The Lawrence Strike of 1912—also known as the Bread and Roses strike—is one of the most inspiring episodes of working-class history in the United States. This year marks the Lawrence strike’s one-hundredth anniversary, and yet it still holds valuable lessons as our side continues to struggle for workers’ basic rights.
THE EARLY 1900s was a volatile time—a time of enormous levels of racist violence against Black people in the North and the South, when women didn’t have the right to vote and were treated like property, and when immigrants were often scapegoated for the country’s problems. The Lawrence strike took place on the heels of a tumultuous period of labor struggles—the Haymarket Strike and the executions of some leading militants; the Pullman Strike of 1894, which was met with shocking levels of brutality; and many lesser-known examples of workers fighting back against horrible conditions and huge levels of class inequality.
So the whole country watched when thirty thousand workers stood together, demanded better wages, and won. The New York Sun reported, “Never before has a strike of such magnitude succeeded in uniting in one unflinching, unyielding, determined and united army so large and diverse a number of human beings.”
In Lawrence at the time of the strike, eighty-six thousand people were crammed into just seven square miles. Seven out of eight of those people were foreign born or children of immigrants, and half of them had been in the U.S. less than five years. The people of Lawrence came from fifty-one countries. Bosses purposefully recruited immigrant workers, because they thought if workers had to compete for wages rather than collaborating, they could keep wages down. Many came to the U.S. after seeing advertisements showing millworkers with pockets overflowing with gold. However, once they arrived, they found a very different situation. Workers made, on average, $9 for a fifty-six-hour workweek. This would be the equivalent of getting paid $3.30 an hour today—and those numbers are generous, as the $9 per week is the bosses’ number; other estimates put the figure closer to $6 per week. Most workers lived on bread and molasses, rarely eating meat or vegetables. Families were so poor that they would forge paperwork to send their children to work in the mills. The mortality rate for children was 50 percent by age six. And while doctors and ministers lived on average to be sixty-five years old and mill bosses lived to be fifty-eight, mill workers lived to be only thirty-nine years old.
In an attempt to improve workers’ conditions, a Massachusetts law went into effect on January 1, 1912, reducing the workweek from fifty-six hours to fifty-four. The workers were happy to have their workweek reduced, but only if it didn’t mean a reduction in their already low pay. Workers in Lawrence were living in deplorable conditions, and although two hours’ pay was just 32 cents a week, for workers who were nearly starving, that 32 cents meant four loaves of bread that could literally keep them and their children from starving to death.
On January 11, two hundred Polish women weavers stopped work when they received their paychecks and discovered that they had been shorted two hours’ pay. They stood like statues beside their looms, and when they were asked why they weren’t working, they responded calmly, “Not enough pay.” Management ordered them out and a thousand looms were shut down.
Word spread throughout the tenements about the actions of these brave women. The next day, as workers showed up to work, it seemed as if it would be a normal day until a few workers ran into the Washington Mill yelling, “Short pay! All out! All out!” and encouraged people to leave their jobs. Eight hundred walked out. Their anger had reached boiling point.
That day, groups of workers went from mill to mill shouting for workers to “Come out! Come out!” People poured out from schools and shops to watch the crowd go by. At every mill, more and more workers emptied out of the mills, cheering, carrying broomsticks, some waving small American flags. When the crowd reached another mill and was about to charge inside, the police launched an attack. They pulled out clubs and revolvers and threatened to shoot the next person who moved closer to the mill. One man defied the police and rushed toward the mill anyway, and the police responded brutally. The crowd eventually dispersed, but it was clear the war had just begun. For the rest of that afternoon, workers distributed circulars and flyers for a mass meeting in many different languages, and talked excitedly about the day’s events.
