January 4, 2011

The Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 - Lawrence, Massachusetts

This year is the 99th anniversary of the famous Bread and Roses Strike that began on January 12th.  The Lawrence History Center is planning many activities to commemorate the 100th anniversary of a strike that brought change in the lives of our ancestors who worked in textile mills and changed  industry labor laws forever.

The above photo was taken as protesters marched 
against owners of the mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

My mother sometimes talked about this strike. She was already working in the mills. Immigrant families left Canada in search of work and in hopes of a better life. Agriculture had dried out because our ancestors knew nothing back then about crop rotation but they'd heard there was lots of work in the mills of Fall River, Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts as well as Manchester, New Hampshire. Mills sprung up in many cities and towns. It became a way of life until the mills left in the 1950's and headed south where labor was cheaper than in these northern mills where workers had learned to unionize to protect their rights.

On January 12th, 1912 the labor protest that became known as the "Bread and Roses" strike began in Lawrence.

A new state law had reduced the maximum workweek from 56 to 54 hours. Factory owners responded by speeding up production and cutting workers' pay. Polish women were the first to shut down their looms and leave the mill. As they marched through the streets, workers from all the city's ethnic groups joined them. Over the next months, increasingly violent methods were used to suppress the protest, but the strikers maintained their solidarity. After Congress held hearings on the situation, the mill owners were anxious to avoid bad publicity. They settled with the strikers, bringing to an end a watershed event in American labor history.

The Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 changed 
U.S. labor laws forever.


On January 12, 1912, workers in the American Woolen Company Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, opened their pay envelopes to find that their wages had been cut. They took to the streets in protest, beginning a history-making confrontation between labor and capital. The "Bread and Roses Strike," as it became known, broke new ground in several ways. More than half of the workers in the Lawrence textile mills were women and children, and women played a major role in the strike. Most of the workers were unskilled newcomers from the Middle East, southern and eastern Europe. They spoke more than a dozen different languages and practiced a variety of religions and ethnic customs. What bound them together was the need to improve their living and working conditions.

By the turn of the twentieth century, New England's factory towns were generally miserable places. Wages were low, rents were high, and living conditions were crowded and unhealthy. The factory floors were brutally hot in summer and painfully cold in winter. The machinery was dangerous; pressure to speed up production increased the risk of accident and injury.

The photo below is that of a "spinner" girl. Girls and boys worked as young as ten years of age in the mills. It was the same for bobbin girls or lap boys, bobbin girls kept the spinners supplied with bobbins as needed. I really don't know what my mother started as in the mills but I do know that as far back as I can remember she was a weaver in the weave room. I remember my brother being a bobbin boy when he started working in the mills. Later he worked in the "Mule Room". Actually, it was really the Spinning Room but it was called the "Mule Room" simply because the spinning machine was called a "spinning mule". My grandfather, aunts and uncles were all weavers. During World War II the Lawrence Mills wove material for army uniforms as well as blankets.

Under Massachusetts law, schooling was compulsory for children under age 14, but poverty forced many parents to lie about their sons' and daughters' ages and send them to work in the mills. One boy, asked if he'd like to go to school, said that he would love to, but he wanted to eat. My mother was eleven years old in January of 1912 and had left school in sixth grade to work in the mills.

In response to reports on the deplorable conditions at the mills, the Massachusetts legislature voted to reduce the maximum workweek from 56 to 54 hours. The law took effect on January 1, 1912. Although the legislation was intended to help the workers, many of them feared, correctly, that the mill owners would simply speed up production and cut their pay by two hours a week.

When workers opened their first paychecks in January and discovered that what they feared had in fact come to pass, a near-riot broke out. Polish women were the first to shut down their looms and leave the factory; they marched through the streets of Lawrence shouting "short pay!" They were soon joined by other workers drawn from the city's many different ethnic groups.

Because the country's most established labor organization, the American Federation of Labor, drew its membership from mostly white, English-speaking skilled craftsmen, it had no interest in a strike that involved women and unskilled, foreign-born workers. The AFL denounced the Lawrence protest as "revolutionary" and "anarchistic."

The owners were initially unconcerned. Without the assistance of the AFL, the Lawrence workers would never be able to sustain a strike. But the more radical Industrial Workers of the World, (I.W.W.) stepped in and sent organizers to Lawrence. Relief committees were formed to provide food, medical care, and clothing to strikers and their families. One magazine reported, "At first everyone predicted that it would be impossible to mold these divergent people together, but aside from the skilled men, comparatively few [broke the strike and] went back to the mills...."

The strikers employed some new tactics. Large groups went in and out of stores, not buying anything but effectively disrupting business. Huge marches were organized, with strikers singing songs, chanting, and carrying banners. One reporter wrote, "It was the spirit of the workers that was dangerous. They are always marching and singing."

