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This Day in Resistance History: 100th Anniversary of the Lawrence Textile Strike

February 24, 2012

There are seminal events in US labor history and February 24, 1912 is one of them. On this day 100 years ago, police attacked women and children who were family members of those on strike.

The police brutality was so overt that news of the repression spread like wildfire. People from all over the world heard about what the Textile owners were having the police do to workers and their families. Even the wife of US President Howard Taft came to investigate the repression, since the thought of women and children being beaten by police, was too much to bare for the First Lady.

The infamous Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912, however, was more than just a global outrage against police brutality, it was a major victory for organized labor.

Workers at the Lawrence factory had been enduring hardship for years, working long hours for little pay. Before the 1912 strike there wasn’t much of a union presence, with the AFL and the IWW the only two unions that had made attempts to organize the mostly immigrant workforce.

However, the economic conditions of workers had become worse at the beginning of 1912 because of a new law that reduced the amount of hours that women and children could work in factories from 56 to 54. While this doesn’t seem like a big shift, it made an impact because the textile owners speed up the machines so that they would not lose money with the shortened work week.

Workers were on average only making $3 – $7 a week and it was not enough to make a living off of. Such low wages for a 54-hour work week led to a strike that began in January of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. In addition, such low wages and poor living conditions led to Lawrence having an infant mortality rate of 172 out of 1,000. The economic and social desperation was the context for the 1912 strike.

Once the strike began the IWW began to aggressively organize amongst the immigrant workers, which was a challenge since there were at least seven different languages spoke by those in the factory. However, the IWW was up to the task and found organizers from each immigrant community that made communication a non-issue.

As the weeks went by the strike became more intense with intimidation and harassment being a daily response by the factory owners. The Lawrence Textile factory had 35,000 workers in 1912 and wasn’t about the lose money because of the strike. The company brought in scab workers, workers who were often attacked by strikers who resented the attempt to undermine the strike.

Conditions in the town became so dire that striking workers and the IWW proposed sending children and some women to other cities to live with relatives since the strike caused even greater hardship. The decision to send the children away was really made by the women workers, who made up the majority of the factory workforce. The famous IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn stated during this strike, “The IWW has been accused of putting women in the front. The truth is, the IWW does not keep them in the back, and they go to the front.”

Once it became known that children were being sent away to live with other family members word got out across the country that the striking workers needed more solidarity. The famous reproductive rights champion, Margaret Sanger, even came to Lawrence to help with organizing the children who were put on trains. Children were leaving in groups of one hundred or more. This tactic of sending children away caught the attention of the factory owners and the local police who then began to harass the women and children who were going to the train station. It was in this context that led to the February 24, 1912 police repression, where parents and children arriving at the station were beaten with clubs, arrested and charges with “congregating.”

Shortly after this incident there was such a national outcry that the US Congress held hearings to determine what had happened. Again, the IWW organized striking workers to testify before Congress on the conditions of the factory, poor wages and the violence during the strike. Many adults gave testimony, but it was the testimony of the children that moved members of Congress to act. According to Sharon Smith in her book, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States, “one 14-year old girl testified that she went on strike because ‘there wasn’t enough to eat at home.’”

Within a week the textile factory owners capitulated and on March 14 signed a labor agreement with the workers. The IWW union members were so delighted by the outcome that they began to sing the famous song, the Internationale in seven different languages.

The 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike and the organizing of women and children came to be known as the Bread & Roses campaign and will forever live on as one of the great victories for workers and radical union politics in US history.

The success of the labor organizing during the 1912 strike is important for several reasons. First, the IWW demonstrated that language and nationalist differences do not have to be a barrier to labor organizing. Second, it was critical that women were in leadership positions during the strike, something that none of the other industrial unions such as the AFL allowed at the time. Third, the success of the 1912 Lawrence Textile strike demonstrated that workers were receptive to the more radical message of the IWW, a message that stood in clear contrast to the business unions of the day. These are all lessons that are relevant for labor organizing in the 21st Century and should make the 1912 Bread & Roses campaign required reading for those wanting to organize workers today.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2012 9:44 pm

    Probably should be a national holiday. Republicans would, of course, vote against it.

  2. February 24, 2012 9:51 pm

    I would support it being a national holiday, but I think both the Republicans and Democrats would not support such a designation.

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