International  •  USA

Bread and Roses: The 1912 Lawrence Textile strike

06 March 2019

By Dave Stockton

The 10-week textile strike in 1912 is one of the greatest strikes in US labour history and unlike many others it was a victory – achieving nearly all of its objectives and indeed spreading them to large numbers of mill workers in other cities. In this it contrasted with the great strikes of the late nineteenth century – Haymarket, Homestead and Pullman – which were bloody defeats.

In the early 20th century Lawrence, Massachusetts was one of the most important textile towns in the United States, dominated by several huge mills, most of them belonging to the American Woolen Company whose yearly output was worth $45 million. William Wood the principal owner was a typical self-made American capitalist of the era, and regarded the rebellion of his workers as a personal affront, which justified any and every means of repression.

The woollen and cotton mills of the city employed over 40,000 people, a great majority of them foreign-born immigrants. In Wood’s four huge mills worked people who had come from 28 different countries, speaking 45 different languages. The average worker’s wage was scarcely $9 a week. They lived in company houses or crowded wooden tenements that could cost up to $6 a week.

Living conditions were appalling, some workers’ dwelling were little more than shacks, with no internal toilets or running water. Death stalked the narrow alleyways and overcrowded lodging rooms in the shape of diseases like tuberculosis or typhoid, with high infant mortality.

Unsafe working conditions inside the mills maimed bodies and cut lives short. Respiratory infections became fatal through inhaling dust and lint. A study by Dr Elizabeth Shapleigh stated: “A considerable number of the boys and girls die within the first two or three years after beginning work. Thirty-six out of every 100 of all the men and women who work in the mill die before or by the time they are twenty-five years of age.”

A spark that lights a wildfire

On 11 January some Polish women workers in the Everett Mill opened their pay packets to discover their week’s wages had been cut by 32 cents. A newly enacted Massachusetts law had reduced the working week for women and children from 56 to 54 hours – a welcome if limited reform. But the mill owners struck back by cutting their wages. For those who averaged $8.76 per week the loss of 32 cents meant them and their children or going hungry.

The women responded at first by standing motionless by their power looms. When foremen asked them why they weren’t working they shouted, “Not enough Pay!” When management tried to harass them to start work they exploded with anger, marching off the job chanting, “Strike!” in a whole range of languages.

The next day the disturbances spread to other mills, with workers slashing the belts that powered the looms. Soon the mighty works was at a standstill. The workers, women and men, then began to march towards other mills, despite the bitter weather.

Up to 6,000 marched through Lawrence in a human chain, singing and chanting slogans – something that marked the entire ten weeks of the strike. One of the women’s placards famously read, “We want bread, and roses too!” indicating that the strike was not just for 30 cents but a life which included respect and beauty, rather than oppression and misery.

The biggest mills, those of the American Woolen Company, saw similar scenes. By the end of 12 January, more than 10,000 workers were out. By the next day it was 25,000. Lawrence was gripped by what was in essence a city-wide general strike. The mayor of Lawrence called in first the local, then the state militia and attempts were made to stop the workers from picketing.


An IWW placard on a picket outside the textile mill

In 1905 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), colloquially known as the Wobblies, had been founded around the slogan of One Big Union, for all workers regardless of skill, sex, colour or creed. The IWW, in the person of its most prominent organiser “Big Bill” Haywood, advocated peaceful but militant direct action – the mass strike.

Though many Wobblies were socialists, including members of Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party, it rejected political action as a union. Nevertheless, in a creative and unique fashion, it was thoroughly anticapitalist, conducting propaganda on the streets.

Its poets, Joe Hill and Ralph Chaplin, gave the world’s workers a series of now-famous songs, like The Preacher and the Slave, with the famous line “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die!” and Solidarity Forever! which ends every verse with “The union makes us strong.”

When the strike broke out and the repression was unleashed, the local IWW militants appealed to the national headquarters, which sent one of its best organisers, Joseph Ettor. Only 27 years old, he had already led strikes and organised in the shipyards of San Francisco, as well as the mining and lumber camps of the West Coast. Inside 48 hours he organised a strike committee of 50 delegates from the various mills, with every nationality and every striking mill represented.

With Ettor came his friend, the poet and Italian labour newspaper editor, Arturo Giovannitti. Other well-known speakers and organisers soon followed to help lead and run the strike, notably Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Bill Haywood and the anarchist Carlo Tresca.

The IWW activists helped organise relief. A network of soup kitchens and food distribution stations were set up and striking families received from $2 to $5 cash a week. The strike committee demanded a 15 per cent increase in wages, double-time for overtime work and a 55-hour week. It issued an open letter to the strikers, cast in open class terms.

