View Full Version : On the Centennial of a Nonviolent and Decisive Workers’ Victory

Ed Jewett
01-13-2012, 02:30 AM
Remembering the Lawrence StrikeOn the Centennial of a Nonviolent and Decisive Workers’ Victory
by Jerry Elmer / January 12th, 2012
January 12, 2012 is the one hundredth anniversary of the commencement of one of the most important labor strikes in American history – the bloody 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike that lasted 63 days. The strike represented the organizing apogee of the radical, syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies); the strike has also become associated (albeit erroneously) in popular lore with the slogan “Bread and Roses” (the phrase originated in a poem by James Oppenheim published in 1911, but was apparently never used by the Lawrence strikers in 1912).
On January 1, 1912, a new Massachusetts law had gone into effect that cut the maximum work week to 54 hours. Mill workers’ pay was given out on Fridays, not for the week just ended but for the previous week; thus, on Friday afternoon, January 12, 1912, workers received their pay for the work week of Monday, January 1 through Saturday, January 6. Workers found their pay to be an average of 32¢ short, representing the fewer hours that the mill workers had toiled. On Friday, January 12, upon finding that their pay had been shorted, 11,000 of Lawrence’s 28,000 mill workers walked off their jobs immediately; by the next day, the strike had grown to 13,000 workers.
The position of the mill owners was the essence of simplicity: you cannot expect us to pay for work that is not done. If the Massachusetts legislature is so benighted as to limit the number of hours that workers may work, the result is that workers will directly and immediately suffer the inevitable consequence: they will earn less money. It’s not our fault; it is the fault of the misguided legislature.
The plight of the mill workers in Lawrence in 1912 was unimaginable by today’s standards. Adults earned between $3 and $10 a week for work that often exceeded 60 hours a week. Overtime pay did not exist. Wages were allocated in a strict hierarchy depending on the nationality of the workers – there were Syrians, Greeks, Turks, Germans, Italians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Russians, Poles, Jews, Irish; each one received a different hourly wage for identical work. Blacks, of course, were the lowest paid. The law technically forbade labor by children under 14, but children as young as 10 often worked the same work week as adults (but were only paid half as much). Workplace safety was nonexistent, and workers were frequently maimed or killed by the mill machinery. Workers, especially children, were literally (not figuratively), starving to death; infant mortality accounted for half the deaths in Lawrence.
On January 12, 1912, 1% of the U.S. population owned 50% of the nation’s wealth. (By comparison, today the top 1% of the U.S. population owns “only” 37% of the nation’s wealth, though it is also true that the bottom 80% own only 15% of the nation’s wealth.)
On Sunday, January 14, 1912, three companies of militia were called in and martial law came to Lawrence. Striking workers picketed, and soldiers guarded the mills. Also on January 14, Wobbly organizer Joe Ettor arrived in Lawrence from New York.
Each day during that first week of the strike, fewer people went to work. By Saturday, January 20, 20,000 of the 28,000 mill workers in Lawrence were on strike, and every mill in the city was shut. On Tuesday, January 17, the strikers issued their demands (which were also the essence of simplicity). The strikers had four demands: (1) 15% pay raise for all mill workers; (2) double pay for overtime; (3) an end to the hated “bonus system” that paid extra money for meeting special, elevated production targets; and (4) amnesty for strikers. On Wednesday, January 18, 10,000 strikers held their first public parade; incongruously they marched behind an American flag singing The Internationale. The paraders were met and dispersed by soldiers with bayoneted rifles. More companies of militia were mobilized; mills were guarded by sharpshooters. On Thursday, January 19, another parade of 10,000 striking workers defied martial law and wound through the streets.
Also on January 19, dynamite was “discovered” at three locations in Lawrence frequented by strike organizers. Although strike organizers were arrested for possession of dynamite, it was later shown that the dynamite had been planted by minions of Billy Wood, the most hated of the Lawrence mill owners.
On Tuesday, January 23, strike organizers opened the first of several soup kitchens in Lawrence to feed the starving strikers and their families. First hundreds, then thousands of dollars poured into the Lawrence strike headquarters from all over the country, often in the form of a coin or two in an envelope. On Wednesday, January 24, another dangerous, radical Wobbly organizer arrived in Lawrence: Big Bill Haywood was met at the Lawrence train station by a jubilant, singing crowd of 10,000 strikers. Formal, dues-paying, card-carrying membership in the IWW soared to an unprecedented 10,000 members in Lawrence.
One of the most interesting aspects of the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence is the degree to which the main strike organizers, the Wobblies, and especially Joe Ettor, explicitly preached nonviolence to the strikers. In another strike seven years later (in 1919), the famous pacifist organizer A. J. Muste came to Lawrence to aid striking textile workers. One morning in that later strike, strikers awoke to find the men guarding the mills armed with machine guns. Quite understandably, strikers also wanted to arm themselves. A.J., ever the pacifist, cautioned against arms. “Let the mill owners try to weave cloth with machine guns,” A.J. is said to have counseled. What is interesting about the 1912 strike is that (unlike A.J.) the Wobblies were most emphatically notideological pacifists. Yet the Wobblies clearly and unequivocally counseled nonviolence as the only tactic for the strikers that could be successful.
From the very first day he arrived in Lawrence, Wobbly organizer Joe Ettor repeatedly told the strikers: “As long as the workers keep their hands in their pockets, the capitalists cannot put their hands in there. With passive resistance, with the workers absolutely refusing to move, lying absolutely still, they are more powerful than all the weapons that the mill owners have to attack the workers.” On Monday morning, January 15, with the city under martial law, with armed troops everywhere, Ettor advised against any resort to violence: “You cannot win by fighting with your fists against men that are armed, or against the militia, but you have a stronger weapon than they have. You have the weapon of labor, and they cannot beat you down if you stick together.” When troops fired upon parading strikers and turned hoses on them (in one of the coldest New England winters on record), Ettor said, “You may turn your hoses on the strikers, but there is being kindled a flame in the heart of the workers, a flame of proletarian revolt, which no fire hose in the world can ever extinguish.” In a speech to rallying strikers, Ettor said: “Order can be kept, but I never saw order kept by bayonets. I want you all to understand that our cause cannot be won by spilling blood. Peaceful persuasion is the only weapon advocated from this platform!” As I say, the Wobblies were emphatically not committed to nonviolence for moral or ideological reasons, but nonviolent they clearly were. Their commitment was strictly a tactical one.
This strategic, tactical commitment to nonviolence puts me in mind of Gene Sharp. Gene has spent much of the past 40 years tweaking pacifists; Sharp’s line goes something like this: You pacifists should abandon your quaint, holier-than-thou, elitist moral commitment to nonviolence; nonviolence should be embraced because it is far more effective than violence. And for 40 years, we pacifists have smiled indulgently at Gene’s rebukes – after all, despite his present-day posturing, Gene was himself first a moral pacifist; indeed, one who was sentenced to two years in prison during the Korean War for his outspoken (moral) opposition to conscription. I believe that there is an odd convergence here: both Joe Ettor and Gene Sharp (in their respective, different eras) are preaching a substantially similar line: forget your highfalutin moralism; nonviolent direct action is a brilliant, winning tactic for effective campaigns by the dispossessed.
On the eighteenth day of the strike, Monday, January 29, 1912, a striking worker, Anna LoPizzo, was shot and killed by a police officer (Oscar Benoit) during a strikers’ demonstration in the streets. On Tuesday, January 30, a second striker, John Rami, was bayoneted to death by a soldier. The same day, Wobbly organizer Joe Ettor, and another man, Arturo Giovannitti, were arrested for complicity in Anna LoPizzo’s murder. The two men were a mile away when LoPizzo had been shot. The government’s legal theory was laughable by today’s standards: if these dangerous union organizers had not stirred up trouble, there would have been no riot, and Anna LoPizzo would not have been shot. (Here is an analogy: On May 4, 1970, National Guard troops at Kent State University shot and killed four students demonstrating nonviolently for peace in Vietnam. Imagine if the next day the police had arrested the student president of the Kent State SDS chapter, who was off campus when the killings occurred – because if those trouble-making SDS organizers hadn’t stirred up trouble, there would have been no protesting students for the troops to shoot.) Ettor and Giovannitti were eventually acquitted by a jury, but not until November 25, 1912, long after the strike was over. By then, the false arrest of Ettor had fully accomplished its purpose – he had been kept in jail through the remainder of the strike.
Lawrence mill owners specifically, and U.S. capitalists more generally, responded to progressive calls for improved working conditions in at least two different ways. First, mill owners refused to negotiate with strikers. They relied on troops to keep order, and (where possible) on scabs to keep mills open. Strike organizers were fired and then blacklisted, so they could never find work elsewhere. If necessary, they were framed and sent to prison (like Joe Ettor) or shot (like Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill, who was framed for murder and executed by a Utah firing squad on November 19, 1915).
A second way of dealing with calls for improved working conditions was through the courts. This was the so-called Lochner era, during which a deeply conservative Supreme Court struck down literally hundreds of progressive state laws involving minimum wages, maximum work weeks, worker safety, child labor, and so forth. The eponymous case for which the era was named was Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), which struck down a New York law setting a maximum of 60-hour work week and 10-hour work day in New York bakeries. Another famous case of the era was Coppage v. Kansas, 236 U.S. 1 (1915), which struck down laws that restricted so-called “yellow-dog contracts” – that is, the Court was striking down union-backed legislation that made it illegal for employers to require that employees not join a union. The ideological underpinning of the Lochner-era cases was “freedom of contract,” as guaranteed in the Constitution. If the mill workers of Lawrence want to work 60 hours a week for, say, 15¢ an hour and send their 10-year-old children to work in the mills for half that amount, the sanctity of freedom of contract required that the state not interfere.
The strikers in Lawrence had another tactic. In several successive waves, they sent away hundreds of the starving, emaciated children of strikers to New York, Philadelphia, Vermont, and elsewhere to stay with wealthy families who would care for the children for the duration of the strike. The exodus of malnourished children made national headlines and generated considerable sympathy for the strikers. On Sunday, February 25, 1912, heavily armed police and soldiers used violence to break up a huge crowd of strikers seeing their children off at the Lawrence train depot. The reports of the brutal police riot were reported nationally and helped to build further support for the strikers – in much the same way that extensive media coverage of Police Chief Bull Connor’s turning attack dogs and fire hoses on civil rights marchers in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1963 built support for the civil rights movement (leading President Kennedy to comment that no person since Abraham Lincoln had aided civil rights more than Bull Connor).
On Saturday, March 9, 1912, the first mill owner capitulated to the strikers, and other mill owners soon followed suit. The strikers did not win a complete victory, but they did win a substantial one. There were across-the-board wage increases; the increases averaged about 15% and the lowest-paid workers realized the largest increases, thereby making wage scales somewhat more equitable. Overtime pay was not granted, but the hated bonus system was substantially curtailed, and there was an amnesty for most strikers (except prominent strike organizers who were, of course, blacklisted). And the Lawrence strike had cascading effects elsewhere: in the weeks and months after the successful conclusion of the Lawrence strike, 250,000 other textile workers throughout New England won substantial pay increases from mill owners without striking! Eugene Debs, running for President that year on the Socialist Party ticket, commented, “The victory at Lawrence was one of the most decisive and far-reaching ever won by organized workers.”
And it all started 100 years ago, on January 12, 1912.
• This article first appeared in New Clear Vision (http://www.newclearvision.com/).
Jerry Elmer is an attorney in Providence, Rhode Island. He was a Vietnam-era draft resister, and was the only convicted felon in his graduating class at Harvard Law School. He is the author of Felon For Peace (Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), which was published in Vietnam as “Toi Pham Vi Hoa Bing” (The Gioi, 2005); this was the first book by a U.S. peace activist ever published in Vietnam. Read other articles by Jerry (http://dissidentvoice.org/author/JerryElmer/).
This article was posted on Thursday, January 12th, 2012 at 8:00am and is filed under Solidarity (http://dissidentvoice.org/category/solidarity/), Unions (http://dissidentvoice.org/category/labor/unions/).

Magda Hassan
01-13-2012, 08:09 AM
100 Years After Lawrence Strike, the Cry for ‘Bread & Roses’ Still Resonates By Steve Early (http://inthesetimes.com/community/profile/11368) http://inthesetimes.com/global/phpthumb/phpThumb.php?src=/images/working/Lawrence_Strike_1a.jpg&w=615&zc=1 Textile strikers confront Massachusetts militiamen in 1912.

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.


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 (http://breadandrosescentennial.org/) 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.
http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/12504/one_hundred_years_after_lawrence_strike_the_cry_fo r_bread_roses_still_reson/