Strike! Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Bread & Roses

“Short pay, all out!” That was the rallying cry of Lawrence textile workers in 1912 when the state of Massachusetts cut the work week from 56 to 54 hours – and mill owners cut workers’ pay, already starvation wages, to match the reduction in hours.

Within a week of the first walkouts in January 1912, more than 20,000 workers had joined the strike. Calling for “Bread and Roses” – better wages as well as dignity and improved working conditions – immigrant workers from nearly 50 nations united to fight for their common cause.

The Lawrence textile strike of 1912 was not only a victory for organized labor, but an example of unity among peoples of different backgrounds, nations and faiths. Boston Workmen’s Circle will celebrate the historic Bread and Roses strike on April 29th by honoring our Shule Children’s Protest Against Sweatshops. If you’re interested in learning more about the strike, sign up for the labor history course at Workmen’s Circle in March, taught by Bread and Roses centennial chair Bob Forrant.

Joseph Ettor of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and Arturo Giovannitti of the Italian Socialist Federation of the Socialist Party of America initially led the strike. The city of Lawrence responded to the mass walkouts by calling up the militia, and Ettor and Giovannitti were framed and imprisoned for murdering one of the strikers, who in actuality was likely shot by police.

The IWW sent Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and other organizers to take over in Lawrence. The union helped set up a system of relief committees for strikers, including soup kitchens, food distribution and volunteer medical care. They also helped send strikers’ children to stay with supportive families in New York City for the duration of the strike. When the IWW attempted to send another 100 children to stay with families in Philadelphia, the city of Lawrence tried to stop them by sending in police and militia, who attacked the children and the women helping them to evacuate. Press coverage of both the children’s evacuation and the attack generated national attention, and led to a congressional investigation into the strike.

Mill owners agreed to strikers’ demands in March of 1912, and Ettor and Giovannitti were released from prison. They were acquitted of the murder charges in November. The strikers won a 15% pay increase, modifications to a premium system that had held back their wages, and amnesty for workers who had participated in the strikes. Over time, however, the owners gradually chipped away at the workers’ gains, and there was no permanent union among mill workers in Lawrence until the 1930s.

We recognize that the struggle fro worker and immigrant rights continues today. That’s why our Shule protests unfair labor practices each year, and why we engage with struggles like the REAL Campaign for temporary workers’ justice.

In our Bread & Roses events this spring, we celebrate past victories and resolve to work for justice today. We have already held a Bread & Roses-themed Parent Circle this spring. Upcoming are a discussion of Bruce Watson’s book Bread and Roses and an adult education course on the strike. Our spring of commemoration and celebration culminates on April 29 with As We Come Marching, an interactive concert honoring the 100th anniversary of the strike, 14 years of the Shule Children’s Protest Against Sweatshops, and Gene Bruskin, Former Director of the UFCW Justice@Smithfield Campaign and current Director of the American Federation of Teachers Strategic Campaigns Department. Tickets for As We Come Marching go on sale soon!