A strike for bread and roses

January 11, 2012

Elizabeth Schulte tells the story of the 1912 Lawrence strike on its 100th anniversary.

THIRTY CENTS could make the difference between eating and starving.

That's what sent tens of thousands of workers in Lawrence, Mass., out of the textile factories and onto the picket line in January 1912 in one the fiercest battles in U.S. labor history. The struggle of the workers--most of them immigrants--was to defend their wages, but also for dignity and respect.

Conditions for the men, women and children of Lawrence--nearly all of whom depended on wages earned at the textile factories--were unspeakable. It was not unusual for women, who made up a large part of the workforce, to give birth at work, between the looms. And while it was illegal to employ a child under 14, half of the children of Lawrence between 14 and 18 years old worked in the mills.

By any measure--infant mortality rates, malnutrition, overcrowded and dangerous housing, workplace injuries--the workers of Lawrence and their families were living on the razor's edge.

So when a new state law prohibiting women and children from working more than 54 hours (down from 56) a week threatened to decrease their weekly pay by 30 cents, workers gathered at a mass meeting on January 10 to discuss what action to take if their wages were light that week. They decided to strike.

Strikers and their children during the 1912 Lawrence textile strike
Strikers and their children during the 1912 Lawrence textile strike

On January 11, when workers in the Everett cotton mill--nearly all of them Polish women--saw that their paychecks were smaller, they walked out. The next morning, workers at the Washington mill did the same--and then took to the streets to march to another mill, rush the gates, shut off the power and call the workers out.

By the end of the week, 10,000 workers had joined the strike.

IF THEY were to win, strikers had to develop their own organizations, such as a strike committee and strike support auxiliaries, and their own tactics, like the mass picket, to take on the assault by employers and their allies in the police.

The strikers would get no help from official trade union organizations like the American Federation of Labor (AFL), whose leaders refused to organize among unskilled workers, especially the women and immigrants who made up the majority of Lawrence's workforce. In fact, the initial response to the strike by John Golden of the AFL's United Textile Workers was to keep his craft union members at work.

Instead, socialists, anarchists and other radicals in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) would help play a leading role in the strike, offering an alternative to the top-down and sectional organizing of the AFL. They embraced militant actions to build solidarity among the strikers and inspire fear in the Lawrence bosses and their hired goons.

Experienced IWW organizers, including Joseph Ettor, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Arturo Giovannitti and Big Bill Haywood, came to Lawrence to be part of the struggle.

The strike was organized from the bottom up, with workers attending weekly mass meetings about the direction of the struggle. A strike committee was elected to make decisions in between the mass meetings.

The workers at Lawrence were made up of some 25 different nationalities and spoke some 45 different languages. With an eye to the fact that the bosses would try to exploit ethnic and language differences among workers, the strike committee was made up of four representatives from each ethnic group, with alternates in case something should happen to the initial representatives.

Workers kept scabs from entering the factories with mass pickets--typically involving not dozens but thousands of workers marching in an impenetrable line that completely encircled the mills.

The strike committee organized relief for workers and their families. And when the financial hardship caused by the walkout became too heavy a burden, Lawrence strikers repeated a tactic used in Italy and France, calling on workers in other cities to volunteer to provide a home for strikers' children for the course of the struggle. Workers in many cities answered the call, and parades of children were organized to board train for cities where supporters waited to take them in.

Meanwhile, the textile bosses of Lawrence stopped at nothing in their campaign against the mill workers.

In the first weeks, a provocateur was hired to plant dynamite so the strikers could be blamed. Later, when a striking worker, Anna Lo Pizzo, was shot during a clash with police, the bosses claimed IWW leaders Ettor and Giovannitti "incited" the violence and therefore were "accessories" to murder. They were jailed.

When slander didn't work, the bosses could depend upon police and troops, in addition to hired goons, to fight in their interests. One of the worst incidents happened on February 24 when police attacked a parade of Lawrence children heading to Philadelphia. But the attack backfired when newspapers reported on the bloodthirsty assault.

Through the course of the strike, workers gained unheard-of confidence to take on the bosses and the police. As author Meredith Tax explains in The Rising of the Women:

No one developed more during the Lawrence strike or came forward faster than those who had been most underdeveloped, most in the background--the women of Lawrence. About half of the Lawrence strikers were women and, along with the wives and children of the male strikers, their role in street actions was noticeable from the beginning.

One of the first instances of striker "violence" occurred when a group of Italian women caught a policeman alone on the bridge. They took his gun, club and star, and were beginning to remove his pants before throwing him into the river, when the cavalry charged and rescued him.

The IWW paid special attention to women's role as strike leaders. As Elizabeth Gurley Flynn explained:

The IWW appeals to women to organize side by side with their men folks, in the union that shall increasingly determine its own rules of work and wages--until its solidarity and power shall the world command...

Women can be the most militant or most conservative element in a strike, in proportion to their comprehension of its purposes. The IWW has been accused of putting the women in the front. The truth is, the IWW does not keep them in the back, and they go to the front.

AFTER NEARLY 10 weeks on the picket line, the strikers forced Lawrence bosses to agree to their demands: increased wages in all job classifications, overtime pay and, significantly, no discrimination against those who had taken part in the strike. After voting up the agreement, some 20,000 strikers celebrated by singing "The Internationale" in many languages.

Workers also turned their attention to IWW leaders Ettor and Giovannitti, who were still in prison. On the heels of the strike victory, a spirited international defense campaign was launched. After 10 months in jail, the two were acquitted.

In the immediate aftermath of the strike, the victory translated into growth for the IWW, which signed up some 16,000 workers for its local union. The IWW's militancy and creative tactics in Lawrence and other important struggles at the time showed the potential for organizing among workers that the AFL ignored--the unskilled, immigrants, African Americans and women.

However, the IWW also faced obstacles that would undercut its influence. The bosses launched a patriotic "god and country" campaign that attacked the IWW's radical politics.

And some of the policies of the IWW itself--such as refusing to sign contracts, viewing these as compromises with the bosses--also undercut the group's potential influence. In addition, IWW organizers left Lawrence soon after the strike, failing to build any stable organization to defend the gains of the struggle.

This left workers in Lawrence in a weakened position to fend off the bosses' assault and build on the gains they had made during the tremendous walkout. By the summer of 1913, the Lawrence IWW was again a smaller organization of 700.

Nevertheless, no bosses' campaign could erase the experience of the Lawrence strike and the power that the workers of Lawrence experience during that struggle. Workers previously ignored and unorganized by the traditional trade unions showed that when they came together, they could not only fend off the bosses offensive but aspire to demand their fair share of the wealth.

As the song inspired by the Lawrence strikers' slogan "Bread and Roses" goes:

As we go marching, marching, we're standing proud and tall.
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.

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