The Bread and Roses Strike – for Labor Day

The Ring Leaders – Notice the hand cuffs

So its the first decade of the 20th century and Lawrence, Massachusetts is a deeply troubled textile town.  By 1900, the mechanization and deskilling of labor in the textile industry enabled factory owners to eliminate skilled workers and employ large numbers of unskilled immigrant workers, the majority of whom were women and child laborers.

Half of the workers in the four Lawrence mills of the American Woolen Company, the leading employer in the industry and the town, were females between the ages of 14 and 18. By 1912, the Lawrence mills at maximum capacity employed about 32,000 men, women, and children.

Lawrence mill boys

Conditions had grown even worse for workers in the decade before the strike. The introduction of the two-loom system in the woolen mills led to a dramatic speedup in the pace of work. The increase in production enabled the factory owners to lay off large numbers of workers. Those who kept their jobs earned, on average, $8.76 for 56 hours of work.  The workers in Lawrence lived in crowded and dangerous apartment buildings, often with many families sharing each apartment. Many families survived on bread, molasses and beans.

“The mortality rate for children was 50% by age six; 36 out of every 100 men and women who worked in the mill died before they reached 25. The average life expectancy was 39.”

No food stamps.  No “welfare queens.”  No minimum wage.  No child labor laws.  No pensions.  No disability benefits.   No safety net.  No hourly work week regulation.  By today’s standards of the radical right there folks were “free!”

The mills and the community were divided along ethnic lines: most of the skilled jobs were held by native-born workers of English, Irish, and German descent, while, Italian, Slavic, Hungarian, Portuguese and Syrian immigrants made up most of the unskilled workforce.

Until the events of 1912, few were members of unions, other than a few of the skilled workers, usually native-born, who belonged to a union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Some lived in housing provided by the companies — housing provided at rental costs that did not go down when companies reduced wages. Housing in general was priced higher than elsewhere in New England. With the average worker at Lawrence earning less than $9 per week, housing costs were $2 to $6 per week.

The State of Massachusetts passed a new law in 1912 limiting the number of hours which could be worked to 54  – 9 hours a day, 6 days a week.  Many workers labored for much longer each week.  Mill owners at the American Wool Company reacted to the new state law by reducing the number of hours that women could work to 54 hours per week by cutting the pay of their women mill workers.  They would still work more than 54 hours but wouldn’t be paid for the excess hours.  Not if they wanted to keep their jobs.  Unfettered capitalism at work.

 On January 11, a few Polish women at the mills went on strike when they saw that their pay envelopes had been shorted; a few other women at other mills in Lawrence also walked off the job in protest.

The next day, on January 12, ten thousand textile workers walked off the job, most of them women. The city of Lawrence rang its riot bells as an alarm for the very first time.

Eventually, the numbers striking rose to 35,000.

Many of the strikers met the afternoon of January 12, which resulted in an invitation to an organizer with the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) to come to Lawrence and help with the strike.  The syndicalist IWW considered the AFL to be tools of the mill owners.

Joseph Ettor (Giuseppe Ettore) of the IWW had been organizing in Lawrence for some time before the strike; he and Arturo Giovannitti of the Italian Socialist Federation of the Socialist Party of America quickly assumed leadership of the strike, forming a strike committee of 56 people—representatives of fourteen nationalities—which took responsibility for all major decisions.  The committee, which arranged for its strike meetings to be translated into 25 different languages, put forward a set of demands: a 15% increase in wages for a 54-hour work week, double time for overtime work, and no discrimination against workers for their strike activity.

;The Mayor ordered a company of the local militia to patrol the streets. The strikers responded with mass picketing. When mill owners turned fire hoses on the picketers gathered in front of the mills, they responded by throwing snow balls at the plants, breaking a number of windows. The court sentenced 24 workers to a year in jail for throwing snow balls; as the judge stated, “The only way we can teach them is to deal out the severest sentences”.  Governor Eugene Foss then ordered out the state militia and state police. Mass arrests followed.

