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,and 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.
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.
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 songand 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.
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 24, 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.
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).