A hundred and ten years ago immigrant and women textile workers came together to beat the bosses and fight attacks on their wages in Lawrence in the US. Sam Ord tells their inspiring story that has lessons for today
Lawrence Strikers on a parade in New York in December of 1912 (Picture: Library of America)
‘We want bread, and roses” was the rallying call that sent tens of thousands of workers in Lawrence, United States, from the textile factories to picket lines in January 1912.
A ten-week strike to defend the wages of largely young women and immigrant workers was one of the most intense and inspiring battles in US history.
On New Year’s Day 1912, a new law cut mill workers’ weekly hours from 56 to 54. Ten days later, the American Woolen Company cut its workers’ pay.
Wages were already at poverty levels and a 32 cent pay cut made the difference between eating or not.
One worker and mother told state officials, “When we eat meat it seems like a holiday, especially for the children.”
AWC president William Wood, claimed there wasn’t enough money to sustain wages. This was despite AWC turning millions in profit the year before.
The workers came from 51 different countries and many spoke no English. Half of the 32,000 workers were young women aged between 14 and 18. Many workers rented company-provided shared houses that ate up two thirds of their wage.
The conditions were so dire that half of workers’ children died before they were six and 36 percent of workers died before they were 25.
Malnutrition, workplace injuries and giving birth on the job were common.
The more conservative trade unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labour (AFL) overlooked mill workers, claiming women and immigrants were impossible to organise.
But on 10 January 1912 workers held a mass meeting to discuss what action to take if wages were cut. They decided to strike.
The next day when workers in the Everett cotton mill received a smaller paycheck, a group of Polish women sparked the strike with a walkout.
The following day Washington mill workers did the same.
Washington mill workers marched through the streets to another mill where they broke down the gates, shut off power and called for the workers to join them. They chanted, “short pay, all out!”
By the end of the week 25,000 mostly women workers were on strike.
The strikers soon realised that the lack of organisation would result in failure. The initial disgraceful response by the AFL’s United Textile Workers was to keep members at work.
The IWW was founded by mostly anarcho-syndicalists with socialists and revolutionaries in 1905.
Later known as “The Wobblies”, the IWW’s main goal was to build one large union to replace the fragmented craft unions.
In Lawrence it chose militant actions to build solidarity among the strikers.
The IWW had only a few hundred members but sent one of its organisers, Joseph Ettor, to the mills.
Ettor had an understanding that the mill bosses exploited workers by widening gender, ethnic and language differences.
Often workers only lived and worked with people of their own gender, nationality or language.
Ettor arrived with Arturo Giovannitti, the secretary of the Italian Socialist Federation and editor of the socialist newspaper, The Proletarian.
Giovannitti could speak five languages and helped with translating. Ettor addressed the workers—with the help of Giovannitti—saying, “Fifty cents buys ten loaves of bread. Everyone one of you has that much invested in this struggle.
“It is a question of whether you will get more or less bread.”
Within two days Ettor had organised a strike committee of 50 workers with four representatives from each ethnic group.
He also established substitute representatives, knowing that workers’ resistance could result in imprisonment or even death.
He was right. During a walkout, police shot and killed striker Anna LoPizzo.
Ettor and Giovannitti, who at the time, were giving speeches three miles away, were falsely arrested as accomplices.
The IWW sent more organisers to Lawrence and workers continued to attend weekly mass meetings to discuss tactics and the direction of the strike.
Workers agreed to keep scabs from entering the mills with impenetrable mass picket lines involving thousands of strikers.
Thousands of workers marched through the streets of Lawrence.
They held hands and chanted every day across the ten week strike during an incredibly cold winter.
At night some workers would chant and sing outside the windows of scabs to make sure they couldn’t sleep.
IWW organiser Elizabeth Gurley Flynn said, “The IWW has been accused of pushing women to the front. This is not true.
“Rather, the women have not been kept in back, and so they have naturally moved to the front.”
The strike committee sought financial support and aid for the workers and their families.
They organised a strike fund averaging $1,000 each day for 50,000 people reliant on the mill’s wages.
When the worker’s financial hardship peaked, Lawrence strikers copied a tactic used in Italy.
They used the solidarity gained from other workers in different cities to temporarily provide a home for strikers’ children.
Train loads of children were sent to supporters’ homes.
Around 5,000 members of the Italian Socialist Federation met them off the train in New York, singing the Internationale.
One organiser of the children’s accommodation was Margaret Sanger.
She described the children’s clothes as “rags” adding, “Out of the 119 children, only four had underwear on.” Meanwhile in Lawrence mass pickets and protests resulted in more repression from both bosses and the state.
The bosses depended on police, soldiers and their own hired thugs, to fight in their interests.
On 24 February police attacked a parade of children. Children were taken and 30 mothers were arrested.
On most picket lines troops would point bayonets at workers—and stabbed one Syrian worker in the back.
Throughout the strike workers became more militant. It was the only way the strike could survive against state violence.
Their demands also widened. Not only were they fighting for pay, but also dignity.
Author Meredith Tax explains in The Rising of the Women, “The first instance of striker ‘violence’ occurred when a group of Italian women caught a policeman alone on the bridge.
“They took his gun, club and star, and were beginning to remove his pants before throwing him into the river when the cavalry charged and rescued him.”
On 12 March bosses surrendered. Workers won a pay rise of between 5 and 11 percent. The workers sang the Internationale in unison in several languages in celebration.
The militant legacy of the Lawrence strikers scared bosses across the US.
Other companies handed out pay rises to prevent workers’ uprisings.
The victory also saw a growth in the IWW, which recruited 16,000 workers.
The IWW’s tactics and success in Lawrence showed the potential for organising among workers ignored by the AFL.
It’s true also today that some union leaders don’t want the challenge of organising in industries where new groups of poorly paid workers are concentrated.
But Lawrence showed that intensive organising can build the strength to shut down production and win, regardless of gender, age or nationality.
Following the Lawrence victory, the IWW faced a backlash from the bosses who attacked its radical politics as “anti-Christian”.
But that wasn’t the main reason for the decline in organisation in Lawrence.
The syndicalist politics of the IWW—based on militant trade unionism and avoiding political questions—were highly successful in a period of rising struggle.
But the tendency was for the IWW to move on from one site of struggle to new areas without consolidating a base.
Some socialists argued for a revolutionary organisation to bind Lawrence workers to the militant legacy they created.
But their influence was too small to achieve this vision.
In the coming years nearly all of the gains had been lost, and many trade unionists were sacked.
But the strike for “bread and roses” showed that workers ignored by the top-down union organisations could strike and win.
It also showed that despite bosses use of racism and sexism to divide the workforce, workers can be united in their fight for a better world.