The Bread and Roses Strike
As we will hear often, 1912 was a historic year. The Titanic disaster and the birth of Fenway Park will be unavoidable. What many people may not know is that an event in the Merrimack Valley in 1912 had a profound effect on American history and society. The event was the great Lawrence textile strike of 1912, commonly known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.” After reading the following highlights, you may find it as worthy of commemoration as the other famous events that occurred over 100 years ago.
• The stage was set in 1911, when Congress reduced the workweek from 56 to 54 hours…for women and children only. Being dependent on the labor of women and children, Lawrence’s mills adopted a 54-hour schedule for everyone. Upon receiving their first pay envelopes under the reduced schedule, the workers discovered a pay cut. Averaging only $8.76 a week, the frustrated workers walked out of the mills.
• For nine weeks, during the harsh months of January and February, 1912, more than 20,000 mill workers went on strike. They faced off daily with local police and state militia. (Some in the militia were Harvard students who received course credit for their time.)
• Eighty-six percent of Lawrence’s population in 1912 was first- or second-generation immigrants. The newest immigrants held the worst jobs, and thus were in the forefront of the strike. The two striking workers killed during the Bread and Roses Strike reflected this ethnic hierarchy. Annie Lopizzo, an Italian woman in her 20s, was shot during a confrontation between strikers and police. And John Rami, a Syrian teenager, was killed by a militiaman’s bayonet.
• The strikers turned for help to the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical union willing to organize unskilled immigrant laborers. When dynamite was found in three locations, fingers quickly pointed toward the IWW, owing to their reputation (some say exaggerated) for violence. The “dynamite plot,” however, was quickly revealed to be a hoax perpetrated by friends of a prominent mill owner to discredit the IWW and undermine the strike.
• In another attempt to destabilize the strike, police arrested two IWW organizers in the shooting of Lopizzo, despite there being no evidence connecting them to her death.
• As the struggle dragged on, some strikers sent their children to live with sympathizers in other cities. The resulting negative publicity enraged local authorities, who dispatched police to stop the “children’s exodus” at the train station. The melee that followed, with women and children thrown into paddy wagons, generated even more bad press.
• National outrage prompted a congressional hearing, and Carmela Teoli, a 14-year-old Italian girl, testified about getting her hair caught in mill machinery and having part of her scalp torn off. The resulting publicity was more than the mill owners could bear, and they soon negotiated a settlement with the strikers. Incredibly, the workers had won. The results of the strike, by then international news, reverberated far and wide.
• More than 250,000 textile workers throughout New England saw pay increases.
• The attention drawn to child labor helped pass protective legislation, first in Massachusetts, and then nationally.
• The poem-turned-song “Bread and Roses” has become an anthem for women’s and workers’ rights, and the phrase “Bread and Roses” is known and used around the world.
The strike’s history is celebrated in Lawrence at the annual Bread and Roses Labor Day Heritage Festival at the Lawrence Heritage State Park, and by Lawrence’s other cultural and historical organizations. For more information, visit www.BreadAndRosesHeritage.org.