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Forum Post: bread and roses

Posted 2 years ago on Jan. 13, 2012, 9:59 a.m. EST by flip (7042)
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Remembering the Lawrence Strike On the Centennial of a Nonviolent and Decisive Workers’ Victory By Jerry Elmer

January 12, 2012 is the one hundredth anniversary of the commencement of one of the most important labor strikes in American history – the bloody 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike that lasted 63 days. The strike represented the organizing apogee of the radical, syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies); the strike has also become associated (albeit erroneously) in popular lore with the slogan “Bread and Roses” (the phrase originated in a poem by James Oppenheim published in 1911, but was apparently never used by the Lawrence strikers in 1912).

On January 1, 1912, a new Massachusetts law had gone into effect that cut the maximum work week to 54 hours. Mill workers’ pay was given out on Fridays, not for the week just ended but for the previous week; thus, on Friday afternoon, January 12, 1912, workers received their pay for the work week of Monday, January 1 through Saturday, January 6. Workers found their pay to be an average of 32¢ short, representing the fewer hours that the mill workers had toiled. On Friday, January 12, upon finding that their pay had been shorted, 11,000 of Lawrence’s 28,000 mill workers walked off their jobs immediately; by the next day, the strike had grown to 13,000 workers.

The position of the mill owners was the essence of simplicity: you cannot expect us to pay for work that is not done. If the Massachusetts legislature is so benighted as to limit the number of hours that workers may work, the result is that workers will directly and immediately suffer the inevitable consequence: they will earn less money. It’s not our fault; it is the fault of the misguided legislature.

The plight of the mill workers in Lawrence in 1912 was unimaginable by today’s standards. Adults earned between $3 and $10 a week for work that often exceeded 60 hours a week. Overtime pay did not exist. Wages were allocated in a strict hierarchy depending on the nationality of the workers – there were Syrians, Greeks, Turks, Germans, Italians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Russians, Poles, Jews, Irish; each one received a different hourly wage for identical work. Blacks, of course, were the lowest paid. The law technically forbade labor by children under 14, but children as young as 10 often worked the same work week as adults (but were only paid half as much). Workplace safety was nonexistent, and workers were frequently maimed or killed by the mill machinery. Workers, especially children, were literally (not figuratively), starving to death; infant mortality accounted for half the deaths in Lawrence.

On January 12, 1912, 1% of the U.S. population owned 50% of the nation’s wealth. (By comparison, today the top 1% of the U.S. population owns “only” 37% of the nation’s wealth, though it is also true that the bottom 80% own only 15% of the nation’s wealth.)

On Sunday, January 14, 1912, three companies of militia were called in and martial law came to Lawrence. Striking workers picketed, and soldiers guarded the mills. Also on January 14, Wobbly organizer Joe Ettor arrived in Lawrence from New York.

Each day during that first week of the strike, fewer people went to work. By Saturday, January 20, 20,000 of the 28,000 mill workers in Lawrence were on strike, and every mill in the city was shut. On Tuesday, January 17, the strikers issued their demands (which were also the essence of simplicity). The strikers had four demands: (1) 15% pay raise for all mill workers; (2) double pay for overtime; (3) an end to the hated “bonus system” that paid extra money for meeting special, elevated production targets; and (4) amnesty for strikers. On Wednesday, January 18, 10,000 strikers held their first public parade; incongruously they marched behind an American flag singing The Internationale. The paraders were met and dispersed by soldiers with bayoneted rifles. More companies of militia were mobilized; mills were guarded by sharpshooters. On Thursday, January 19, another parade of 10,000 striking workers defied martial law and wound through the streets.

Also on January 19, dynamite was “discovered” at three locations in Lawrence frequented by strike organizers. Although strike organizers were arrested for possession of dynamite, it was later shown that the dynamite had been planted by minions of Billy Wood, the most hated of the Lawrence mill owners.

On Tuesday, January 23, strike organizers opened the first of several soup kitchens in Lawrence to feed the starving strikers and their families. First hundreds, then thousands of dollars poured into the Lawrence strike headquarters from all over the country, often in the form of a coin or two in an envelope. On Wednesday, January 24, another dangerous, radical Wobbly organizer arrived in Lawrence: Big Bill Haywood was met at the Lawrence train station by a jubilant, singing crowd of 10,000 strikers. Formal, dues-paying, card-carrying membership in the IWW soared to an unprecedented 10,000 members in Lawrence.

One of the most interesting aspects of the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence is the degree to which the main strike organizers, the Wobblies, and especially Joe Ettor, explicitly preached nonviolence to the strikers. In another strike seven years later (in 1919), the famous pacifist organizer A. J. Muste came to Lawrence to aid striking textile workers. One morning in that later strike, strikers awoke to find the men guarding the mills armed with machine guns. Quite understandably, strikers also wanted to arm themselves. A.J., ever the pacifist, cautioned against arms. “Let the mill owners try to weave cloth with machine guns,” A.J. is said to have counseled. What is interesting about the 1912 strike is that (unlike A.J.) the Wobblies were most emphatically not ideological pacifists. Yet the Wobblies clearly and unequivocally counseled nonviolence as the only tactic for the strikers that could be successful.

From the very first day he arrived in Lawrence, Wobbly organizer Joe Ettor repeatedly told the strikers: “As long as the workers keep their hands in their pockets, the capitalists cannot put their hands in there. With passive resistance, with the workers absolutely refusing to move, lying absolutely still, they are more powerful than all the weapons that the mill owners have to attack the workers.” On Monday morning, January 15, with the city under martial law, with armed troops everywhere, Ettor advised against any resort to violence: “You cannot win by fighting with your fists against men that are armed, or against the militia, but you have a stronger weapon than they have. You have the weapon of labor, and they cannot beat you down if you stick together.” When troops fired upon parading strikers and turned hoses on them (in one of the coldest New England winters on record), Ettor said, “You may turn your hoses on the strikers, but there is being kindled a flame in the heart of the workers, a flame of proletarian revolt, which no fire hose in the world can ever extinguish.” In a speech to rallying strikers, Ettor said: “Order can be kept, but I never saw order kept by bayonets. I want you all to understand that our cause cannot be won by spilling blood. Peaceful persuasion is the only weapon advocated from this platform!” As I say, the Wobblies were emphatically not committed to nonviolence for moral or ideological reasons, but nonviolent they clearly were. Their commitment was strictly a tactical one.

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