One group of women carried a banner proclaiming, "We want bread and roses too." Roses signified the respect due to them as women, rather than just as cheap labor. The slogan caught on and provided the refrain for a popular new song—and the name of one of the most important events in American labor history. Once it was clear that the strikers had solidarity and leadership, management and city officials responded with force. The state militia broke up meetings and marches; soldiers sprayed protesters with fire hoses in frigid winter weather.

Bread and Roses by James Oppenheim

As we come marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing "Bread and roses, bread and roses."

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children and we mother them again,
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes it is bread we fight for but we fight for roses too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the woman means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler - ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses!

In February, children of strikers were sent to live with sympathetic families in other cities, a tactic that had been used successfully in Europe. The exodus of the children was a public relations disaster for the Lawrence authorities, and they forbade children to leave the city. On February 24th, a group of defiant mothers accompanied their children to the railroad station. Police surrounded and brutally clubbed women and children alike, then threw them into patrol wagons; 30 women were detained in jail.

Newspapers reported this ugly scene, and people all around the country were outraged. A congressional investigation began. As witnesses described working conditions in the mills and the events of the strike, President William Howard Taft ordered an investigation into industrial conditions in Lawrence and throughout the nation.

By March, the hearings had caused so much negative publicity that the American Woolen Company decided to settle. On March 12, 1912, management agreed to the strikers' demands for a 15% pay raise, double pay for overtime, and amnesty for strikers. The striking workers had demonstrated a powerful lesson: even traditionally powerless groups such as women and recent immigrants could prevail if they worked together.

Bread and Roses Mural

Here is what the Massachusetts AFL-CIO Labor Union said about it:
"One of the most prolific strikes in United States history was the Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. On the heals of a labor victory in legislation, reducing the work week from fifty-six to fifty-four hours, employers in Lawrence’s mills reacted by slashing wages to compensate for lost work. The mill owners expected their workers to be unhappy about the slash in pay, but did not expect the full scale retaliation that followed.

Lawrence at the turn of the century was a city of immigrants from many different backgrounds. These immigrants worked in Lawrence’s mills, and because of their different ethnic backgrounds, mill owners believe that the workers would not be able to organize because of ethnic differences. The owners proved to be wrong. In the first week of the strike, angry workers walked from mill to mill hurling bricks and stones through mill windows encouraging workers in those mills to walk off the job as well as a result of the pay cut. During the first week 14,000 workers walked off the job in Lawrence and were followed by 9,000 more in the coming weeks.

The Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW or “Wobblies,” took a major role in orchestrating and leading the strike. They successfully organized the different ethnic groups who lived and worked together and raised the money necessary to feed and provide for the strikers and their families. Many children were sent away to other cities in order to maintain the resources for the striking workers. This move gained tremendous sympathy from the public, and therefore the factory owners attempted to make sure this practice was stopped immediately. On February 24, 1912, they sent police officers to prevent some mothers and children from leaving Lawrence on a train to Philadelphia. The officers beat up the women and children and caused a public relations nightmare that led to a Congressional investigation of the strike. The owners realized that they had been beaten and finally came to terms with the IWW.

The true heroes of this strike were the women of the city of Lawrence. Women’s neighborhood associations were focused more the womanhood than ethnic identity, and thus became more inclusive and unifying which significantly helped the IWW to organize the striking workers and their families. Women also were prolific forces on the picket lines. They were better than the men at finding scabs who were attempting to cross picket lines, and were often more militant than their male counterparts."


Mass Moments

Commonwealth of Toil: Chapters in the History of Massachusetts Workers and Their Unions, by Tom Juravich, William F. Hartford, James R. Green (University of Massachusetts Press, 1996). Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology, by Joyce Kornbluh (Charles H. Kerr Publishing, 1988). Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream by Bruce Watson (Viking, 2005).

Massachusetts AFL-CIO at http://www.massaflcio.org/1912-bread-and-roses-strike

Labor Notes http://labornotes.org/node/679

Lucie's Legacy
Lucie LeBlanc Consentino 
Acadian and French-Canadian Ancestral Home


Susan Clark said...

Wonderful post. I know little about labor history so this is all new to me. Thank you!

Lucie LeBlanc Consentino said...

Thank you for your post!

I heard my mother speak about the Bread and Roses Strike quite often so I decided to do some reach on it a bit ago and now that the Lawrence History Center is planning activities commemorating this event, I thought I should share the information.


Barbara Poole said...

That was really an event, a real piece of history. I've heard bits and pieces over the years, and now I can read everything you wrote. Thanks.
Also, I love your new design and the tabs.

Lucie LeBlanc Consentino said...

Hi Barbara,

Thank you for you post.

I always heard about this strike while growing up because all of my relatives worked in the mills. The textile industry was the primary purpose for migrating to Lawrence from Canada. It is indeed an important part of not only the history of Lawrence but the labor industry of the country.


Meegan said...

Thank you for this post. My grandfather worked in the mills in Lawrence, and my Uncle lived in one of the cold water flats across the street through the 1970's. I would love to get to Lawrence for the anniversary celebration, and to comb through the library archives.