The Bread and Roses strike, Lawrence, 1902.
The Fight for Bread and Roses
90th Anniversary of the 1912 Lawrence Strike
By Greg Beiter in Justice
, paper of Socialist Alternative, US-CWI, Issue No. 30, June-August 2002
This year marks the 90th anniversary of the "Bread
and Roses" strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts that occurred in the winter
of 1912. The strike was a heroic showdown of over 20,000 immigrant textile
workers against the inhuman working and living conditions forced on them by the
textile bosses. Lawrence was a milestone for the American labor movement, showing
that it was possible to organize women, immigrants and unskilled workers. The
strike also proved that women were quite capable of playing leadership roles in
labor organizing and fighting militantly on the picket lines. Socialist
strategies and tactics were a distinct feature of this strike and were integral
to its success.
Tens of thousands of immigrants from Southern and Eastern
Europe migrated to Lawrence around the turn of the century, attracted by job
opportunities within the city's twelve cotton mills. However, they faced
appalling conditions, both at home and at work. In the mills, the workers
slaved away at inhuman speeds for 56 hours a week, while their average weekly
pay of less than nine dollars meant they could only afford to live in overcrowded
tenements, packing on average four or five persons to a room. Half of the
city's children aged fourteen to eighteen were forced to work alongside their
mothers and fathers in order to earn enough to survive. Just under half of the
textile workers were women.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL, the main union
federation in the US at the time) saw the workers as unorganizable because they
were unskilled and of varied ethnic backgrounds (25 different nationalities,
speaking 45 different languages). The AFL traditionally only organized the most
skilled, higher paid, white male workers into narrow, craft-focused unions. The
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, a more militant union federation,
committed to organizing every worker at a given workplace into one union
regardless of race, gender, skill or trade) also had a local branch in
Lawrence. The IWW was convinced that the workers could be organized.
In January 1912, a state law went into effect that set the
maximum amount of hours that women and children could work at 54 hours per
week. The textile bosses in Lawrence reduced the hours of all their workers to
54 hours without raising the hourly rate of pay of the workers to correspond to
the previous weekly earnings at 56 hours a week. This previous rate of pay
barely kept the workers fed and housed. On January 12, when the workers
discovered that their wages had been reduced, the frustration of years of
living and working in miserable conditions and poor health boiled up, and they
exploded. By the following evening, 20,000 workers had left the mills and
joined the strike.
The IWW quickly responded to this spontaneous walkout by
calling a mass meeting that same evening. The workers at the meeting resolved
to send for Joseph Ettor, an experienced IWW labor organizer, to come to
Lawrence to organize and lead the strike. Ettor arrived the day after the
outbreak of the strike and brought with him his friend Arturo Giovannitti, a
leading organizer from the Italian Language Federation of the American
Socialist Party. From the beginning, left wing activists from the Socialist
Party played a key role in organizing and supporting the strike. Later on in
the strike, when Ettor was arrested, Big Bill Haywood, another left wing labor
organizer from the Socialist Party and IWW, quickly replaced him.
Upon Joseph Ettor's arrival, he wasted no time in setting
up a 56-person general strike committee to execute the strike. Four
representatives from the 14 largest nationality groups sat on the strike
committee, uniting the different nationalities into a cohesive body to battle
the bosses. This democratic organizational structure allowed the strikers
themselves to lead the strike, formulate demands and negotiate what they
considered an acceptable contract.
Early on in the strike, the employers restored the pay
rates of the strikers to the previous weekly wage before the reduction in
hours. Upon learning this, the strike committee led the workers to take the
offensive rather than throwing in the towel. At a mass meeting, the strikers
drew up a list of demands to improve their wages and working conditions. The
following demands were put forth: a 15% wage increase, adoption of a 54 hour
week, double pay for overtime and no discrimination against the strikers.
Eight days into the strike, the number of those who walked
out grew to over 23,000 workers – 70% of the work force at the mills. The women
strikers played a particularly courageous role on the picket lines. The women
workers coined the name of the strike, by waving signs proclaiming, "We
want bread and roses too!" Hundreds of women were arrested during the
strike and sent to jail alongside the men.
Another highly effective tactic used by the strike
committee was sending the children of the strikers to stay with friends,
relatives and sympathizers outside the city. This relieved the strikers of the
burden of having to feed and look after their children while participating in
the strike. Elizabeth Gurely Flynn, who later came to Lawrence to lead the
strike after Ettor's and Giovanitti's arrest, organized with the Socialist
Party to find homes for the children to stay in. The Lawrence police at one
point attempted to forcibly prevent the children from departing the city by
brutally clubbing a number of mothers and children as they were getting on a
train. This police brutality against the children caused a wave of protest
throughout the US and pushed public opinion in favor of the strikers.
This turn in public opinion was decisive in pushing the
Governor of Massachusetts to put pressure on the textile companies to
negotiate. Finally, in late February, the largest of the textile manufacturers
agreed to negotiate with a subcommittee of ten strikers. Eventually, the
subcommittee agreed to 5% raises, time and a quarter for overtime and no
discrimination against strikers in hiring. This agreement was accepted in
mid-March by a mass meeting of 15,000 strikers. Similar agreements followed at
most of the smaller mills. Even those not negotiating with the strikers were
forced to follow suit with their larger competitors and raise their workers'
Although the agreement didn't completely meet the workers'
demands, it was a significant step forward. The momentum created by the victory
at Lawrence set off a wave of strikes across Massachusetts in textiles and
other industries. Other textile bosses raised the wages of their workers in
hopes of avoiding similar revolts.
How Socialist Strategies won the Lawrence Strike
Like today's trade union leaders, the AFL leaders thought
that when business prospered and profits were up, then workers' wages would
increase. The AFL's lack of an alternative to the capitalist system left them
no choice but to limit their demands to what they thought the capitalists were
willing and able to give. Socialists approach labor struggles very differently.
Socialists see the interests of the workers and big business conflicting with
one another. Business owners make profits off the labor of workers, and their
profits increase the less they pay their workers and the harder and longer they
Rather than looking to cut a deal with the textile mill
owners of Lawrence for the better paid layers of the mill workers, the
Socialist Party and IWW looked to build a movement involving all the workers in
Lawrence. Only a mass movement of all the workers would be enough to alleviate
their miserable working conditions. By walking out and shutting down the mills,
the workers hit management where it hurts the most – their pocket books – and
forced them to accept the workers' demands.
Despite the massive presence of police and the state
militia in Lawrence throughout the strike, mass pickets were used to keep the
mills closed. To avoid attacks by the police and soldiers, the strikers
ingeniously set up a moving picket that encircled the entire textile district
of Lawrence. This moving picket line was sustained 24 hours a day throughout
the duration of the strike.
The socialist strike leaders were not afraid to break the
law and go to jail to keep the mills closed. Over 300 strikers were arrested
throughout the course of the strike for obstructing scabs from entering the
mills. Socialists believe that shutting down production is the most effective
weapon of the strikers, and therefore it is necessary to use mass picket lines
of strikers and sympathizers, and if necessary, defy injunctions or arrests in
order to keep scabs out.
Socialists see the working class as a whole as having the
power to change society. By taking production into their own hands, workers can
then use the wealth of their labor to benefit everyone in society rather than a
wealthy, exclusive elite. Only when society is fundamentally changed along
these lines, will the gains of the workers' movement not later be eroded or
trampled on by big business and their stooge politicians.
More Labour History pieces are available here
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are available here.
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