Date: Sat, 24 Jan 98 23:26:37 CST
From: "Workers World" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Organization: WW Publishers
Subject: Bread & Roses: The strike led and won by women
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
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
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.
AN EARLY DEATH
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
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
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.
PROTESTING IN 25 LANGUAGES
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
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
The Lawrence strike broke new ground in two ways. Women
led it. And there was a conscious effort to unite workers of
Every union meeting was translated into 25 different
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
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
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
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.
THE BETTER THINGS IN LIFE
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
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
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
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
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!"
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