1912 Bread and Roses Strike

Bread and Roses Strikers in Lawrence
Bread and Roses Strikers in Lawrence

One of the most prolific strikes in United States history was the Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. On the heals of a labor victory in legislation, reducing the work week from fifty-six to fifty-four hours, employers in Lawrence’s mills reacted by slashing wages to compensate for lost work. The mill owners expected their workers to be unhappy about the slash in pay, but did not expect the full scale retaliation that followed.

Lawrence at the turn of the century was a city of immigrants from many different backgrounds. These immigrants worked in Lawrence’s mills, and because of their different ethnic backgrounds, mill owners believe that the workers would not be able to organize because of ethnic differences. The owners proved to be wrong. In the first week of the strike, angry workers walked from mill to mill hurling bricks and stones through mill windows encouraging workers in those mills to walk off the job as well as a result of the pay cut. During the first week 14,000 workers walked off the job in Lawrence and were followed by 9,000 more in the coming weeks.

The Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW or “Wobblies,” took a major role in orchestrating and leading the strike. They successfully organized the different ethnic groups who lived and worked together and raised the money necessary to feed and provide for the strikers and their families. Many children were sent away to other cities in order to maintain the resources for the striking workers. This move gained tremendous sympathy from the public, and therefore the factory owners attempted to make sure this practice was stopped immediately. On February 24, 1912, they sent police officers to prevent some mothers and children from leaving Lawrence on a train to Philadelphia. The officers beat up the women and children and caused a public relations nightmare that led to a Congressional investigation of the strike. The owners realized that they had been beaten and finally came to terms with the IWW
The true heroes of this strike were the women of the city of Lawrence. Women’s neighborhood associations were focused more the womanhood than ethnic identity, and thus became more inclusive and unifying which significantly helped the IWW to organize the striking workers and their families. Women also were prolific forces on the picket lines. They were better than the men at finding scabs who were attempting to cross picket lines, and were often more militant than their male counterparts.

Quote from Bread and Roses by James Oppenheim:
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for – but we fight for roses, too.