Meanwhile, William Wood, the owner of the largest mill in Lawrence, just didn’t get it. This mill boss owned four mansions, too many cars to count (he literally said he couldn’t keep track of how many), yachts, servants, and train cars. This multi-millionaire, painfully out of touch with the rest of the human race, was completely shocked when he received the news that his workers were out on strike. He said that once workers understood that the legislature was to blame for cutting the workweek, they would see that the strike was “hasty and ill-advised. There is no cause for striking and when the employees find that justice is not on their side, the strike cannot possibly be long lived. I look for an early resumption of work.”
Right as the strike began, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) sent in Joe Ettor (also known as “Smiling Joe”) to help organize the strike. Ettor was an organizer for the IWW and had traveled extensively helping to organize steel mills, lumberyards, and shoemakers. When Smiling Joe took the stage in Lawrence on the third day of the strike, he spoke to the striking workers in a way nobody had before. He told them they created the wealth that the mill owners pocketed and they were the most important people in the textile industry. Ettor said the mills of Lawrence rightfully belonged to them because their labor had created them. He ended his speech by saying, “Fifty cents buys ten loaves of bread. Everyone one of you has that much invested in this struggle. It is a question of whether you will get more or less bread.”
The IWW, also known as the “Wobblies,” made a point of encouraging women to lead. The organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn said, “The IWW has been accused of pushing women to the front. This is not true. Rather, the women have not been kept in back, and so they have naturally moved to the front.”
A strike committee was soon formed, with Ettor at its head—showing how influential the IWW already was, despite only having three hundred members in Lawrence before the strike started. In a concerted effort to best represent the workers, the strike committee of twenty-four included eleven different nationalities; the committee arranged for the strike meetings to be translated into twenty-five different languages. The workers issued a list of demands, including:
- A 15 percent pay increase
- Double pay for overtime
- Abolition of the bonus and premium system (a way to increase productivity: workers were not given bonuses if they missed any work, meaning people could not take sick days even if they desperately needed to; it also required dangerous speed-ups)
- No discrimination because of strike activity
On January 14, Ettor released a statement to the press saying that, if any blood was shed on Monday morning, “the strikers would not draw it first. We desire peace as much as anyone and our men will only act when they are provoked, but if they are I cannot stop them.” Upon reading the press statement, the Mayor of Lawrence called in 250 militia troops, which signaled the beginning of the military presence in the town.
On the morning of January 15, the strikers successfully prevented workers from entering the mills by setting up pickets, blocking routes, and convincing workers not to go on the job. They knew the only way the bosses would bargain was if they were able to show that the mill would not produce a profit unless their demands were met. They completely shut down production for the day. There were clashes with police, who brought out clubs and fired shots; the mill managers turned fire hoses on workers despite the single-digit temperatures.
As a result of the pickets, fewer and fewer workers went to work each day. By the end of the first week, twenty thousand workers were on strike. But William Wood issued a statement that he absolutely would not negotiate, claiming there wasn’t enough money to pay workers. The workers of Lawrence didn’t buy his lies.
At this point, the battle lines were clearly drawn between the bosses, who refused to compromise (and who had an armed militia protecting the empty mills), and thousands of angry workers, mostly unarmed except for a few knives and guns.
The level of violence was actually pretty low (from the workers’ side, anyway), prompting the Department of Labor to say that “few strikes involving so large a number of employees have continued so long with so little actual violence or riot.” However, reporter Mary Heaton Vorse explained the real reason why the strike was met with so much state repression:
It was the spirit of the workers that seemed dangerous. They were confident, gay, released, and they sang. They were always marching and singing. The gray tired crowds ebbing and flowing perpetually into the mills had waked and opened their mouths to sing, the different nationalities all speaking one language when they sang together.
It was because of the overall joyful and united spirit of the strikers, that the strike is often referred to as the “singing strike”—parades of ten to twenty thousand workers and their children marched in the streets waving the flags of their home countries, singing, laughing, and cheering. They could be heard singing the “Internationale” in more than a dozen languages.
