THE STRIKE THAT STARTED IT ALL
Our festival is named after one of the landmark events in American labor history, the great Lawrence textile strike of 1912, which has come to be known as the Bread and Roses Strike. In 1912, a new state law went into effect reducing the work week of women and children from 56 to 54 hours. But because so many women and children worked in the mills, men’s hours were also reduced. When the first paychecks of the year revealed a cut in pay, thousands of workers, already barely surviving on an average pay of $8.76 a week, walked out of the mills, and the Great Strike had begun.
For nine weeks in a bitterly cold winter, over 20,000 workers, mostly new immigrants, dared to challenge the mill owners and other city authorities. Thousands of picketers, many of them women, faced state militia armed with guns and clubs. But the strikers were generally peaceful. The three fatalities were strikers. A cache of dynamite, first attributed to the strikers, turned out to be planted by mill owners and their friends in a clumsy plot to discredit the striker and their radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World. Leading figures of the strike were Joseph Ettor, Arturo Giovannitti, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and William Haywood. Superb efforts were made by the strike negotiating team of nine mill workers.
Observers were impressed by the strikers’ inter-ethnic cooperation, their soup kitchens, the important role of women, and their reliance on song to bolster their spirits and express their beliefs. Although a use of the phrase “Bread and Roses” during the strike has never been documented, the words later became associated with it as symbolizing the workers' fight both for subsistence and for dignity.
The tide turned against the mill owners when police, attempting to prevent strikers from sending their children to the care of sympathetic families in other cities, caused a melee at the train station which received international press attention. At a subsequent Congressional hearing, the testimony of Carmela Teoli, a young millworker who had suffered a terrible injury to her scalp, shocked the nation. Soon the mills came to the bargaining table, and the strikers won most of their demands.
The Bread & Roses Strike drew attention to the problems of child labor, workplace safety, and the unequal distribution of the profits of industry. It was an important step in organized labor’s long struggle to gain benefits that many of us take for granted today. As the nation again faces an era of increasing inequalities of wealth, as well as a growing immigrant population, we can take inspiration from the workers of Lawrence, and the “Bread and Roses” Strike.
To learn more about the strike during the Festival, see the video “Collective Voices” at the Friends of Lawrence Heritage State Park tent, take a free trolley or walking tour, participate in the discussion at the Lawrence History Live speakers' tent, and visit the Strikers' Monument across from City Hall. You can also tour the exhibits at the Heritage Park any day from 9-4. Admission is free. The Lawrence History Center, our historical society, and the Lawrence Public Library can also help you learn more about the strike.
Photo courtesy of the Lawrence History Center