An Eclectic Journal of Opinion, History, Poetry and General Bloviating
|Some of the women and girls at the heart of the great Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912.
Note: Adapted from a post a year ago.
The centennial year of the Lawrence Textile Strike ended yesterday on the 101st anniversary of the strike which began when thousands of workers, skilled and unskilled alike walked off their jobs on January 11, 1912. And during the past year a tremendous interest in the ground-breaking strike has been met with exhibitions, books, articles, and plenty of blog entries like this one. Important new sources have been uncovered. Today’s radicals and activists have drawn inspiration from the militancy, bravery, and sacrifice of thousands of workers, most of them women and children. And they have especially been inspired by the ability of the workers to self-organize in a democratic manner and over-come the ethnic, language, and religious differences that could have divided them.
Lawrence was founded in 1845 to take advantage of water power of the Merrimack River in Massachusetts by Abbott Lawrence, a wealthy Unitarian from Boston who built the first woolen textile mill there. He was soon joined by others of his class. Within decades the river was lined with massive mills which produced much of the nation’s cloth.
Originally Lawrence and the others imported skilled craftsmen from England and Scotland to build, maintain and set up the complex machines. But cheap, unskilled hands were needed to tend them and keep them operating. That labor at first was recruited from the young women of New England, mostly the daughters of famers and working men. They were housed in clean dormitories and their “moral character” was well attended to. The wages were considered fair—enough to send home to help the family and still save for a self-earned dowry to start off a married life. Most of the girls—they usually entered the mills at 16—worked for five years or so and then left to start families.
But beginning with the Civil War, this system was unable to supply enough workers for burgeoning demand. Mill owners also found the altruism of uplifting young women less appealing than maximizing profits by seeking cheaper sources of labor. That labor would soon be found in the flood of immigrants in the later 19th Century, mostly from south and Eastern Europe.
By 1900 the Town of Lawrence and its neighbors was teeming with Italian, Slavic, Hungarian, Portuguese and Syrian immigrants who made up most of the unskilled workforce. The mills employed not only the men, but their children, as young as eight, and their women. Half of the workers at the four giant American Textile mills were girls between 14 and 18.
Gone were the tidy dorms of old. In their place were tenements and virtual shanty towns. Twelve and fourteen hour days, six days a week in lint filled air around dangerous moving machinery meant that 36% of mill workers died by the time they were 25 years old.
If there was a hell on earth, Lawrence may have been it. The bosses knew they were sitting on a powder keg, but depended on keeping their workers divided by nationality, religion, and sex to prevent wide spread labor trouble.
Native Yankees, English, Scottish, Irish (mostly Scots-Irish Protestants), and Germans dominated the skilled trades. Many of them belonged to three local unions of the A.F.L.'s United Textile Workers, but only about 208 of these were in good standing in 1912. Various unskilled jobs were divided by ethnicity.
By 1905 the mills employed over 40,000 workers. The introduction of the two loom system in the cotton mills, in which a single worker had to attend two machines, sped up work, made it more dangerous and held costs down. Real wages began to be cut. The average wage in the industry by 1911, including skilled workers, foremen, and office workers was only $8.76 for a work week of up to 56 hours a week. The vast majority of unskilled workers made barely half of that.
Conditions were becoming a public scandal. Do-gooders were demanding reform. Responding to public pressure, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law limiting the work week to 54 hours for women and children effective on January 1, 1912. But the law did not guarantee the same wages as the longer work week, which were barely enough to live on as it was.
Beginning in December, mill operators began to speed up the machines to make sure production remained at the same levels as before. Then they unilaterally decreed that male workers would also be limited to the 52 hour week.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had been organizing among the unskilled workers of Lawrence since 1907. Like the AFL locals, it had relatively few dues paying members in 1912—maybe 800 or so. Most workers simply could not afford even the modest dues charged by the IWW Textile Workers Union. But unlike the AFL, the IWW had organized with language sections for each major ethnic group. Newspapers, pamphlets, and leaflets were circulated by the IWW in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, and Hungarian. Some material was available in Arabic for the Syrians and in Yiddish for the relatively small numbers of Eastern European Jews. Meeting conducted in these languages included not only paid up members, but all who were interested.
The small English language section of the IWW often represented all language groups in communicating with the bosses and authorities. It drafted a letter to the President of American Woolen Company demanding to know if wages would be reduced when the reduced hours went into effect. When they got no response, all IWW language groups were alerted to be prepared for cuts.
