The story of the great Lawrence textile strike of 1912
January 18, 2002 | Page 8
As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
As we go marching, marching, we battle, too, for men,
As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days;
THIS MONTH marks the 90th anniversary of the great 1912 textile workers' strike in Lawrence, Mass. ELIZABETH SCHULTE tells the story of this amazing battle.
JAMES OPPENHEIMER wrote the song "Bread and Roses" for striking textile workers in Lawrence, Mass. He took the title from the banners of strikers, who demanded not just decent treatment at work, but the right to dignity and a better quality of life.
The textile bosses in Lawrence had hired women and children because they thought they could pay poverty wages and never face resistance. And they employed immigrants--who spoke more than 25 different languages--with the aim of keeping workers from uniting and fighting back.
But the bosses were wrong on both counts. More than 20,000 Lawrence workers struck against a 30-cent pay cut in January 1912.
Many workers were lured to Lawrence by advertisements in their home cities--throughout the Balkans and the Mediterranean--showing happy textile workers carrying bags of money home from their jobs. Instead, the new immigrants were greeted with miserable labor at poverty wages.
The strike came as a surprise to bosses, considering that the workers were largely unorganized. Because of its craft orientation and its policy of ignoring immigrant and women workers, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had few locals in the textile industry.
AFL leaders actually opposed the Lawrence strike and by the end of the struggle had sided with the bosses--denouncing strikers as anarchists and saboteurs. In contrast, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, saw the Lawrence battle as a key struggle in their strategy of organizing all workers into "One Big Union."
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ALTHOUGH THE IWW had been organizing in Lawrence since 1905, at times working with the more conservative AFL unions, they accelerated their campaign when one of the largest mills, Atlantic Cotton, struck against speedups in 1911. The Wobblies sent in some of their best organizers--J.P. Thompson, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Big Bill Haywood, Arturo Giovannitti and Joe Ettor, whose ability to speak six languages was a tremendous asset.
But the backbone of the struggle was the workers of Lawrence themselves. In January 1912, Massachusetts passed labor reform legislation that limited women and children from working more than 54 hours a week. In Lawrence, the typical workweek was 56 hours. But because the law didn't have a provision preserving the two hours' pay, bosses instead decided to use the measure to cut wages.
Local 20, the Italian branch of the IWW, called a meeting on January 10 to discuss what action to take on payday. Some 1,000 workers showed up and voted to call workers on strike as soon as they received the checks.
On January 12, strikers poured out of the mills, some of them forming flying squads to go into factories to bring out other workers. Mill owners ordered their goons to attack workers, hosing them down with freezing water in the subzero January weather. But workers resisted, going into the factories and smashing machinery and windows.
The governor used this as an excuse to call out the National Guard, which joined police on the streets in intimidating workers.
In the course of the struggle, Lawrence workers devised several new and effective strike tactics. One was the mass picket. Instead of small picket lines, Lawrence strikers organized all their forces to block workplaces.
In the face of thousands of workers surrounding a factory, neither the bosses' scabs nor the police could do a thing. And as they marched, sang and chanted in the thousands, workers built solidarity and a sense of their own power. Building solidarity among the different immigrant groups--the largest were Italians, Poles, Russians, Syrians and Lithuanians--was critical to the strike's victory.
Questions in the struggle were debated and decisions made in weekly mass meetings attended by thousands of strikers. After each meeting, workers sang the workers' anthem from the Paris Commune, "The Internationale."
Day-to-day decisions were made by a strike committee, which was made up of elected representatives from each of the different language groups.
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THE ROLE of women--wives of strikers and strikers themselves--was key to the strike's success, and the IWW did everything it could to foster their participation. The Wobblies organized special meetings for women and encouraged them to take on leadership positions.
"The women worked in the mills for lower pay and in addition had all the housework and the care of the children," wrote Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. "The old-world attitude of man as the 'lord and master' was strong. We resolutely set out to combat these notions. The women wanted to picket. We knew that to leave them at home alone, isolated from the strike activity, prey to worry was dangerous for the strike."
Women proved to be some of the fiercest fighters. On one occasion, a group of Italian women found a police officer alone on a bridge. They had taken his gun, club and badge and were in the process of removing his pants before throwing him into the water when he was rescued by the cavalry.
"The IWW has been accused of putting the women in the front," wrote Flynn. "The truth is, the IWW does not keep them in the back, and they go to the front." So it is no surprise that several women were elected strike committee delegates.
Concrete provisions were made to provide for workers' families. Strikers ran six commissaries and 11 soup kitchens. And when the Lawrence schools taught strikers' children that their parents were "un-American" for striking, the IWW's Haywood organized meetings for the kids.
When the growing threat of violence from police and company goons made strikers fear for their children's safety, the workers devised a brilliant plan. Strike supporters in other parts of the country--mostly from New York City--were called on to house and care for the children for the strike's duration. When supporters gathered to meet the Lawrence children at Grand Central Station, it became a huge labor rally.
The strikers forced the mill bosses to settle in March--and won most of their demands. They got pay increases on a sliding scale, with the lowest-paid workers getting 25 percent raises; time and a quarter for overtime; and a guarantee that no striker would be discriminated against.
The victory encouraged a wave of strikes in several New England cities. For example, as soon as Wobblies arrived in Lowell, Mass., mill owners offered workers a 5 percent raise.
The history of this amazing struggle--especially its spirit of solidarity among men and women and between different immigrant groups--remains an inspiration today.