Today’s controversies over immigrants, labor laws and the legitimacy of the media are hardly new. In January 1912, US papers accused each other of carrying ‘fake news’ about the strike and protest in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Some said that foreigners were carrying out a campaign of terror, opposed by brave policemen and militia; others said that brave hardworking Americans were peacefully demanding their rights in the face of brutal violence by police and militia.
The struggle in the streets of Lawrence lasted nine weeks. The struggle to define the narrative went on for decades.
Run of the Mill: Life Before the Strike
In 1911 Lawrence’s textile mills produced almost 25% of the nation’s woolen cloth. The weaving and spinning machines were loud and dangerous; many workers were injured or killed when their hair or clothing caught on moving parts. The air was wet and full of fine particles; many workers died of pneumonia and tuberculosis.
Most of those workers were fairly recent immigrants from countries including Poland, Italy, Lithuania, Russia, Germany and Syria. Many were young. Children were officially allowed to work full-time after they turned fourteen. Eleven- and twelve-year-olds in many poor families got false papers declaring them old enough to work. More than one-third of mill hands died before turning 25.
Short Pay! All Out!
In 1911 the state of Massachusetts passed legislation cutting the workweek from 56 to 54 hours. Mill owners protested and said they would have to cut pay proportionately. The average weekly wage for a mill hand was $8.76; many made less than $7. The state’s labor commission called it impossible for a person to live on less than $8.28 a week. Many lived on less by crowding into small apartments, living on bread and molasses and beans, and wearing clothes until they fell apart. But for these struggling workers the loss of 32 cents a week—the price of three loaves of bread—could make the difference between barely getting by and not getting by at all.
On January 11, 1912. When Polish women working at one of the mills discovered that their paychecks had indeed been reduced by 32 cents, they cried: “Short pay! All out!” and marched out of the mill. Others joined them. Some broke windows and smashed machinery as they went. The strike spread from mill to mill until 25,000 workers were out in the streets, singing, chanting, and clashing with strikebreakers as well as police. There were no deaths, but there was a great deal of chaos.
A few of the strikers belonged to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies), a radical union which accepted members from all classes and ethnicities. They sent an appeal to IWW leaders, asking for help organizing their strike. Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovanitti helped each ethnic group set up a national committee to dispense information and encouragement in their own language. They also urged strikers to be nonviolent, to focus on winning public sympathy.
Lawrence’s newly elected mayor called for the Massachusetts militia. Soon armed guards surrounded the mills. Many protestors were arrested and sentenced to one-year prison sentences for rioting. The sentencing judge explained that “These men, mostly foreigners perhaps… do not realize the gravity of their offense and do not know the laws. Therefore the only way we can teach them is to deal out the severest sentences in this court.”
What they learned is an open question. Violence lessened as the strike grew better organized, but the massive protests continued. When people were arrested for standing still and blocking the sidewalk, strikers shifted to constantly moving parades that still formed an effective blockage.
Reign of Terror?
On January 20 dynamite was discovered in a tenement district. Many strikers were arrested, and conservative papers warned of a ‘reign of terror’ spread by foreign agitators. Other rumors suggested that allies of the mill owners had planted the dynamite, and liberal papers kept running stories sympathetic to the strikers. Donations poured in from outside the city, funding soup kitchens for strikers’ families.
On January 27 all those arrested as suspects in the dynamite plot were released, and the police arrested the prominent businessman who had tipped them off about the dynamite; new evidence showed he had planted it himself. That same day, men went door to door falsely proclaiming that the mill owners had met strikers’ demands and it was time to return to work. Furious strike organizers made speeches that didn’t encourage peace. Two days later violent struggles broke out in several places. In one of these Annie LoPizzo, a bystander, was fatally shot—nobody knew by whom.
The militia forbade further parades and public meetings. Many strikers met and paraded on the 28th anyway. As militia dispersed one of these parades, an eighteen-year-old Syrian striker named John Rami was fatally stabbed. That same night Ettor and Giovanitti were arrested for inciting the violence that led to Annie LoPizzo’s death.
As tensions rose and hunger spread in early February, many strikers sent their children away to other cities where they might be kept safe and fed by relatives or by sympathetic strangers who had volunteered to help. The children were met by cheering crowds; some articles described that as a heartwarming scene, while others warned that parents were shirking their responsibility for their children. But as positive news stories and cheerful letters came back from the cities, the strikers planned to send more children away.
Police and militia leaders forbade children from leaving unattended. One small group of parents and children were met at the station and turned back by officials who promised that the children’s needs could be met right in the city; they took one sick child to a local hospital for treatment. Another large exodus—200 children– was planned for February 26. The police warned strikers to stay home. Forty-six children and their parents showed up at the train station, met a line of armed policemen, and tried to push through onto the trains. They were beaten back by the police.
The next day the streets of Lawrence were full of furious protestors, and newspapers carried vivid descriptions of children and pregnant women being clubbed and knocked down. Amidst the general outrage President Taft and the U.S. Senate ordered an investigation in the beginning of March.
In the first days of testimony before Congress strikers, organizers, city officials and mill owners contradicted each other and sometimes shouted each other down. Then the strike organizers brought some of the youngest workers and strikers forward to testify. Children from eleven to fifteen years old matter-of-factly described their living and working conditions and the injuries they had received from the mill machines. When Congressmen asked them about study or recreation they looked blank or said they had no time for such things. Child labor was not a new problem in the US, but it had seldom received so much attention.
Reports on the children’s’ testimony, combined with the accounts of reporters from across the country who poured into Lawrence to see what strikers’ children were being sent away from, swung public opinion in favor of the strikers. The mill owners called for negotiations, and on March 13, nine weeks into the strike, they came to terms, promising to raise wages by 15%, increase overtime pay, and rehire all strikers. Once again the streets filled with singing and flag-waving workers, but this time they were celebrating not protesting, and the police let them pass.
A Mixed Legacy
Many other strikes had broken out along the East Coast, and most were settled to the strikers’ advantage. The IWW organizers were acquitted of LoPizzo’s death, and John Breen was convicted of planting dynamite to incriminate strikers. The children of Lawrence got their first municipal playground. In the following year further laws were passed to protect child laborers.
But in April the mills quietly fired workers associated with the IWW; while a few others walked out in solidarity, the mills kept running. The Wobblies were blacklisted. The Lawrence City Council put out pamphlets describing pre-strike Lawrence as a model city, strikers as ‘mobs’ of ‘swarthy men’ terrorizing honest citizens, and reporters sympathetic to the strike as “shoals of theorizing socialists” and “absinthe drinking frequenters of the imitation cabarets of New York.” After a strike-memorial parade included a banner reading “No God, No Master,” Lawrence’s Mayor launched a “God and Country” campaign calling loyal Christian Americans to unite against Socialism. Wobblies were barred from their inaugural parade; a man who showed up with an IWW pin was beaten and later died of his injuries.
The God and Country Parade continued for decades, and the Strike for Three Loaves was generally remembered as a time of fear. It was not until the 1970s that historians began to revisit the strike and find something there to celebrate again. By the centennial in 1912 the strike—now known as the Bread and Roses strike, after a possibly apocryphal account of a striker’s banner reading “We want bread and roses too”—was once again seen as something to celebrate.
Read more about the Bread and Roses Strike in Bruce Watson’s book “Bread & Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream” or here.