When Polish women workers at the Everett Company mills discovered their pay packets short by 32 cents on January 11, they dropped their tools and walked out with shouts of “Short Pay! Short Pay!” Other workers followed. The next day the strike spread to the most of the other mills.
Late on the afternoon a mass meeting was held in the Franco-Belgian hall. Although the strike had not been called by the IWW, most of the workers were aware of the radical union and sympathetic to it. They knew they could not count on the support of the AFL, which had instructed its members to stay on the job. The meeting resolved to send a telegram to Joseph Ettor, an IWW organizer, editor, General Executive Board member in New York. Ettor had earned a reputation leading one of the first great IWW strikes, the 1909 strike against the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. Most importantly, Ettor had experience working with foreign born workers and could speak Italian and Polish fluently and get by in Hungarian and Yiddish.
Upon speedy arrival, Ettor quickly helped organize the chaotic walk-out into a well disciplined strike. Mass meetings were held in the morning and late afternoon to plot strategy and formulate demands. Those demand eventually included a 15 percent wages boost for a 54 hour work week, double time for overtime work, and no discrimination against any workers for their strike participation. Mass pickets, the first ever seen in Lawrence, began in front of all of the mills. Even most of the AFL men now came out.
Despite an AFL attempt to wrest leadership from the IWW, the strikers had confidence only in Ettor and the One Big Union.
The mayor of Lawrence called out a local Militia company to support police against the picketers. The Fire Department turned their hoses on strikers in the sub-freezing January temperatures. 33 picketers were promptly arrested and quickly sentenced by a local magistrate to a year in jail.
From the beginning, the Boston press raged against the strikers and called for severe measures against them. The leading clergymen of Boston, Unitarian and Congregationalist alike echoed the sentiments. The Governor ordered out the State Police and more units of Militia. That included a company of Harvard students, including the sons of the Unitarian Brahmin elite, who were among the most eager to “have at” the strikers.
Another leading Italian, Arturo Giovannitti, editor of the Italian Socialist Federation paper Il Prolitorio arrived to bolster IWW strike leadership. Giovannitti went to work organizing strike kitchens and relief and sending off furious letters pleading for support and money to Socialist ethnic federations and IWW locals alike.
In the early weeks of the strike, it held firm against daily assaults on the picket lines and harassment by troops and police. Giovannitti’s relief efforts set up medical clinics staffed by sympathetic doctors, minimal strike pay, and food rations.
Observers like labor reporter Mary Heaton Vorse noted that the strikers seemed almost gay, “always marching and singing. The tired, gray crowds ebbing and flowing perpetually into the mills had waked and opened their months to sing.”
Early in the strike local police found dynamite in three locations, including a shoemakers shop next to the print shop Ettor used as his mailing address. The Boston American actually reported the story before the explosives were supposedly located. Despite efforts to tie Ettor and strike leaders to it, a local school board member was eventually arrested and charged with planting the dynamite in an effort to discredit the strikers.
On January 29 Ettor led one of the largest marches yet through the center of the Lawrence business district. Before the march he addressed the workers and urged them to avoid violence at any cost. When the Militia blocked a main road, Ettor simply steered the marchers onto side streets to avoid a confrontation. Later that afternoon as Ettor and Giovannitti addressed a regular strike meeting, a young woman, Anna LoPizzo was shot and killed during a police charge on a regular picket line. Witnesses saw a police officer fire the shot.
Despite this Ettor and Giovannitti were arrested and charged in LoPizzo’s murder. They were held without bail. In April they were joined by a local striker, Joseph Caruso, who police alleged actually fired the shot that killed her.
Marshall Law was declared and all public meetings and marches officially banned. The governor called out 22 more Militia companies. Two days later a 15 year old Syrian boy was bayoneted to death.
If Authorities thought jailing the leaders would end the strike, they were mistaken. The IWW General Secretary Treasurer, the legendary Big Bill Heywood himself, arrived. He brought with him veteran unionist William Trautman and a slip of an 18 year old Irish girl, Elizabeth Gurly Flynn already noted for her fiery oratory. Her work in Lawrence would catapult her to fame. She would be memorialized by IWW troubadour Joe Hill himself as the original Rebel Girl. A few days later the Italian anarcho-syndicalist Carlo Tresca arrived to bolster the IWW team.
