Bread and Roses: Remembering the Strike
kyle, 30.08.2012 18:39
When female Polish workers picked up their pay and saw they were shorted thirty-two cents, that was enough to spark what would become a two month long labor strike in the Lawrence Massachusetts mills in January 1912. When those weavers walked out of the factories with shouts of “short pay, short pay” ringing in the New England air, the factory owners couldn’t have predicted what they were up against. Within a few weeks more than 20,000 workers went on strike
At the beginning of that year a new labor law went into effect where women and child workers in Massachusetts were no longer allowed to work a 56 hour work week and the maximum hours became 54. Before that law went into effect, workers approached management asking for uniform pay. The workers were already struggling to live on the wages they made. They could barely afford simple tenement housing and bread and beans to eat. Reportedly, it was a treat to find meat at the dinner table. Management on the other hand, made millions and lived in the lap of luxury.
Meanwhile, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had been working side by side with the workers and were ready to lend their support. When workers decided to walk out, the IWW (also known as Wobblies) helped organize them. Within the Lawrence strike, organizers were able to overcome language barriers since the workers represented more than two dozen nationalities and spoke 45 different languages. It must have taken a tremendous amount of patience and goodwill between those folks to simply share information and ensure that all those thousands of workers knew what to do. The Wobblies were no strangers to organizing labor; they had already several other strikes including western mines and textile factories in Maine.
More than half of the millworkers were women and children. Children began work at the age of 14. Work in the factories was dangerous and just a week before the strike began one 14 year old boy got his leg crushed in an elevator. His leg was amputated and the boy died the following day. Accidents like that were all too common and workers recognized that newspapers barely mentioned the many deaths around them.
Women likely shared information and with the death of each child came a new urgency to do something to change the conditions and make their lives better. Watching and hearing of the deaths of children added fuel to the strike and kept the workers motivated to act. Doing so was literally a matter of life and death.
In a photo of the striking mill workers, the crowd parts for several young children who are surrounded by signs which read, “They asked for bread, they received bayonets”, “A little child shall lead them,” and “We never forgot!” Another grainy black and white photo shows hundreds of workers, many carrying the US flag while the crowd is held off by a line of police on horseback, armed with rifles. If you updated some of the clothing and add riot gear, the photo looks a lot like an Occupy gathering a hundred years later.
The city of Lawrence was unsympathetic to the plight of the workers and sided with the mill owners. They sent in police who attacked the crowds of men, women and even children. Several weeks into the strike, workers began sending their children off to other communities to live until the strike ended since food among the workers became scarce. A group of women and children were at the train depot when police attacked. Police brutality against women and children backfired as the act garnered national media attention. After learning what was happening in Lawrence in February of that year, President Taft’s wife Helen, advocated for the rights of the workers and public support for the millworkers grew. By February 1912, congress held a hearing about the working conditions in the mills and as a result the strike came to an end.
Management agreed to a 15% raise across the board and part of the agreement included a promise that there would be no backlash against the workers who had organized. This was viewed as a victory, although working conditions remained dangerous and the group was unable to form a union until the 1930’s. At least the Lawrence millworkers’ strike is remembered as a step in the right direction for fair and living wages and empowered workers everywhere.
Read more about the Bread and Roses strike in Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants and the Struggle for the American Dream by Bruce Watson.
This article is reprinted from the Ashland Free Press.