For this week’s Peace of History:
We continue to celebrate Labor History Month with the famous story of the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, commonly known as the “Bread and Roses” Strike. Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, a holiday formed in part to bring attention to and celebrate the many underappreciated labors and responsibilities of women. Perhaps less known is the role of women in the American labor movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, both as organizers and as workers.
After a new state law shortened the maximum work week for woman and child mill workers from 56 to 54 hours, and after mill owners responded by cutting wages, the strike began with a group of Polish woman textile workers discovering the wage cut and walking out.
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Joseph Ettor and Socialist Party of America member Arturo Giovannitti had already been attempting to organize the textile workers of the city. The two quickly became leaders of the strike and formed a committee of 56 people: four representatives of fourteen nationalities. Like the strike that would hit Lawrence 7 years later, the 1912 strike organized efficient solutions to the extensive communication issues between the strikers. Strike meetings, decisions, and demands were ultimately translated into 25 different languages, and the ethnic representative system allowed for the rapid communication of pertinent information from the strike leadership to the workers. The United Textile Workers (UTW), an AFL-affiliated union, attempted to speak for the strikers early on to work out agreements with individual mills, but with the leadership clearly centered around Ettor and Giovannitti as well as the ethnic representatives, the mill owners ignored these attempts to undercut Ettor and Giovannitti.
The reaction to the strike, however, was swift and extreme. The city’s alarm bells were rung for the first time in its history. Police militias began patrolling streets. Bouts of violence between picketters, mill owners, and police broke out. Someone paid by the president of the American Woolen Company tried to frame the strikers by planting dynamite in various places across the city. Later, authorities fallaciously charged the strike leadership as accomplices to murder for the death of Anna LoPizzo, a striker likely shot by police. Ettor and Giovannitti were jailed, 22 more militia companies began patrolling the streets, and the city was put under martial law.
To replace the lost strike leadership, the IWW sent “Big” Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, along with several other organizers to Lawrence. Together, they raised funds from other New England mills; established relief committees, soup kitchens, and food distribution stations; and coordinated volunteer doctors to provide medical care. They also organized for the children of strikers to be sent out of Lawrence temporarily to the homes of supporters, mostly in New York City, for their own safety and to reduce the strain on the strike fund. When police attempted to stop them, beating strikers and supporters including women and children, the press witnessed and reported on the brutality. The story got the attention of Congress, which brought the strikers’ plight to national consciousness and made the mill owners’ position morally indefensible. The owners caved.
At the end of the strike, the workers had won most of their demands. The children sent away to New York City returned home. Without a permanent union or other organization to protect the gains, however, mill owners were able to reverse every improvement over the next few years, leading to the 1919 strike described last week. In both strikes, the ability to organize an incredibly diverse and multilingual industry of workers proved to be essential.
Next week: we will continue exploring the intersection of labor and peace with more stories from the movements.
“Lawrence, MA factory workers strike ‘for Bread and Roses,’ U.S. 1912.” https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/lawrence-ma-factory-workers-strike-bread-and-roses-us-1912
“The Lawrence textile strike, 1912 - Sam Lowry.” https://libcom.org/history/articles/lawrence-textile-strike-1912
“The Strike that Shook America.” https://www.history.com/news/the-strike-that-shook-america
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