“In our fight we have suffered and borne patiently the abuse and calumnies of the mill owners, the city government, police, militia, state government, legislature, and the local police court judge. We feel that in justice to our fellow workers we should at this time make known the causes which compelled us to strike against the mill owners of Lawrence. We hold that as useful members of society and as wealth producers we have the right to lead decent and honourable lives; that we ought to have homes and not shacks; that we ought to have clean food and not adulterated food at high prices; that we ought to have clothes suited to the weather and no shoddy garments. That to secure sufficient food, clothing and shelter in a society made up of a robber class on the one hand and a working class on the other hand, it is absolutely necessary for the toilers to band themselves together and form a union, organizing its powers in such form as to them seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness.”


Political cartoon The Lawrence Way by Art Young

Meanwhile the mill owners and police hired men to foment trouble and even planted and “discovered” dynamite in an attempt to discredit the strikers.

When on 29 January strikers blocked a streetcar carrying scabs, breaking its windows with shards of ice, the police waded in. In the mêlée a gunshot from one of the officers killed a striker, Anna LoPizzo. On the next day, as disturbances continued, 18-year-old John Ramey, a Syrian, died after being stabbed in the back “accidentally” by a soldier’s bayonet.

A terrific press campaign broke out blaming the IWW for the violence and stigmatizing the strikers as foreign anarchists and anti-American. Joseph Caruso, a striker, was charged with Anna’s murder.

Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti, who were three miles away speaking at a strike meeting, were arrested and charged as “accessories to the murder”. They were to stay in jail till almost the end of the year.

This could have been a turning point in the strike, allowing for the sort of bloody repression that the great strikes of the 1880s and 1890s had suffered. Hunger and shortages were beginning to take their toll on the strikers and their families.

IWW organisers played a crucial role in sustaining the strike. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn organised women from striking families to send 119 of their children to Manhattan on 10 February to live with unionists and socialists, who could provide food, warm clothes and shelter. A huge crowd greeted the children at Grand Central Station, singing the Internationale and the Marsaillaise.

But when families brought another 46 children, bound for Philadelphia, to the train station on 24 February, “Lawrence’s finest” beat and dragged the mothers by the hair as their horrified children looked on in tears. Many mothers and children were arrested and huge demonstration gathered outside the precinct where they were interned.


“The general strike is the key that fits the lock to freedom.” IWW political cartoon from 1912 urges a general strike by workers to show support for Ettor and Giovannitti.

But this time the police had made a fatal miscalculation. Not only did the outrage stiffen the strikers’ resolve, it drew public attention and sympathy for the strike and outrage at police and militia brutality, leading to an investigation by the US Congress.

Initiated by Victor L Berger, Representative from Wisconsin and Socialist Party leader, strikers directly testified about their appalling conditions in widely publicised hearings.

Now the Lawrence mill lords were in the dock and they didn’t like it one bit. To head off government legislation on wages and the working week, they caved in on 12 March, accepting the strikers’ original demands and pledging no victimisations. Textile owners across New England soon followed suit, not wanting to provoke similar strikes.

However Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti remained in prison, with their trial delayed and delayed. The IWW organised demonstrations across America, while in Lawrence 15,000 mill workers walked out in a one-day solidarity strike. The trial finally began in late September in Salem, Massachusetts. Giovannitti made a stirring address to the jury:

“[I]f it be, gentlemen of the jury, that your judgment shall be such that this gate will be opened and we shall pass out of it and go back into the sunlit world, then let me assure you what you are doing. Let me tell you that the first strike that breaks again in this Commonwealth or any other place in America where the work and the help and the intelligence of Joseph J. Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti will be needed and necessary, there we shall go again regardless of any fear and of any threat. 

“We shall return again to our humble efforts, obscure, humble, unknown, misunderstood—soldiers of this mighty army of the working class of the world, which out of the shadows and the darkness of the past is striving towards the destined goal, which is the emancipation of human kind, which is the establishment of love and brotherhood and justice for every man and every woman in this earth.”

On 26th November all three accused, including Joseph Caruso, were acquitted. The victory was complete.

Bread and Roses too

The slogan “Bread and Roses” became popular after the strike and was turned into a song by James Oppenheim. It has become indelibly linked to Lawrence 1912 which became known as the Bread and Roses Strike.

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, thousand mill lofts grey
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 go marching, marching, we battle too for men
For they are women’s children and we mother them again
Our lives shall not be sweetened from birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies,
Give us bread, but give us roses
As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days
For the rising of the women, means the rising of the race
No more the drudge and idler; ten that toil where one reposes
But the sharing of life’s glories
Bread and roses, bread and roses

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