The Bread and Roses Strike

As we come marching, marching we battle too for men.   For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.   Our lives shall not be sweated, from birth until life closes. Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses.           James Oppenheimer 1911

The last line of this poem was reportedly used during a union organizer’s speech during the mill strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 and gave the strike its’ name.

Lawrence, Massachusetts was one of the largest mill towns in America during the mid 1800s to early 1900s. From 1890 to 1910, the city population almost doubled with the vast majority being immigrants from more than 50 countries. The industrialization of the textile industry made the US the world’s leading textile producer and Immigrants flocked to America for better wages and job security. But working conditions were not safe.  Long hours without breaks were common. More than half of textile workers at the American Woolen Mill were women between the ages of 14 and 18. A report by a physician of the era stated that one-third of mill workers died by the age of 25 from breathing the lint filled air or from accidents on the work floor. The average pay for women was $8.56 for a 56 hour work week.

In January of 1912, tensions came to a head after Massachusetts enforced the law allowing women  and children to cut their hours from 56 to 54 hours.  However when the women received their next paycheck, their pay had been docked by .32 cents, the equivalent of three loaves of bread at the time. By todays’ standards, this may not seem significant, however in 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts the daily diet usually consisted of bread, beans and molasses. One immigrant reported that if meat was served that the children thought it was a holiday. Knowing ahead of time that wages may be cut, workers had a plan. A group of Polish women at the Everett Mill walked off the job shouting “short pay”.   Within days they were joined by workers from other mills in town as they too received short pay. Every mill in town was eventually affected by the strike which lasted from January to March and grew to 20,000 mostly unskilled immigrants.

Organizers from the Industrial Workers of the World who had been attempting to organize the immigrant workers for several years prior to the strike stepped in to provide leadership. Soup kitchens and food distribution centers were set up. Farmers from surrounding communities contributed food and industrial workers from neighboring towns donated money.

Families sent young children to New York to stay with relatives or sympathetic families. When a similar group attempting to leave by train for Philadelphia were beaten and jailed by local police, National sentiment turned in favor of the strikers. A congressional hearing was convened leading to a revelation of the working conditions at the mills.

The mills eventually settled with the workers and the strike ended almost two months to the day from the beginning. Three people died during clashes with police and state militia.

The memory of the Bread and Roses Strike lives on today through the annual festival in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

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