90th Anniversary of the 1912 Lawrence Strike
The Fight for Bread and Roses
The strike was a heroic showdown of over 20,000 immigrant textile workers against the inhuman working and living conditions forced on them by the textile bosses. Lawrence was a milestone for the American labor movement, showing that it was possible to organize women, immigrants and unskilled workers. The strike also proved that women were quite capable of playing leadership roles in labor organizing and fighting militantly on the picket lines. Socialist strategies and tactics were a distinct feature of this strike and were integral to its success.
Tens of thousands of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe migrated to Lawrence around the turn of the century, attracted by job opportunities within the city’s twelve cotton mills. However, they faced appalling conditions, both at home and at work. In the mills, the workers slaved away at inhuman speeds for 56 hours a week, while their average weekly pay of less than nine dollars meant they could only afford to live in overcrowded tenements, packing on average four or five persons to a room. Half of the city’s children aged fourteen to eighteen were forced to work alongside their mothers and fathers in order to earn enough to survive. Just under half of the textile workers were women.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL, the main union federation in the US at the time) considered the workers as impossible to organise because they were unskilled and of varied ethnic backgrounds (25 different nationalities, speaking 45 different languages). The AFL traditionally only organized the most skilled, higher paid, white male workers into narrow, craft-focused unions. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, a more militant union federation, committed to organizing every worker at a given workplace into one union regardless of race, gender, skill or trade) also had a local branch in Lawrence. The IWW was convinced that the workers could be organized.
In January 1912, a state law went into effect that set the maximum amount of hours that women and children could work at 54 hours per week. The textile bosses in Lawrence reduced the hours of all their workers to 54 hours without raising the hourly rate of pay of the workers to correspond to the previous weekly earnings at 56 hours a week. This previous rate of pay barely kept the workers fed and housed. On January 12, when the workers discovered that their wages had been reduced, the frustration of years of living and working in miserable conditions and poor health boiled up, and they exploded. By the following evening, 20,000 workers had left the mills and joined the strike.
The IWW quickly responded to this spontaneous walkout by calling a mass meeting that same evening. The workers at the meeting resolved to send for Joseph Ettor, an experienced IWW labor organizer, to come to Lawrence to organize and lead the strike. Ettor arrived the day after the outbreak of the strike and brought with him his friend Arturo Giovannitti, a leading organizer from the Italian Language Federation of the American Socialist Party. From the beginning, left wing activists from the Socialist Party played a key role in organizing and supporting the strike. Later on in the strike, when Ettor was arrested, Big Bill Haywood, another left wing labor organizer from the Socialist Party and IWW, quickly replaced him.
Upon Joseph Ettor’s arrival, he wasted no time in setting up a 56-person general strike committee to execute the strike. Four representatives from the 14 largest nationality groups sat on the strike committee, uniting the different nationalities into a cohesive body to battle the bosses. This democratic organizational structure allowed the strikers themselves to lead the strike, to formulate demands and negotiate what they considered an acceptable contract.
Early on in the strike, the employers restored the pay rates of the strikers to the previous weekly wage before the reduction in hours. Upon learning this, the strike committee led the workers to take the offensive rather than throwing in the towel. At a mass meeting, the strikers drew up a list of demands to improve their wages and working conditions. The following demands were put forth: a 15% wage increase, adoption of a 54 hour week, double pay for overtime and no discrimination against the strikers.
Eight days into the strike, the number of those who walked out grew to over 23,000 workers - 70% of the work force at the mills. The women strikers played a particularly courageous role on the picket lines. The women workers coined the name of the strike, by waving signs proclaiming, "We want bread and roses too!" Hundreds of women were arrested during the strike and sent to jail alongside the men.
Another highly effective tactic used by the strike committee was sending the children of the strikers to stay with friends, relatives and sympathizers outside the city. This relieved the strikers of the burden of having to feed and look after their children while participating in the strike. Elizabeth Gurely Flynn, who later came to Lawrence to lead the strike after Ettor’s and Giovanitti’s arrest, organized with the Socialist Party to find homes for the children to stay in. The Lawrence police at one point attempted to forcibly prevent the children from departing the city by brutally clubbing a number of mothers and children as they were getting on a train. This police brutality against the children caused a wave of protest throughout the US and pushed public opinion in favor of the strikers.
This turn in public opinion was decisive in pushing the Governor of Massachusetts to put pressure on the textile companies to negotiate. Finally, in late February, the largest of the textile manufacturers agreed to negotiate with a subcommittee of ten strikers. Eventually, the subcommittee agreed to 5% raises, time and a quarter for overtime and no discrimination against strikers in hiring. This agreement was accepted in mid-March by a mass meeting of 15,000 strikers. Similar agreements followed at most of the smaller mills. Even those not negotiating with the strikers were forced to follow suit with their larger competitors and raise their workers’ wages.
Although the agreement didn’t completely meet the workers’ demands, it was a significant step forward. The momentum created by the victory at Lawrence set off a wave of strikes across Massachusetts in textiles and other industries. Other textile bosses raised the wages of their workers in hopes of avoiding similar revolts.
How Socialist Strategies Won the Lawrence Strike
Like today’s trade union leaders, the AFL leaders thought that when business prospered and profits were up, then workers’ wages would increase. The AFL’s lack of an alternative to the capitalist system left them no choice but to limit their demands to what they thought the capitalists were willing and able to give. Socialists approach labor struggles very differently. Socialists see the interests of the workers and big business conflicting with one another. Business owners make profits off the labor of workers, and their profits increase the less they pay their workers and the harder and longer they work them.
Rather than looking to cut a deal with the textile mill owners of Lawrence for the better paid layers of the mill workers, the Socialist Party and IWW looked to build a movement involving all the workers in Lawrence. Only a mass movement of all the workers would be enough to alleviate their miserable working conditions. By walking out and shutting down the mills, the workers hit management where it hurts the most - their pocket books - and forced them to accept the workers’ demands.
Despite the massive presence of police and the state militia in Lawrence throughout the strike, mass pickets were used to keep the mills closed. To avoid attacks by the police and soldiers, the strikers ingeniously set up a moving picket that encircled the entire textile district of Lawrence. This moving picket line was sustained 24 hours a day throughout the duration of the strike.
The socialist strike leaders were not afraid to break the law and go to jail to keep the mills closed. Over 300 strikers were arrested throughout the course of the strike for obstructing scabs from entering the mills. Socialists believe that shutting down production is the most effective weapon of the strikers, and therefore it is necessary to use mass picket lines of strikers and sympathizers, and if necessary, defy injunctions or arrests in order to keep scabs out.
Socialists see the working class as a whole as having the power to change society. By taking production into their own hands, workers can then use the wealth of their labor to benefit everyone in society rather than a wealthy, exclusive elite. Only when society is fundamentally changed along these lines, will the gains of the workers’ movement not later be eroded or trampled on by big business and their stooge politicians.
This article first appeared in Justice (Issue 30, June/August 2002), the paper of Socialist Alternative (CWI section in the US)