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From Lawrence to Tahrir Square

Children Marching in the 1912 Textile Workers Strike

The Bread and Roses strike by women mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, would seem an unlikely event to compare with the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square by protestors against a dictatorship.  The textile worker’s strike continues to resonate through American culture, not just in history books, but in art, poems, plays, songs, and novels, such as E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.  But in what way could it be linked to the continuing drama in Egypt and across the Muslim world?   The answer is suggested by Ardis Cameron inRadicals of the Worst Sort: Laboring Women in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1860-1912 (1993), recently discussed by students in the American Seminar.

The lives of mill workers in places like Lawrence are unimaginable to most Americans today, especially those who are not labor historians or immersed in immigrant and ethnic history.  Clean water was often unavailable.  Infant mortality rates were staggering.  Population density was as high as in New York.  Accidents in the mills were common.  Harrassment by male supervisors and company detectives was frequent.

The spark that started the strike was struck by the Massachusetts General Court, when it reduced the work week from 56 to 54 hours, which meant a nine-hour day, Monday through Saturday.  The new law took effect on 1 January 1912, and was a classic example of unintended consequences.  Good government types supported the change, and Governor Eugene Foss, who sought labor’s support for his political ambitions, pushed it through.  Unfortunately, the politicians changed the law but not corporate behavior.  Instead of accepting the small cut in hours and maintaining current wages, mill owners cut weekly pay by thirty-two cents.  Their greed and pettiness cost them dearly.

On January 11 a group of Polish women discovered when they got their envelopes that their pay had been cut,  as many workers had feared.  They left their mill, the protest spread, and the next day the strike exploded, the bell in city hall ringing for the first time the general riot alarm.

Like the protestors in Tunisia and Egypt, the workers generally avoided violence, and there were only two deaths in the strike, both of women.  This strategy was adopted and coordinated by national leaders of the International Workers of the World, or Wobblies.  “Big Bill” Haywood, Emma Goldman, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, immortalized by Joe Hill’s song “The Rebel Girl,” came to the Queen City of Massachusetts.  They were the stars of the event, and attracted widespread media attention from “flying squads” of reporters, but Haywood later said that it was the women of Lawrence who had won the strike.  These local leaders were the most respected residents in each neighborhood, and had won the loyalty and admiration of their peers before the strike began.  Roughly two-thirds of the women were self-supporting heads of household, widows or women whose husbands had deserted them or who had themselves left abusive or drunken men.  Their wages were often all that a family had to live on.

Without cell phones or social media, but with their own elaborate network that carried news quickly, the strikers formed an underground resistance.  The women improvised tactics to counter mounted police and soldiers, using hat pins on the horses, causing the animals to rear and throw their riders.  Individual police officers and soldiers were caught by groups of women and stripped of their clothing.  When fire hoses were turned on strikers in freezing weather, they seized the hoses and doused police and militia.  As soon as the police broke up a crowd or drove strikers away from a location, they would reform somewhere else.  Strikers announced buildings that they intended to target, and then hit sites left unguarded when the authorities shifted men to the ostensible danger spots.  Women met in homes and alleys, out of sight of men who were afraid to penetrate the warren of neighborhoods on The Plains, where most workers lived.  Owners had a policy of not letting one ethnic group make up more than fifteen percent of a mill’s workforce, but women from two dozen nationalities overcame their language barriers and cultural differences to unite.  Some volunteered to serve as translators for the courts but were actually spies bringing back news of what the city government and owners were doing.  The strikers boycotted unsympathetic merchants, but many supported the strike.  So did rural folk, supplying strikers with eggs and other food, and taking in children.  Like the Cairo protestors waving Egyptian flags, the Lawrence women carried American flags, and dressed their children in red, white, and blue costumes.

Children Protesting in Tahrir Square, photo by Iman Mosaad

Governor Foss sent twelve companies of Massachusetts militia to the city, including jocks from the Harvard football team, to suppress the strike.  He also pressured the mill owners to negotiate, threatening to withdraw the troops.  Sympathizers in New York City and elsewhere organized an exodus of workers’ children, led by wealthy women like Margaret Sanger, an early birth control advocate.  This move resulted in a violent confrontation at the Lawrence train station when two hundred police and militia attacked a crowd of women and children, tearing mothers from children, clubbing the women, and throwing them into police wagons. It was not only the mill owners, city government, and the police and state militia, but even their own French and Irish priests who opposed the strikers, siding with management.  One priest cut short his two-month Florida vacation to return but failed to regain control of his flock.  Male missionaries and social workers opposed the strike and food for the poor, preaching Social Darwinism rather than the Golden Rule.

Two dozen nationalities took part in the strike, but most of the women were “new” immigrants, recently arrived from Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Italy, and Syria.  Among such a population music was a critical kind of propaganda, and “The Internationale” was their favorite song, sung in many languages by huge crowds surging through the streets of Lawrence.

Stung by a barrage of negative publicity across the nation, especially after the attack on the children’s exodus, and worried about  investigations by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the mill owners capitulated and the strikers accepted an offer of no cut in pay, and no retaliation against protestors, on March 12.  It was a small victory, but a huge moment in American history, and one of this country’s finest hours.

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About The Author: Michael Chesson was the Founding Dean of the American College of History and Legal Studies.

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