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Date: Sat, 24 Jan 98 23:26:37 CST
From: "Workers World" <ww@wwpublish.com>
Organization: WW Publishers
Subject: Bread & Roses: The strike led and won by women
Article: 26341 < p> Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the January 29, 1998
issue of Workers World newspaper

Bread & Roses: The Strike Led and Won by Women

By Lyn Neeley, in Workers World,
29 January 1998

Jan. 12 was the anniversary of the start of the 1912 Bread and Roses strike--one of the most significant struggles in the history of the U.S. working class--in Lawrence, Mass.

A new state law had reduced the work week from 56 to 54 hours. A small gain for workers? Sounds like it. But of course the bosses found a way to gain the advantage.

They speeded up the looms and cut the average measly wage of $6 a week--a last straw for workers living on the edge of starvation.

When the wage cut was announced, workers shouted: "Short pay! Short pay!" Thousands of women and men started a spontaneous strike that rippled through two dozen textile factories in Lawrence.

Some 23,000 people left the mills and poured into the streets.

Immediately the National Guard was called out, along with 22 militia companies and 50 thugs disguised as strikers. They overturned trolley cars, smashed windows, assaulted people and planted dynamite near the strike headquarters.

But even quicker on the scene was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a 21-year-old organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World--the Wobblies. Flynn, Big Bill Haywood and other IWW leaders moved in to help organize the strike.


Lawrence was founded in 1845 as a textile city. By the turn of the century, advanced technology had enabled the owners to bring in lower-paid workers and force the skilled workers out.

In 1905 the American Woolen Company built the world's biggest textile plant in Lawrence, hiring Arab, Russian and East European immigrants. By 1912, people of 25 different nationalities lived within a one-mile radius of the mill.

They lived in crowded company-owned tenements. Eight to 10 people from different families shared one living space. Whole families--including children under 14 years old--worked in the mills.

The mills were hot and humid. The work was fast paced, with high accident rates.

Bosses made ethnic slurs. They sexually harassed the women.

Workers froze in the winter because they couldn't afford the clothes they produced. Rickets were common among children for lack of milk. Nearly half died before they were 6 years old.

Over one-third of the mill workers died before age 25, mostly from tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses.


In 1912, the American Federation of Labor was a grouping of weak craft unions, made up of white men organized by trade. The AFL refused to organize Black workers. Until 1918, the federation barred women from membership--even in an industry like textiles with twice as many female workers as male.

The AFL opposed the Lawrence strike, calling it revolutionary and anarchistic.

The IWW, in contrast, was formed by socialists like Eugene Debs. They called for industry-wide unions and even one big union for the whole country. The IWW emphasized unity and solidarity.

The Lawrence strike broke new ground in two ways. Women led it. And there was a conscious effort to unite workers of all nationalities.

Every union meeting was translated into 25 different languages.

There were four demands: a 15-percent wage increase, a 54- hour work week, double pay for overtime, and rehiring of all strikers without discrimination.

But the workers saw the strike as really a broader struggle. They wanted to fight for socialism.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn had grown up poor in New England mill towns. She watched starving mill workers leave before daylight and return after dark. She was familiar with the rats, cockroaches, lice and disease that plagued their families.

The strikers had a strong spirit of class struggle. They sang, put on shows, dances, debates and parades.

The Lawrence strikers are remembered for inventing the moving picket line. Police had been arresting them for loitering--so they linked arms and formed a moving human chain that wove around the mills 24 hours a day, preventing scabs from getting in.

Flynn led meetings about the special oppression facing women and immigrants. Women led the picket lines and were better at intimidating scabs.

Cops threw the women in jail but they refused to pay the fines. As soon as they were released they returned to the picket lines.

One freezing morning, cops drenched the strikers with fire hoses. The women caught a cop on a bridge, stripped off his uniform and nearly succeeded in throwing him into the icy river. One lawyer commented, "One policeman can handle 10 men, while it takes 10 police to handle one woman."

The children grew weak as the strike continued into February and March. Flynn gathered food and set up soup kitchens.

Arrangements were made for hundreds of children to be sent to the homes of socialists in other cities for the duration of the strike. This drew national and international publicity, and donations began to pour in.

The cops responded by attacking women and children at the train station so the children couldn't leave. Cops clubbed them, threw them into a heap and dragged them into military trucks, clubbing them again if they cried out.

They beat one pregnant women so hard she had a miscarriage. That was the turning point. The national and international outcry forced Congress to open an investigation. The pressure on the bosses built.


On March 14, the strikers won a 25-percent raise for the lowest-paid workers and smaller increases for higher-paid workers, time-and-a-quarter pay for overtime, and no discrimination against strikers.

The workers celebrated their victory by singing "The International," the communist anthem.

The IWW kept the strike committee going to fight for the release of Ettor and Giovanitti, leaders who had been framed soon after the walkout began. They were charged with the death of a woman whom 19 witnesses said was shot by a soldier.

The strike victory resulted in easily won wage increases in mill towns throughout New England. But once the Lawrence struggle ended and the IWW left town, the bosses stabbed the workers in the back. They instigated a 50-percent speed-up in the mills.

The Catholic Church joined the bosses in a campaign to discredit the IWW and harass union members. By the fall of 1913, IWW membership in Lawrence had fallen to 700.

An economic recession in 1913-1914 brought wage cuts and unemployment to the mill workers.

Later, after the Russian Revolution, the Wobblies faded from the scene. The IWW's best, including Flynn, left to form the Communist Party, while others turned toward anarchism.

However, the Lawrence strike had shown that low-paid, oppressed workers of diverse nationalities could unite, organize and wage a powerful struggle to win concessions from the bosses. It stands as a shining example of how to build multinational, anti-racist unity with women in the lead.

Today, labor is turning toward organizing these same groups--low-wage workers, women, immigrants. The struggle to organize workfare workers is in the tradition of the Lawrence strike.

One reporter wrote of the Lawrence strike: "It was the spirit of the workers that seemed dangerous. ... They were always marching and singing.

"The gray, tired crowds, ebbing and flowing perpetually into the mills, had awakened and opened their mouths to sing, the different nationalities all speaking one language when they sang together."

The strikers wanted not only decent pay, but a chance to enjoy the good things of life. They carried signs saying, "We want bread and roses too!"

And they sang: "As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days. The rising of the women means the rising of the [human] race.

"No more the drudge and idler, 10 that toil where one reposes--but a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"

(Copyright Workers World Service: Permission to reprint granted if source is cited. For more information contact Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011; via e-mail: ww@workers.org. For subscription info send message to: info@workers.org. Web: http://workers.org)

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