15,000 strikers met Heywood and company at the railway station and conducted illegal parade to Lawrence Common where they all gave rousing speeches. In all of his addresses Heywood counseled peaceful resistance and against violence. He also determined to demonstrate the strikers’ patriotism for their adopted nation by making sure that they carried plenty of American Flags. The most widely circulated photograph of the strike shows Militia with leveled bayonets at massed flag carrying strikers.
Women and girls represented more than half of all of the strikers. They often took the lead on picket lines and were creative in their actions. One parade of women was led by a large placard reading, “We Want Bread but We Want Roses Too!” The women probably were inspired by the poem by James Oppenheim that was published in December 1911 in The American Magazine, although popular mythology has it that the strike inspired the poem which was set to music by Caroline Kohlsaat a few years later and became an IWW and later feminist classic.
The turning point of the strike came when strike leaders decided to send children of strikers to be safely cared for by IWW members and supporters in New York. Margaret Sanger, a volunteer nurse, accompanied the first 120 children to the city on February 10. Their train was met by thousands of members of the Italian Socialist Federation and the Socialist Party who escorted them through the streets singing The Internationale and Les Marsaillaise. A second group of 90 children received a similar welcome a few weeks later. The image of the half starved children dressed in tatters against the winter chill helped swing public sentiment away from the mill owners and to the strikers. Alarmed, Lawrence officials announced that no more children would be allowed to leave town.
On February 24 150 children escorted by their mothers attempted to board a train to take them to supporters in Philadelphia. Local police and three companies of Militia charged the orderly line beating the women and children indiscriminately. They tried to tear children from their mothers. Dozens of women and many children were thrown into the backs of Militia trucks where they continued to be beaten. Thirty of the women, most of them seriously injured were jailed. Children were removed from the custody of their parents. The attack was observed by several reporters and was soon widely publicized.
Public outrage at the brutality erased most support for the bosses. Wisconsin Socialist Congressman Victor Berger and Democrat William Wilson from Pennsylvania demanded a Congressional investigation, which got under way in March. Public testimony by child workers to the inhumane conditions of the mills stirred the conscience of the Country.
At the urging of his wife, who attended the hearings, President William Howard Taft announced a nationwide investigation into conditions at industrial plants across the country. There was talk of stripping the mills of the heavy tariff protections that kept the companies competitive with European producers.
On March 12 the American Woolen Company acceded to all of the strikers’ demands. By the end of the month even the most recalcitrant owners had fallen into line. The great Lawrence Strike ended with an unprecedented total victory for the strikers and huge prestige for the IWW.
There were still loose ends. Ettor, Giovannitti, and Caruso remained in jail and no trial date seemed to be coming. Ettor read voraciously, making a study of the philosophy of organization. The theatrical Giovannitti staged daily readings from Shakespeare and European poets for the entertainment of fellow prisoners and guards alike. Heywood threatened a general strike unless they were released and the IWW organized its General Defense Committee to raise funds for their legal team and to support their families.
$600,000 was raised, mostly in nickels and dime donations and inexpensive dues and assessment stamps in GDC membership books. Mass rallies in New York City and Boston addressed by Heywood and Flynn drew thousands.
In August Ernest Pitman, a Lawrence contractor who had built the Wood mill of the American Woolen Company, confessed to a district attorney that the dynamite frame-up had been planned in the Boston offices of Lawrence textile corporations. Pitman committed suicide shortly after he was served papers ordering him to appear and testify before a grand jury. American Wool Chairman William Wood was eventually cleared of charges against him—only because Pitman was dead.
On September 30 Lawrence workers went out on a one day demonstration strike after John Breen, the local man who tried to frame union leadership by planting dynamite was released with just a $500 fine. Thousands of other workers at mills in nearby towns joined them.
An attempt to organize a counter demonstration by “Loyal Americans” wearing little American flags as boutonnieres largely fizzled.
Despite this authorities pressed on with the murder trial of the Italians, which began in Salem at the end of the Month. It dragged on for two months. The highlight of the trial was a long speech by Giovannitti, the first he ever gave in English that was so eloquent that it drove hardened reporters to tears.
On November 12, to almost no one’s surprise all three defendants were acquitted and released.
By the end of the year the IWW local in Lawrence had grown to 10,000 members. But the union had a hard time sustaining that over the long haul. A depression later in the decade threw many out of work and experienced IWW unionists turned their attention to other battle ground. Within four years only 400 dues payers remained, although the influence of the union continued to extend well beyond its reduced membership.
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