For this week’s Peace of History:
We celebrate the first week of Labor History Month with the story of the 1919 Lawrence Textile Workers’ Strike: an episode that proved the power of nonviolent resistance in the American context decades before Dr. King, that bridged the gap between pacifism and trade unionism, and that sent A.J. Muste on the path to later co-found the influential Committee for Nonviolent Action.
A.J. Muste (for whom the VPT conference center is named) was a Dutch-born American pastor and activist known for his lifelong work in the labor, peace, and civil rights movements. Shortly after the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) was founded in 1916, A.J. Muste became an active member of the pacifist organization. By the end of the next year, with the United States’ entry into the First World War already several months in, Muste’s wildly unpopular pacifism led to the resignation of his pastorate in Newtonville, MA. Shortly thereafter, Muste moved to Boston and joined up with two other pacifist ministers involved in FOR, Cedric Long and Harold Rotzel, as well as three women of some social renown: Anna N. Davis, Ethel Paine, and Elizabeth Glendower Evans. Together, they formed the Comradeship: a group dedicated to investigating “the question of how to organize our lives so that they would truly express the teachings and spirit of Jesus.” In 1919, when FOR asked Long, Rotzel, and Muste to assist in the arbitration of the strike at Lawrence, MA, the Comradeship had their chance to put their philosophy to the test.
There were many challenges to resolving the strike from the start. The more than 30,000 striking workers came from over twenty different ethnic groups with different languages, spoke little English, and faced an ascendant and violent nationalism hostile to their foreignness. The workers had organized themselves into smaller ethnic groups, with a spokesperson for each group, but factory bosses had devised a divide-and-conquer strategy of rewarding “old” immigrants and exploiting “new” immigrants, further stoking ethnic tensions among the workers. And the brutality of police attacks on the workers began on the very first day of the strike, with police clubbing not just workers on picket lines and outside the mills, but also entering the homes of workers to attack women and other members of working families.
Many pacifists of the time, including some in FOR, believed that in irreconcilable situations, it might actually be better to cede victory to evil rather than to violate fundamental pacifist principles. Unlike mainstream pacifism of the time, however, when push came to shove, the Comradeship could not stand neutral. Moreover, while many American pacifists viewed labor strikes as inherently violent, the Comradeship realized almost immediately upon entering the situation in Lawrence that law enforcement was the “creator of violence” in the strike. Muste would argue later that, although worker activism might appear to disturb the “social peace,” the language of “peace” could often be used to maintain an unjust status quo -- one of the many important lessons he would learn from the 1919 strike.
In helping to organize the strikers into a more sustainable force, the Comradeship helped to form the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America (ATWA), a new union of skilled and unskilled laborers. Muste was immediately elected to the office of Executive Secretary. His immigrant and working-class credentials helped him win the trust of the workers, but it was largely his strategic flexibility paired with a rigid commitment to justice that maintained that trust.
One early episode in particular demonstrated both of these qualities especially well. Of course, the Comradeship discouraged the strikers from retaliatory violence against the police and scab workers, but sensing that some dramatic action was required to take its place, Long, Rotzel, and Muste took the risk of suffering police brutality to lead the picket line. On the first day of leading the line, Muste and Long were separated from the rest of the strikers, beaten until they could not stand, and then arrested. The Comradeship, however, turned the beating into a victory -- preceding the strategies that Dr. King would champion decades later, the brutalization of the clearly nonviolent pastors by the city police turned the city’s opinion of the situation overnight. More money began coming in for the strike fund. The tone of the press became more sympathetic. And the workers now had a living example of the power of nonviolent resistance.
So when police mounted machine guns in key locations of strike zones, and when “radicals” (who later turned out to be agents provocateur) called for the commandeering of the machine guns, the strike committee decided to continue the nonviolence strategy. To their great frustration, the police were unable to instigate any more significant bouts of violence from the strikers. Mill employers attempted to frame Muste for murder, but that plan was not carried through, in part because such an accusation would strain credulity.
At the end of 16-weeks, with both sides exhausted and preparing to give up, Muste was finally called in by the head of the American Woolen Company in Lawrence. They settled: 15% increase in wages and no discrimation against strikers.
It was an important victory for the labor movement, a critical chapter of the early peace movement, and an essential learning experience for A.J. Muste -- the beginning of much of his decades-long work.
Next week: we will compare the 1919 Lawrence strike with the much more famous, and decidedly more violent, 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike -- so-called the “Bread and Roses” strike organized by the Industrial Workers of the World.
Danielson, Leilah. American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century, 2014.
“Lawrence Mill Workers strike against wage cuts, 1919.” https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/lawrence-mill-workers-strike-against-wage-cuts-1919
“This Day in Resistance History: Hope College graduate A.J. Muste and the 1919 Lawrence textile workers strike.” https://griid.org/2013/02/03/this-day-in-resistance-history-hope-college-graduate-a-j-muste-and-the-1919-lawrence-textile-workers-strike/