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Bread and Roses: The Battle Cry of the American Labor Movement

Bread and roses. It was the battle cry of the thousands of striking women and their supporters who marched through the streets of Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, in the heart of the textile industry.

“Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses!”
–From a poem by James Oppenheim

Bread and roses. It was the battle cry of the thousands of striking women and their supporters who marched through the streets of Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, in the heart of the textile industry. Although it’s been 100 years since they marched, their militancy and bravery remain among the brightest highlights in the long history of the American labor movement.

The three-months long strike in Lawrence, led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) pitted the 25,000 workers – half of them women under 20, many as young as 14 – against the violently anti-labor textile mill owners, who were strongly backed by the press, politicians, school officials and clergy.

Striking was difficult for the workers, who had only their poverty-level wages to live on. They had barely enough to pay the rent for the run-down, disease-ridden shacks and tenement flats where most of them lived. Many were constantly in debt, having to borrow money to meet their bare necessities. Health care and other fringe benefits were virtually unheard of, and more than one-third of the workers died in their mid-twenties.

Working conditions were brutal. They commonly worked 12 hours a day in the hot, dusty and dangerous textile mills for but $6 to $8 a week. The workers had neither the leisure time nor the means to improve the quality of their lives, no time or money to enjoy the good things of life – the roses.

They desperately needed the help that unionization could provide them, but that could come only through a strike that would impose even more hardships on the already extremely hard-hit workers. They hesitated about actually walking off the job, but finally were convinced that striking would bring long-term benefits to them, their families and their communities.

The mill workers moved into action after employers unilaterally cut their already rock-bottom pay even more. They marched to the mills and throughout Lawrence to the tune of militant labor songs by IWW bard Joe Hill and others, holding high placards that declared,”We Want Bread and Roses too,” a demand that soon would be taken up by labor and feminist groups nationwide.

It wasn’t easy, bringing the workers together. They belonged to two-dozen different national groups, speaking 72 languages. They had been purposely kept apart by employers, who kept them in ghettoes by setting up separate housing areas for different nationalities, lest they forget their ethnic differences and join together to challenge their miserable pay and unhealthy conditions.

Employers got their friends in City Hall to enact an ordinance preventing strikers from picketing individual mills, but strikers responded by the extraordinary act of forming a picket line around the perimeters of the entire textile mill district. Thousands of pickets were on the line 24 hours a day throughout the 10-week-long strike.

Some spent part of their evenings hoping to disturb the sleep of strikebreakers who employers had hired to replace them, loudly serenading them with IWW songs.

Thousands paraded through the streets of Lawrence regularly, until the city enacted an ordinance forbidding parades and mass meetings. They switched to sidewalk parades of up to four-dozen strikers and supporters, who locked arms, blocking shoppers and others from entering downtown businesses.

Eventually, martial law was declared, enforced by violent police and militiamen, who charged in to try to break up the marches and other demonstrations. They even tried to block strikers from putting their children on trains that would take them to safety with sympathizers in other cities. The city called in the Army to block the trains from moving, which led to the killing of a woman striker and the beating of many others, including several children and two pregnant women who had miscarriages.

Then the authorities arrested two of the IWW’s principal leaders for murder, on grounds that their illegal acts had provoked police into the action that led them to kill a striker.

The widespread publicity about the strike finally helped pressure employers to settle. The terms were modest, primarily granting the workers union recognition, a 15 percent pay increase and a 54-hour workweek with overtime pay at double the regular rate. But the mere recognition of the workers’ right to make and be granted any demands was crucial. It inspired many other workers, especially women, to also assert their basic rights and brought strong support nationally for many workers who sought decent treatment.

What’s more, many textile mill owners, fearing they also might be struck, granted pay raises totaling almost $15 million to an estimated 438,000 workers throughout New England and elsewhere.

A much longer and lasting result was that the strike put the needs of working women on labor’s agenda for the first time and showed that women could very well provide decisive leadership and indeed win bread – and roses.

Copyright © 2012 Dick Meister

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