This spirit proved so “dangerous” that the mayor called in more troops, bringing the number of troops to eight hundred. Prominent businessmen, including Wood, were so fearful of the workers that they resorted to planting dynamite in several spots around the city in an attempt to frame the strikers and sully their reputation: only one conspirator was punished, with a $500 fine—a slap on the wrist. Meanwhile, the workers were arrested and beaten throughout the strike.
On January 29, the tensions in Lawrence reached a fever pitch. The strike was entering its third week, workers were frustrated and hungry, the threat of dynamite had left people scared, and agents from American Woolen had been harassing workers, trying to deceive them into thinking that their demands had been won and the strike was over. All of this frustration culminated as a streetcar filled with scabs passed by the workers headed to the mills in the very early morning. Strikers threw scabs off streetcars as they tried to get to work.
The militia met the strikers, arrested and beat many of them. At the end of the shift, as workers were picketing the scabs coming home from the mills, the anger boiled over once again into a brawl on the street. The militia were at one end of the crowd and policemen moved in at the other, beating hundreds of people indiscriminately with batons and the ends of their rifles so hard that their weapons broke. A shot was fired and Annie LoPizzo, a thirty-three-year-old striker, dropped to the ground dead. Although what exactly happened on that night remains unknown, many people testified that she was shot by a police officer. The bullet that killed her was the same caliber that the cops used—and it was well known that police provocateurs were active in Lawrence. Many suspect that those agents provoked the crowd throughout the day’s events.
The police used the shooting as an opportunity to get Ettor off the streets. They accused him and his friend Arturo Giovannitti, editor of an Italian socialist paper, of inciting a riot and charged them with the murder of Annie LoPizzo, although Ettor and Giovannitti had been blocks away when the shots were fired. Joseph Caruso was also arrested and accused of pulling the trigger that killed Annie LoPizzo.
The charges against Ettor, Giovannitti, and Caruso were clearly trumped-up. Ettor was a firm believer in nonviolent resistance, often saying, “As long as the workers keep their hands in their pockets, the capitalists cannot put theirs there. With passive resistance, with the workers absolutely refusing to move, laying absolutely silent, they are more powerful than all the weapons and instruments that the other side has for protection and attack.”
The three men were unjustly imprisoned for a year. LoPizzo’s murder gave officials the excuse they were looking for to place Lawrence under martial law, banning all public meetings and calling out twenty-two more militia companies. LoPizzo’s death was not the only one. Later that week, a soldier stabbed eighteen-year-old John Rami with a bayonet.
A long-standing trick of the ruling class was to arrest strike leaders and make it illegal to picket or meet (or even to strike at all). The workers of Lawrence did not let this tactic discourage them. The strike was both democratic and confident. Ettor had acted as a backbone for the struggle since his arrival, but he and the other strike committee members had ensured that the strike was not reliant on one person.
After Ettor’s arrest, Big Bill Haywood came to the aid of the strike. Haywood was already a legend of the labor movement. He was nicknamed “Big Bill” because of his physical size, but the name also applied to his life as a cowboy, a miner, a homesteader, a gold-rusher, a street brawler, a saloon gambler, and most importantly, a courageous labor leader. He joined the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) in 1896 and by 1901 had become its second in command. He was a founding member of the IWW and is remembered as a hero of the working class.
When Haywood arrived in Lawrence, he immediately got to work organizing what was to become a turning point in the Bread and Roses Strike. By now, the strike had been in full swing for nearly a month. Although the eighteen worker-run soup kitchens did an incredible job of keeping people fed, striking families still faced difficulties supporting their children while participating in a full-on class war. So an ad went up in the New York Call, a socialist newspaper, asking for supportive families to help ease the burden on strikers by taking in their children for the duration of the strike. The Call’s office was flooded with people eager to help out, and within just a couple of days, they had enough homes for seven hundred children. Lawrence children were sent to homes where they were greeted with cheering parades, were well fed, were well clothed with new coats and mittens, were vaccinated, and taken care of. The Children’s Exodus brought much-needed national attention to the strikers and the conditions in Lawrence and inspired national sympathy for the strike. That sympathy turned to complete outrage when police brutally beat women and tore children out of their arms as a second wave of parents went to the train station to send their children away. All in all that day, thirty-four women and fifteen children were arrested and taken to the police station. Children as young as three months were being nursed by their mothers behind bars. The entire country looked on with shock and horror.
