This Day in Resistance History: Hope College graduate A.J. Muste and the 1919 Lawrence textile workers strike
Several labor unions were involved in the 1919 strike, including the IWW, but the primary union involved with this strike was the Amalgamated Textile Workers Union, also known as the ATWU.
Despite the battle to win an 8-hour work day for several decades, not all workers enjoyed this right, which resulted in ongoing labor resistance across the country. The ATWU was fighting for shorter days, but they were also fighting for better working conditions.
The textile workers were making a measly 20 cents an hour and were often not paid for time that they worked. The workers were made up of people from at least 20 different countries, which always made it harder to organize such a diverse workforce. That the union could unify people across so many linguistic and cultural lines is a testament to their creativity.
The strike lasted 16 weeks and it was met with a tremendous amount of force by the company, which not only utilized the local police force, but the national guard, which at one point was guarding the textile mill with machine guns.
It was in this context that Hope College graduate and radical A.J. Muste came to Lawrence to stand in solidarity with the striking workers.
Muste was an ordained minister and harsh critic of the US involvement in WWI. Muste came to Lawrence just days after the strike began and joined the men and women on the picket line. Since many of the strikers had no or limited English speaking skills, Muste became a spokesperson for many of the workers, especially after he won their confidence when he was pulled off the picket line, beaten and hauled away by the local police.
Upon release from jail Muste came back and joined the picket line again and continued to be a spokesperson for the striking workers.
When the National Guard had been brought in, they set up machine guns to protect the textile mill. It is believed that the company sent in agent provocateurs to convince the workers to engage in violence, thus justifying the use of machine guns. However, Muste, who was a pacifist, counseled the workers to not use violence. Muste is believed to have said to the workers, “Let the mill owners try to weave cloth with machine guns.”
Whatever one thinks about the use of violence, in this instance the decision to not engage in violence worked and the strikers eventually won shorter work weeks, a 12% increase in pay and recognition of shop grievance committees in all departments.
We celebrate this day in solidarity with workers today who face unjust and brutal working conditions and are willing to fight back. We also remember and honor the person of A.J. Muste, not just because he is from West Michigan, but because he used his abilities to stand in solidarity with those who fought oppression.