The two most famous strikes led by the Industrial Workers of the World were those in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, and in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913. The first of these battles opened the way for IWW organising in the East while the second seemed to close that door.
Lawrence was a textile town, dominated by J P Morgan’s American Woollen Company. The town’s 12 mills provided employment for over 30,000 men, women and children. The workers, many of them immigrants (45 different languages were spoken in the mills), worked long hours in appalling conditions for low wages in what was an extremely profitable industry.
What provoked the great strike was the implementation of a state law cutting the working hours of women and children to 54 hours a week but without any increase in wages to compensate for the loss of earnings. For workers already on the breadline, this meant starvation.
On 11 January 1912 nearly 2,000 workers at the Everett mill walked out in protest and the strike spread. The next day workers at the Washington mill walked out and marched through the town, shutting down the other mills. “Better to starve fighting than to starve working” was their slogan. By 13 January there were 20,000 workers on strike, rising to 25,000 by the end of the month. The strikers turned to the IWW.
Whereas in the West the IWW had often retaliated against employer and police violence with an eye for an eye policy, in Lawrence they adopted the tactic of passive resistance. While this did not prevent police brutality, it helped rally support for the strikers. To counter this the employers tried to discredit the union by planting a dynamite cache, but it was successfully proven that this was the work of a city official.
On 29 January a peaceful demonstration was attacked by the police, and a striker, Annie LoPezza, was shot dead. In response, the authorities charged one of the demonstrators, Joseph Caruso, with firing the fatal shot and then also arrested the two IWW organisers running the strike, Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti. They were charged with accessory to murder for encouraging violence, even though they had not been on the demonstration but were speaking at meetings elsewhere.
The authorities intended to carry out a judicial lynching. The IWW launched a nationwide campaign to ensure the three men were not killed, with demonstrations and meetings throughout the country raising a defence fund of $60,000.
Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrived in Lawrence to take over the strike leadership.
The strike held solid with an attempt at disruption by the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) being successfully beaten off. Indeed, rank and file AFL members increasingly rallied in support of the strikers.
The IWW organised a children’s holiday scheme, sending the strikers’ children out of town to stay with the families of union and Socialist Party sympathisers. When the police intervened to prevent this, publicly beating women and children, any sympathy the employers might have had disappeared.
After nine weeks the strike was won. This famous victory led to a wave of strike action throughout the textile industry.
While the strike was won, the campaign to save Ettor and Giovannitti continued. They were put on trial at the end of September with the Lawrence mills coming out in sympathy and massive demonstrations taking place. The IWW threatened to call a nationwide general strike if they were convicted. After a 58-day trial they were acquitted, as was Caruso, the striker who was in the frame for the actual shooting.
The following year the IWW was involved in a bitter silk weavers’ strike in Paterson, New Jersey. 25,000 workers walked out at the end of February. Here the employers stood firm for over six months before the union went down to defeat. They were effectively starved back to work.
At the suggestion of the socialist journalist John Reed, the IWW attempted to raise relief funds by holding a great strike pageant at Madison Square Garden in New York. The event took place on 7 June, involving over 1,000 strikers. Even though 15,000 people saw the performance, it did not lead to any boost in the strike fund.
As far as Gurley Flynn was concerned, the strike could have been won if only they had had the resources to stay out a while longer, but as it was the dispute had drained the IWW treasury.
By the time the strike ended, 1,473 strikers had been arrested, hundreds beaten and five killed by police and armed scabs. In the aftermath thousands of workers were blacklisted. This was a tremendous blow. It was compounded by the fact that the IWW had also failed to consolidate its position after the strikes that it had won.
By the end of 1913, the union was in serious trouble.
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