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Bread and Roses and Now, Circuses, Too!

The Lawrence textile strike of 1912—a defining moment in the history of the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World—is now commemorated by the Massachusetts State Parks. The victory of the Lawrence workers is now brought to us “courtesy of the Yankee Technology Corporation.” Full security luxury condos loom high above the well-endowed heritage museum of this “City of Workers.” But even against this backdrop of corporate paternalism, the “Bread and Roses” strike continues to resonate. Standing amid the empty paraphernalia of temporary business civilization, it helps to remember that in 1912, the fat mill owners, however absurd they may appear now, must have seemed as omnipotent as information capitalism does today.

The workers’ rebellion is still the most important event in Lawrence history, and the town’s heritage museum tells the story with impressive candor. Inside you can trace the path of multiple immigrant groups to Lawrence or watch video of the famous strike. An enormous painting of thousands of striking workers surrounded by militia men hangs in the foyer. The windows of the museum look out onto the still-intimidating mills, brick leviathans towering above the icy Merrimack River. Even today, the biting winter air evokes the desperation the workers must have felt on that frigid January day in 1912 when they marched out of the Lawrence Wood Mill, entreating others to follow. They endured freezing temperatures, prejudice, and violence, all to win a wage increase of 2¢ an hour—an amount that now seems more symbolic than monetary.

Lawrence was then and remains today a city of immigrants. One of the first “planned communities,” this capitalist utopia was erected by wealthy Boston investors in 1845 complete with housing, schools, churches, and a large common. It was designed to make the wealthy investors wealthier while also affording them a sense of paternalistic satisfaction. Over the next 50 years immigrants from as many as 40 different ethnic groups came to Lawrence looking for a better life. What they found instead were long hours, low wages, disease, and death. Nevertheless, a steady stream continued to pour into this factory town, lured by propaganda cartoons distributed throughout Europe of workers leaving the mills with baskets full of money. As the population increased, living conditions became even more squalid, overcrowded and unhygienic. The infant mortality rate among Lawrence workers was 172 per 1,000. When a typhoid epidemic spread by polluted river water ravaged the city’s poor in the 1890s, the mill owners installed a purifying system and passed the expense on to the workers.

During these crucial years wages were so low that no family could exist on just one. Women and children, though paid only $6 a week to a man’s $8.76, were forced into the mills and actually became the majority of the Lawrence workforce. On the backs of these men, women and children, William Wood’s American Woolen Co. and others of its ilk built a textile empire, and by 1910 Lawrence was the nation’s leader in the production of woolens. Claiming to “Weave the World’s Worsted with the Waters of the Merrimack,” the mill owners prospered.


Then in January 1912, Massachusetts passed a reform measure that limited the hours women and children could work to 54 hours a week. In response, the mill owners slashed these “unskilled” workers’ already minimal weekly wages. When the workers learned of the pay cut, a spontaneous wave of anger rippled through the mills. A group of Polish women walked out immediately. The next morning, an irate group of Italians ran through the mills, destroying machinery, throwing ice and rocks at the windows, and shouting for others to join them on strike. By evening 10,000 had walked out, and by week’s end 15,000 more joined them. I.W.W. strike leader Joseph Ettor and syndicalist poet Arturo Giovannitti rushed into town to support the strike, and a frightened Mayor Scanlon called out 250 local militia. The fight for bread and roses had begun.

Most of the mill workers were not unionized when they walked off their jobs. Their different cultures, religions, and languages often got in the way of building solidarity. The mill’s craft unionists, made up of skilled workers from the more acculturated, or “Americanized,” immigrant groups, actually opposed the strike. But by excluding the “unskilled foreigners” from their ranks, craft unions like the United Textile Workers had left the majority of the Lawrence workforce with no organized defense when wages were cut. The I.W.W., of course, had no such qualms, organizing anyone who worked, including women, minorities, and immigrants. Though the local branch had only about 300 members at the time (only one woman among them), after the January walkout the membership grew to upwards of 16,000. I.W.W. bigshots Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Big Bill Haywood came to Lawrence to fire the cause with incendiary speeches. The workers demanded a wage increase, overtime pay, workplace reforms, and no discrimination against strikers. They organized, set up soup kitchens, staged rallies, and marched through the streets singing the Internationale and shouting “give us bread, and roses too.” This now-famous slogan meant “we fight not only for subsistence, but for dignity and beauty as well.” As the famous I.W.W. song goes: “Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!”

The police, the mill owners, and the Massachusetts militia responded with violence. They turned hoses of icy water on marchers, planted dynamite to frame the strike leaders, and clubbed and beat women and children. Harvard students were given course credit for serving in the militia. Before long Lawrence become a scene of astonishing official violence and bizarre outrages of justice. On January 29, only two weeks into the battle, a local policeman shot and killed a young woman striker during a scuffle between marchers and militia. A few days later, I.W.W. strike leaders Ettor and Giovannitti were framed and arrested as co-conspirators in her murder. But the Lawrence strikers did not succumb; instead they decided to dramatize the violence by sending their children out of town for the duration. The plans for a “children’s exodus” infuriated the mill owners, and the city fathers decreed that no child could leave Lawrence without written parental consent. Later, they forbade any children to leave, no matter what. Despite this order, on February 24, 200 children showed up with their parents at the town train station to meet their escorts out of the city. They were met instead by the clubs and fists of the local police.

Jailing Wobbly agitators was one thing; cops beating children was quite another. Support for the workers began to pour in from all corners. President Taft ordered the Bureau of Labor to investigate conditions at Lawrence. Two weeks later, on March 12, the American Woolen Co. agreed to meet the workers’ demands across the board.

Under today’s January sky Bostonians in bright jogging suits drive up to Lawrence to shop in the factory outlet stores housed in the old mills. They buy Polarfleece from Malden Mills, women’s separates, and Silver Sweet Candies. A run-down building on Mill St. still bears the name “AMERICAN WOOLEN CO.” emblazoned across its stone pediment. Out from the broken upper windows you can hear a local punk band rehearsing in what was once, perhaps, the office of William Wood. Immigrants still move here looking for a better life, but now they come from Latin American and Southeast Asia. You can eat at Cafe Azteca across from the Campagnone Common, the grassy park where the strike leaders held their rallies and gave their rousing speeches. For the last 12 years Lawrence has celebrated the Bread and Roses strike every Labor Day with a city-wide festival. 15,000 residents join together to eat, dance, socialize, remember, and re-enact the textile workers’ victory. One can only imagine what goes through their heads as they mimic the militancy of the 1912 battle, as they march in the warmth of a late-century May Day shouting: “Give us bread, but give us roses too!”