Role of women
Women had been at the forefront throughout the strike, and 130 women had been arrested by the end of the strike. Women carried red pepper under their dresses to throw in the faces of police, poked horses with hatpins to send the officers flying off, even cut police officers’ suspenders with scissors. Legend has it that a few even stripped an officer down to his long underwear and dangled him over a bridge! It’s also important to point out that women paved the way in overcoming divisions between workers. Because women endure the double burden of working and child-rearing, female workers across ethnic lines often helped each other with cooking, babysitting, and house cleaning.
IWW member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, nicknamed the “Rebel Girl,” played a tremendous part in the strike. Flynn was only twenty-one at the time, but she was already a seasoned labor leader. She had started soapboxing about the evils of capitalism on the streets of New York City when she was just fourteen. Flynn became known as the “spirit of the strike.” Not only did she help lead the Children’s Exodus, but she also led meetings with children to help them combat their teachers’ negative comments about the strike. Flynn’s speeches electrified the crowds. Journalist Mary Heaton Vorse reported that
. . . when Elizabeth Gurley Flynn spoke, the excitement of the crowd became a visible thing. She stirred them, lifted them up in her appeal for solidarity. Then at the end of the meeting, they sang. It was as though a spurt of flame had gone through the audience.
Conclusion of strike
In the national coverage of the Children’s Exodus, the mill owners emerged as the clear villains of the strike. Relief funds poured in from all sections of the country—about a thousand dollars a day on average, and sometimes as much as three thousand in a single day. Most media outlets were supportive, though several of them were to lose their advertisements from the American Woolen Company as a result. The incident at the train station was so appalling that it caught the attention of the First Lady, Helen Herron Taft, and Congress, who began an investigation. Many Lawrence mill workers at the ensuing congressional hearings, including fourteen-year-old Camella Teoli, who had half of her scalp ripped off while working in the mill. When asked why she went on strike, her reply was simply, “I didn’t get enough to eat at home.” The horrible conditions that children faced growing up in Lawrence and working in the mills were exposed.
Because of the mounting pressure, the negative publicity, and lost profits, the mill owners were finally ready to negotiate. On March 1, they offered a 5 percent pay increase. The workers rejected it. They now knew that they could win much more. Their confidence had grown exponentially; they were ready to fight for better. The bosses came back on March 12 with an offer that strikers accepted: an increase in wages that varied from five percent for the highest paid to twenty percent for the lowest paid. They would be paid time and half for overtime work. The premium system was not abolished, but it was modified and no discrimination would be shown to strikers. Almost all of the strikers’ demands had been met. And importantly, William Wood had been forced to show respect to the workers. By agreeing to their demands, he had shown that the workers were not machines designed only to work, but human beings.
The strikers held a last assembly to vote to officially end the strike and go back to work. There, they celebrated their tremendous victory. People showed up dressed in their best clothes, sang for hours, handed out roses to Haywood and other strike leaders, and talked excitedly. They voted to accept the offer on a Thursday and could have gone back to work on Friday. But because that seemed so abrupt after not having to be in the mills for two months, they decided to hold off and go back on Monday. Big Bill Haywood said at the end of the strike:
You, the strikers of Lawrence, have won the most signal victory of any body of organized working men in the world. You have won the strike for yourselves and by your strike you have won an increase in wages for over 250,000 other textile workers in the vicinity, and that means in the aggregate millions of dollars a year. . . . You are the heart and soul of the working class. Single-handed you are helpless, but united you can win everything. You have won over the opposed power of the city, state, and national administrations, against the opposition of the combined forces of capitalism, in face of the armed forces. You have won by your solidarity and brains and muscle.