At the same time, the United Textile Workers (UTW) of the AFL attempted to break the strike, claiming to speak for the workers of Lawrence. The striking operatives ignored the UTW. The IWW had successfully united the operatives behind ethnic based leaders. Carlo Tresca, anarchist and editor of “Il Martello” (the hammer) led the Italian strikers.  These leaders, members of the strike committee, were able to communicate the message of Joseph Ettor to stage only peaceful demonstrations.

A local undertaker and a member of the Lawrence school board attempted to frame the strike leadership by planting dynamite in several locations in town a week after the strike began. He was fined $500 and released without jail time.  It later came to light that William M. Wood, president of the American Woolen Company, had made a large payment to the defendant under unexplained circumstances shortly before the dynamite was found.

Fix bayonets!

The authorities declared martial law, banned all public meetings and called out twenty-two more militia companies to patrol the streets.  On January 29, a woman striker, Anna LoPizzo, was killed as police broke up a picket line. Strikers accused the police of the shooting. Police arrested IWW organizers Joseph Ettor and  Arturo Giovannitti who were at a meeting three miles away at the time and charged them as accessories to murder in her death.

The IWW responded by sending Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and a number of other organizers to Lawrence. Haywood participated little in the daily affairs of the strike. Instead, he set out for other New England textile towns in an effort to raise funds for the strikers in Lawrence. This tactic proved very successful.

The union established an efficient system of relief committees, soup kitchens, and food distribution stations, while volunteer doctors provided medical care. The IWW raised funds on a nationwide basis to provide weekly benefits for strikers.

Lawrence children at the railroad station going to New York to temporarily stay in the homes of sympathetic socialists.

Dramatizing the needs of the strikers, about 200 children of strikers were sent to New York, where supporters, mostly women, found foster homes for them. The local Socialists made their arrivals into demonstrations of solidarity, with about 5,000 turning out on February 10. Nurses — one of them Margaret Sanger — accompanied the children on the trains.

Parade of the Lawrence children in New York City.

The success of these measures in bringing public attention and sympathy resulted in the Lawrence authorities intervening with militia with the next attempt to send children to New York.

When city authorities tried to prevent another 100 children from going to Philadelphia on February 24 by sending police and the militia to the station to detain the children and arrest their parents, the police began clubbing both the children and their mothers while dragging them off to be taken away by truck.

The press, there to photograph the event, reported extensively on the attack. Moreover, when the women and children were taken to the Court, most of them refused to pay the fines levied and opted for a jail cell, some with babies in arms.

The police action against the mothers and children of Lawrence attracted the attention of the nation, and in particular that of Helen Herron Taft, the wife of President Taft. Soon after, both the House and Senate set out to investigate the strike.  The President’s wife sat prominently in the gallery bring national attention to the hearings.

The mill owners, seeing this national reaction and likely fearing further government restrictions, gave in on March 12 to the strikers’ original demands at the American Woolen Company. Other companies followed.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, heroine of the working class who would later spend three years in prison during the red scare.  Her life is for a future post.

That Ettor and Giovannitti’s continued time in jail awaiting a trial on trumped-up charges led to further demonstrations in New York (led by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn) and Boston. Members of the defense committee were arrested and then released. On September 30, fifteen thousand Lawrence mill workers walked out in a one-day solidarity strike. The trial, finally begun in late September, took two months, with supporters outside cheering the two men. On November 26, the two were acquitted..

The strike in 1912 at Lawrence is sometimes called the “Bread and Roses” strike because it was here that a picket sign carried by one of the striking women reportedly read “We Want Bread, But Roses Too!” It became a rallying cry of the strike, and then of other industrial organizing efforts, signifying that the largely unskilled immigrant population involved wanted not just economic benefits but recognition of their basic humanity, human rights, and dignity.

And that my friends was all it took to get the 54 hour work week.   Of course none of this is mentioned in schools lest we infect our children with socialism.

Happy Labor Day!


About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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2 Responses to The Bread and Roses Strike – for Labor Day

  1. Great post. I’m glad somebody is educating people in this country. 😀

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. beetleypete says:

    Thanks for this, Frank. A sobering yet stirring tale of solidarity.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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