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PORTSIDE  January 2012, Week 2

PORTSIDE January 2012, Week 2

Subject:

100 Years After Lawrence Strike, the Cry for `Bread & Roses' Still Resonates

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100 Years After Lawrence Strike, the Cry for `Bread & Roses'
Still Resonates

By Steve Early
Submitted by the author to Portside

In These Times
January 10, 2012

http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/12504/one_hundred_years_after_lawrence_strike_the_cry_for_bread_roses_still_reson/

LAWRENCE, MASS.--One hundred years ago this month, thousands
of angry textile workers abandoned their looms and poured
into the frigid streets of Lawrence, Mass.  Like Occupy Wall
Street in our own gilded age, this unexpected grassroots
protest cast a dramatic spotlight on the problem of social
and economic inequality. In all of American labor history,
there are few better examples of the synergy between radical
activism and indigenous militancy.

The work stoppage now celebrated as the "Bread and Roses
Strike" was triggered, ironically, by a Progressive-era
reform that backfired.  Well-meaning state legislators had
just reduced the maximum allowable working hours for women
and children from 56 to 54 hours per week. When this
reduction went into effect, workers quickly discovered that
their pay had been cut proportionately, and their jobs
speeded up by the American Woolen Company and other firms.

The strike that started on January 12, 1912, created
political tremors far beyond the Merrimack Valley. The
shutdown of mills in Lawrence forced a national debate about
factory conditions, child labor, the exploitation of
immigrants and the free exercise of First Amendment rights
during labor disputes. The strikers' appeals for solidarity
and financial support also created a stark "Which Side Are
You On?" moment for mainstream unions and middle-class
reformers, both of whom were nervous about the role played
by "outside agitators" in Lawrence.

An immigrant uprising

On one side of the class divide in Lawrence were rich,
arrogant and out-of-touch WASP manufacturers. Their "1%"
sense of entitlement led them to spurn negotiations with
"the offscourings of Southern Europe," as New England
Magazine disdainfully called the strikers.  Instead, mill
owners relied on rough policing by 50 state and local
militia units (including a company composed of Harvard
students who were offered course credit for their attempted
strike breaking). Two workers were shot or bayonetted to
death, while many others were clubbed and jailed. Three
union organizers were falsely accused of conspiracy to
murder and faced the electric chair before their post-strike
acquittal.

Arrayed against American Woolen and its heavily armed
defenders was a rainbow coalition of recently arrived
immigrants - low-paid workers from 30 countries, who spoke
45 different languages. They were welded together into a
militant, disciplined, and largely nonviolent force, through
their own efforts and the extraordinary organizing skills of
the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which began
recruiting in Lawrence many months before the nine-week
walkout.

 Unlike the elitist and conservative American Federation of
 Labor (AFL), the IWW championed the working poor, both
 native- and foreign-born. "There is no foreigner here
 except the capitalists," thundered IWW leader "Big Bill"
 Haywood, in a speech to the Lawrence strikers. "Do not let
 them divide you by sex, color, creed or nationality."

Many on the picket-lines in Lawrence were teenagers or
women. Their mistreatment at work, miserable living
conditions, malnutrition, and other health problems soon
became a national scandal. When a delegation of 16 young
strikers appeared before a House Committee hearing in
Washington D.C, the wife of Republican President William
Howard Taft was among those attending who were shocked by
their account of factory life in Lawrence. These child
laborers put a human face on the strikers' now famous demand
for "bread and roses." They wanted more than just a living
wage; they sought dignity, respect and opportunities for
personal fulfillment denied to those employed in the mills
at age 14 or even younger.

IWW vs. AFL

Today, the "Bread and Roses Strike" is feted by all of
organized labor. But at the time, the work stoppage upstaged
and embarrassed the American Federation of Labor, because
Lawrence workers rallied under the banner of an
organizational rival. IWW members fiercely criticized the
AFL for keeping workers divided in different unions, based
on occupation.

Women, nonwhites, and recent immigrants - particularly those
deemed to be "un-skilled" - were largely excluded from the
alliance of craft unions derided by the IWW as "the American
Separation of Labor." The AFL, in turn, dismissed the IWW's
quest for "One Big Union" and worker control of industry as
a left-wing fantasy.

AFL President Samuel Gompers was particularly grumpy about
the Lawrence strike. Like some of those skeptical of Occupy
Wall Street last fall, Gompers claimed the protest activity
was just "a passing event" - the work of people more
concerned with promoting a "class conscious industrial
revolution" than advancing "the near future interests of the
workers." When the mill owners finally capitulated, however,
strikers won most of their immediate demands - an outcome
that vindicated their embrace of the IWW rather than the
feeble AFL-affiliated United Textile Workers. The strike
settlement, reached in March 1912, provided wage increases,
overtime pay, and amnesty for all strikers.

On the other hand, as many labor historians have noted, the
IWW's political influence in Lawrence proved to be short-
lived. Industrial unionism didn't gain a firmer footing in
the Merrimack Valley until the 1930s and the great wave of
Depression-inspired organizing by the Congress of Industrial
Organizations.  But even that later labor movement success
was eroded over time by capital flight - mill closings and
the relocation of textile manufacturing from New England to
the non-union south. The Merrimack Valley entered a period
of steady decline.

Lawrence, then and now

In recent years, however, Lawrence's long depressed neighbor
to the west, the city of Lowell, has experienced an economic
revival, due to public investment in higher education there,
a convention center, and other facilities; it's now widely
hailed as a model of mill town re-invention and cultural
diversity. Tourists flock to its museum of industrial
history, run by the National Park Service.

Lawrence remains a city of the working poor, better known
for its sub-standard housing, high unemployment, political
corruption, and troublesome street crime. Ninety percent of
its public school students are Hispanic and few speak
English as a first language. Although not condemned to
factory work at an early age, these children struggle to
learn under tenement-like conditions. A recent report by the
teachers' union describes "crowded classrooms and physical
infrastructure in distress: leaking roofs, poor air quality,
persistent mold problems, crumbling walls and rodent
infestation." Demoralized teachers have been working without
a new contract for two years; student performance is so
dismal that a state take-over the school system has been
actively considered.

When worker solidarity prevailed over corporate power in the
icy streets of Lawrence a century ago, it made the promise
of a better life real for many. The Bread and Roses strike
became a consciousness-raising experience, not only for
textile workers and their families, but the nation as a
whole. Nevertheless, at centennial events in Lawrence over
the next several months, it will be hard not to notice that
many immigrant workers there still lack "bread and roses" -
in the form of living wage jobs, affordable housing, and
better schools.

But that injustice will not be cured until U.S. workers and
their allies, in Lawrence and elsewhere, find a way to make
history again, not just celebrate it.

[Steve Early has been a union organizer, strike coordinator
and labor journalist in Massachusetts for the last 30 years.
He is the author, most recently, of The Civil Wars in U.S.
Labor.]

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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