Then, once again, the workers sang the “Internationale” in more than a dozen languages, but as one single voice.
The ripples of the Lawrence victory spread through other textile companies in New England. Mill bosses, terrified that the same thing would happen at their mills, began doling out raises to their workers. Thanks to the strikers in Lawrence, three hundred thousand workers saw their pay increase. These raises equaled ten to twelve million dollars that went into the pockets of workers. It also inspired copycat strikes at the mills where the owners hadn’t offered adequate raises.
Lessons from Lawrence
While Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Smiling Joe Ettor played an important role, it is important to remember that the Lawrence strike was successful because of people whose names we will never know—the thousands of people who bravely went out to the picket lines everyday, who walked off their jobs not knowing when or if they would get another paycheck, and who came to realize that the strike was about far more than just their 32 cents. One of the biggest lessons of the strike was that if workers stand together, steadfast to their aims, they can win. The Lawrence strike also shows how struggle can tear down the artificial divisions that the ruling class sets up between us. The textile bosses aimed to divide and conquer the workers by separating work and pay by ethnicity. But workers overcame those divisions and organized themselves quickly, even though most didn’t even speak the same language! Within the course of two months, the workers had been completely transformed—they had overcome the artificial, nasty stereotypes whipped up by their bosses. They were organized and stood together united.
We can also learn from the Bread and Roses strike just how creative our class can be. The tactic of the moving picket was created by the workers of Lawrence when gatherings were made illegal—the workers claimed they were all just going for a stroll and began to walk up and down the sidewalk. We have the people of Lawrence to thank for inventing the moving picket line!
There are many other lessons to draw from the strike. The IWW’s leadership teaches about the role of radicals in movements and labor struggles. The Wobblies did a tremendous job of organizing workers, directing anger at the common enemy, offering useful strategies for moving forward based on experience and history, and gaining the support of other unions and radicals throughout the country.
Unfortunately, the Bread and Roses strike also reveals some of the shortcomings of the IWW’s overall strategy. In the year that followed the Lawrence Strike, the gains of the two-month battle were mostly stripped away. Because the IWW refused to sign contracts with employers, it was easy for employers to break verbal agreements—which is exactly what they did in Lawrence. Most of the strike leaders were fired after returning to work. Mill bosses again began forcing workers to speed up, causing injuries. The employer-led Lawrence Citizens’ Association denounced the strike and accused outside “terrorists” of coming into town and causing mayhem. Months after the strike, the mayor and a very influential priest in Lawrence called for a return to normalcy and organized a Columbus Day Parade. Although the parade was allegedly called to re-unify Lawrence, the IWW was banned from participating and the motto on the banner read: “For God and Country. The Stars and Stripes Forever. The red flag never! A protest against the IWW, its principles and its methods.” The parade brought out twenty-five thousand onlookers, with everyone dressed in red, white, and blue. The leaders of the town were successful in whipping up a wave of patriotism and urging its citizens to return to their routines.
Ettor spoke out against the jingoism, saying, “This talk of patriotism is a sham and a humbug. The dream of labor is the constant nightmare of the capitalist crew of the world. We need no guns, we need no dynamite to advance our cause, for when we stop work, the capitalist class will starve. When we labor the world goes on.”
The Lawrence strike did not achieve all of its goals, but it showed the potential power of a unified working class. The poem “Bread and Roses” by James Oppenheim, written in 1912, has become a staple song of the labor movement, speaking to the aspirations of working-class women in struggle.
As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill-lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing, “Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.”
As we come marching, marching, we battle, too, for men—
For they are women’s children and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes—
Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses!
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient song of Bread;
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew—
Yes, it is bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too.
As we come marching, marching, we bring the Greater days—
The rising of the women means the rising of the race—
No more the drudge and idler—then that toil where one reposes—
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses!