By Emma Rosenthal and Andy Griggs
Supporters and children of the Lawrence strikers lead a solidarity parade in New York City.
"What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist. … You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” Rose Schneiderman, date uncertain
On Jan. 1, 1912, a new Massachusetts law that reduced the work week from 56 to 54 hours for women and children took effect. In response, textile mill owners speeded up the machines. When workers in the city of Lawrence received their paychecks with two hours less pay, the equivalent of three fewer loaves of bread per week, they spontaneously walked out.
For the first time in American history, thousands of workers banded together to fight for fair wages and working conditions. Women and children took to the streets to demand bread and roses — basic necessities and a decent way of life. The strike included more than 20,000 workers and lasted more than two months.
The strike was led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) after the American Federation of Labor declined the opportunity, saying a diverse, generally unskilled female and immigrant workforce could not be organized. Strike funds were raised by surrounding textile towns allowing the IWW to provide support, food, medical care and other essential services for the duration of the strike, which occurred in the dead of a New England winter.
The strike committee, made up of two representatives from each ethnic group in the mills, took responsibility for all major decisions. Organizers provided translation in 25 different languages to strikers, who included both immigrant and U.S.-born workers with varying degrees of skill and privilege. More than half of the workers were between the ages of 14 and 18.
A new strategy, walking a picket line, was born, and hundreds were injured and jailed during the daily marches and pickets at the mills.
Songs became a common language
For those who couldn’t read, singing was political education, a way of learning about the world and putting their own struggles in a larger context. The words to familiar melodies were rewritten to reflect the theme “Solidarity Forever.” Workers opened and closed their meetings with songs and marched through the streets singing. On the picket line, singing became a common language, the means of uplifting their spirits and forging solidarity.
In order to help relieve their financial burden and to gain wider support, the strikers began sending their children to stay with sympathizers in other cities. The strike's turning point came on Feb. 24 when, at the behest of the textile manufacturers, police tried to prevent this mass exodus of children by clubbing a group of women and children at the Lawrence railroad station. The beating and detention of the striking women and children was extensively covered in the press. The violence prompted congressional investigations which began to shed light on the working conditions of the industry.
On March 12, 100 years ago, the owners gave in and agreed to the workers’ demands. In what is considered a major victory in U.S. labor history, Lawrence workers gained an increase in wages of 5 to 11 percent, with the largest increments to the lowest-paid workers. They also received overtime pay and a no-reprisal agreement to protect those who struck.
United Teachers Los Angeles member Emma Rosenthal is an educator, activist, artist and writer. A retired social justice educator, Andy Griggs co-chairs the CTA Peace and Justice Caucus.
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