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The Bread and Roses Heritage Committee was founded in 1985 to plan events commemorating the 75th anniversary of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike and takes its name from this landmark event in American labor history.


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. A cache of dynamite, falsely attributed to the strikers, was planted by mill owners and their friends in a plot to discredit the strikers and their union, the Industrial Workers of the World. Leading figures of the strike were Joseph Ettor, Arturo Giovannitti, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and William Haywood.


The strike was marked by inter-ethnic cooperation, soup kitchens, the important role of women, and a reliance on song to bolster strikers’ 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 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 and 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 continues to face increasing wealth disparities and growing immigrant populations, we draw inspiration from the workers and residents of Lawrence, past and present.


To learn more about the strike, you can tour the free exhibits at the Heritage State Park, visit the Lawrence History Center and the Lawrence Public Library archives, and visit the Strikers’ Monument across from City Hall.

0915_LHC_The Lawrence, MA Strike on the cover of Harper's Weekly on February 10, 1912 (1).

Photo courtesy of the Lawrence History Center



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