mill owners.[1]
Profits were not just high because of being able to pay low wages.  During the first 4 decades of paper production in Holyoke the mill owners (in an informal, and sometimes formal, cartel setting) took actions to gain monopoly power.   The mills had a rising organic composition of capital that was lowering average costs for the mills as their production vastly increased.  In a competitive system this would result in a cheapening of the final commodity being produced, in this case cheaper fine writing paper.  The Holyoke mill owners prevented the fall in their profit rate that would come with such a result by colluding to keep prices for writing paper high.   For most of the 1870’s and 80’s most of the mill owners in town meet two or three times a month in a formal organization.  The stated purpose of the organization was to discuss marketing strategies and export markets, however it is well documented that price fixing took place. 

No comments: