100 Years After Lawrence Strike, the Cry for ‘Bread & Roses’ Still Resonates

Steve Early

Textile strikers confront Massachusetts militiamen in 1912.
LAWRENCE, MASS. – One hun­dred years ago this month, thou­sands of angry tex­tile work­ers aban­doned their looms and poured into the frigid streets of Lawrence, Mass. Like Occu­py Wall Street in our own gild­ed age, this unex­pect­ed grass­roots protest cast a dra­mat­ic spot­light on the prob­lem of social and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty. In all of Amer­i­can labor his­to­ry, there are few bet­ter exam­ples of the syn­er­gy between rad­i­cal activism and indige­nous militancy.
The work stop­page now cel­e­brat­ed as the Bread and Ros­es Strike” was trig­gered, iron­i­cal­ly, by a Pro­gres­sive-era reform that back­fired. Well-mean­ing state leg­is­la­tors had just reduced the max­i­mum allow­able work­ing hours for women and chil­dren from 56 to 54 hours per week. When this reduc­tion went into effect, work­ers quick­ly dis­cov­ered that their pay had been cut pro­por­tion­ate­ly, and their jobs speed­ed up by the Amer­i­can Woolen Com­pa­ny and oth­er firms.
The strike that start­ed on Jan­u­ary 12, 1912, cre­at­ed polit­i­cal tremors far beyond the Mer­ri­mack Val­ley. The shut­down of mills in Lawrence forced a nation­al debate about fac­to­ry con­di­tions, child labor, the exploita­tion of immi­grants and the free exer­cise of First Amend­ment rights dur­ing labor dis­putes. The strik­ers’ appeals for sol­i­dar­i­ty and finan­cial sup­port also cre­at­ed a stark Which Side Are You On?” moment for main­stream unions and mid­dle-class reform­ers, both of whom were ner­vous about the role played by out­side agi­ta­tors” in Lawrence.
An immi­grant uprising
On one side of the class divide in Lawrence were rich, arro­gant and out-of-touch WASP man­u­fac­tur­ers. Their 1%” sense of enti­tle­ment led them to spurn nego­ti­a­tions with the off­s­cour­ings of South­ern Europe,” as New Eng­land Mag­a­zine dis­dain­ful­ly called the strik­ers. Instead, mill own­ers relied on rough polic­ing by 50 state and local mili­tia units (includ­ing a com­pa­ny com­posed of Har­vard stu­dents who were offered course cred­it for their attempt­ed strike break­ing). Two work­ers were shot or bay­o­net­ted to death, while many oth­ers were clubbed and jailed. Three union orga­niz­ers were false­ly accused of con­spir­a­cy to mur­der and faced the elec­tric chair before their post-strike acquittal.
Arrayed against Amer­i­can Woolen and its heav­i­ly armed defend­ers was a rain­bow coali­tion of recent­ly arrived immi­grants — low-paid work­ers from 30 coun­tries, who spoke 45 dif­fer­ent lan­guages. They were weld­ed togeth­er into a mil­i­tant, dis­ci­plined, and large­ly non­vi­o­lent force, through their own efforts and the extra­or­di­nary orga­niz­ing skills of the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW), which began recruit­ing in Lawrence many months before the nine-week walkout.
Unlike the elit­ist and con­ser­v­a­tive Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor (AFL), the IWW cham­pi­oned the work­ing poor, both native- and for­eign-born. There is no for­eign­er here except the cap­i­tal­ists,” thun­dered IWW leader Big Bill” Hay­wood, in a speech to the Lawrence strik­ers. Do not let them divide you by sex, col­or, creed or nationality.”
Many on the pick­et-lines in Lawrence were teenagers or women. Their mis­treat­ment at work, mis­er­able liv­ing con­di­tions, mal­nu­tri­tion, and oth­er health prob­lems soon became a nation­al scan­dal. When a del­e­ga­tion of 16 young strik­ers appeared before a House Com­mit­tee hear­ing in Wash­ing­ton D.C, the wife of Repub­li­can Pres­i­dent William Howard Taft was among those attend­ing who were shocked by their account of fac­to­ry life in Lawrence. These child labor­ers put a human face on the strik­ers’ now famous demand for bread and ros­es.” They want­ed more than just a liv­ing wage; they sought dig­ni­ty, respect and oppor­tu­ni­ties for per­son­al ful­fill­ment denied to those employed in the mills at age 14 or even younger.
IWW vs. AFL
Today, the Bread and Ros­es Strike” is fet­ed by all of orga­nized labor. But at the time, the work stop­page upstaged and embar­rassed the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor, because Lawrence work­ers ral­lied under the ban­ner of an orga­ni­za­tion­al rival. IWW mem­bers fierce­ly crit­i­cized the AFL for keep­ing work­ers divid­ed in dif­fer­ent unions, based on occupation. 
Women, non­whites, and recent immi­grants — par­tic­u­lar­ly those deemed to be un-skilled” — were large­ly exclud­ed from the alliance of craft unions derid­ed by the IWW as the Amer­i­can Sep­a­ra­tion of Labor.” The AFL, in turn, dis­missed the IWW’s quest for One Big Union” and work­er con­trol of indus­try as a left-wing fantasy.
AFL Pres­i­dent Samuel Gom­pers was par­tic­u­lar­ly grumpy about the Lawrence strike. Like some of those skep­ti­cal of Occu­py Wall Street last fall, Gom­pers claimed the protest activ­i­ty was just a pass­ing event” — the work of peo­ple more con­cerned with pro­mot­ing a class con­scious indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion” than advanc­ing the near future inter­ests of the work­ers.” When the mill own­ers final­ly capit­u­lat­ed, how­ev­er, strik­ers won most of their imme­di­ate demands — an out­come that vin­di­cat­ed their embrace of the IWW rather than the fee­ble AFL-affil­i­at­ed Unit­ed Tex­tile Work­ers. The strike set­tle­ment, reached in March 1912, pro­vid­ed wage increas­es, over­time pay, and amnesty for all strikers.
On the oth­er hand, as many labor his­to­ri­ans have not­ed, the IWW’s polit­i­cal influ­ence in Lawrence proved to be short-lived. Indus­tri­al union­ism didn’t gain a firmer foot­ing in the Mer­ri­mack Val­ley until the 1930s and the great wave of Depres­sion-inspired orga­niz­ing by the Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions. But even that lat­er labor move­ment suc­cess was erod­ed over time by cap­i­tal flight — mill clos­ings and the relo­ca­tion of tex­tile man­u­fac­tur­ing from New Eng­land to the non-union south. The Mer­ri­mack Val­ley entered a peri­od of steady decline. 
Lawrence, then and now
In recent years, how­ev­er, Lawrence’s long depressed neigh­bor to the west, the city of Low­ell, has expe­ri­enced an eco­nom­ic revival, due to pub­lic invest­ment in high­er edu­ca­tion there, a con­ven­tion cen­ter, and oth­er facil­i­ties; it’s now wide­ly hailed as a mod­el of mill town re-inven­tion and cul­tur­al diver­si­ty. Tourists flock to its muse­um of indus­tri­al his­to­ry, run by the Nation­al Park Service.
Lawrence remains a city of the work­ing poor, bet­ter known for its sub-stan­dard hous­ing, high unem­ploy­ment, polit­i­cal cor­rup­tion, and trou­ble­some street crime. Nine­ty per­cent of its pub­lic school stu­dents are His­pan­ic and few speak Eng­lish as a first lan­guage. Although not con­demned to fac­to­ry work at an ear­ly age, these chil­dren strug­gle to learn under ten­e­ment-like con­di­tions. A recent report by the teach­ers’ union describes crowd­ed class­rooms and phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture in dis­tress: leak­ing roofs, poor air qual­i­ty, per­sis­tent mold prob­lems, crum­bling walls and rodent infes­ta­tion.” Demor­al­ized teach­ers have been work­ing with­out a new con­tract for two years; stu­dent per­for­mance is so dis­mal that a state take-over the school sys­tem has been active­ly considered.
When work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty pre­vailed over cor­po­rate pow­er in the icy streets of Lawrence a cen­tu­ry ago, it made the promise of a bet­ter life real for many. The Bread and Ros­es strike became a con­scious­ness-rais­ing expe­ri­ence, not only for tex­tile work­ers and their fam­i­lies, but the nation as a whole. Nev­er­the­less, at cen­ten­ni­al events in Lawrence over the next sev­er­al months, it will be hard not to notice that many immi­grant work­ers there still lack bread and ros­es” — in the form of liv­ing wage jobs, afford­able hous­ing, and bet­ter schools.
But that injus­tice will not be cured until U.S. work­ers and their allies, in Lawrence and else­where, find a way to make his­to­ry again, not just cel­e­brate it.
Steve Ear­ly has been a union orga­niz­er, strike coor­di­na­tor and labor jour­nal­ist in Mass­a­chu­setts for the last 30 years. He is the author, most recent­ly, of The Civ­il Wars in U.S. Labor.

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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