In the early part of the twentieth century, Lawrence, Massachusetts was the center of the textile industry in the United States. There were twelve mills there, which employed more people than any other industry or occupation (over 32,000 of 85,892 in 1912). As many as 60,000 people depended on the payrolls from the mills. The three largest mills were those of the American Woolen Company (controlled by J.P. Morgan).
About 86% of Lawrence's population was made up of immigrants (first or second generation) and most of them worked in the mills. People had come from twenty-five different countriesthe largest group was Italianand spoke some twenty different languages. Some workers had come to America after being enticed by advertisements placed in Europe by the American Woolen Companyadverstisements that "showed happy textile workers clutching bags of gold and displaying large bank accounts while standing in stately homes" (www.loyno.edu). Of course, this was not the case.
Mill work was a hard occupation, but being new to the country and mostly unskilled at a trade, the workers took whatever job they could to survive (mills being only too happy to hire them). The workers were burdened with a 56-hour work week in the typically dark, poorly ventilated buildings of the time where it was terribly hot in the summer and chillingly cold in winter. Safety precautions were almost nonexistent and production always came before such unimportant thingsone could always just hire more.
Wages were just barely enough to keep the families alive (nowhere near what might be considered "poverty level" today). An adult male could make $400 a year if he was lucky. But employees had to pay for water and were docked hours of pay for such infringements as showing up late for work (as little as a few minutesthree such infractions could get one fired). But that was for a man. Women made up as many as 45% of the workforce and about 12% were children under eighteen. In some cases, whole families worked at the mill.
The poor never have adequate housing and the same was true or worse at the time. The workers lived in overcrowded slums where safety and sanitation were not the order of the day. Tuberculosis was common (seems almost unnecessary to note access to medical care was sadly inadequate as well as cost prohibitive on the slave wages they earned). Between the hard physical work, poor nutrition, disease, and the physical danger of the mills (industrial accidents being all too common), about a third of the workers died before reaching the age of 26. Lawrence (and a few other New England textile centers) led the nation in the death rate.
And sure there was the possibility of getting a bonusbut it required working a seven day work week and not missing more than one day in a given month.
Despite Lawrence seeming to be a prime place for union recruitment, there were few involved. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) had a small amount of workers (about 2500) as members of their United Textile Workers of America (UTWA). These were skilled workers, though. And the AFL mostly dealt with trade and craft unions, considering the other workers of Lawrence as "impossible to organize" (www.loyno.edu).
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the "Wobblies") took a different approach, wishing to create more encompassing unions that could band together giving the workers strength in numbers. A local was started in 1906 which helped organize a few strikes with some small success. But in the year preceding the 1912 strike, it only had 300 members (the smaller the union, the less power it had against the mills).
Organized labor elsewhere in the state did have a degree of power and managed to get Massachusetts to pass a law for a maximum 54 hour work week. By itself, it would decrease wages from the two missing hours but worse, the mills decided that they would not be able to compete with mills from other states with the decrease in productivity (the other states apparently had even lower wages). Because of this, the mills decided the decrease in hours should be accompanied by a decrease in wages. Given that worker organization in Lawrence was low (aided by management working against it), the owners felt the changes would be "accepted" without much protest.
The union (such as it was) decided the loss of two hours (about 32¢ in wageswhich at the time could buy ten loaves of bread) should result in a raise to cover the workers who were not just living from paycheck to paycheck, but barely surviving. They decided to strike if the request was not met.
The strike begins
The law went into effect in January 1912. On the eleventh, Polish woman workers at one mill received their paychecks to find the loss of wages. Outraged and feeling cheated, they left the looms at which they were working and stormed out of the mill.
The following day, the strike began in earnest, as Italian workers (some of the lowest paid immigrants) rose up at one mill and ran around destroying equipment and forcing other workers to halt work (sometimes with threats of violence). All work stopped within a half hour. Besides being done in anger and frustration, it would make it more difficult to get the mill up and running again using scab workers. The angry employees marched to other mills. They were joined by 5000 workers at one mill, 2000 at another (there would be nearly 10,000 by the end of the day). By then, the police, firemen, and the state militia came out to stop the strikers. They stood at the entrance of one mill and repelled the workers using fire hoses (recall that this is Massachusetts in January).
The IWW organizes
The local union thought they could get the many workers organized with some help and two organizers were sent there, arriving the following night. They were Joseph Ettor, an experienced organizer, and Arturo Giovannitti, secretary for the Italian Socialist Federation and the editor of the federation's journal Il Proletario. The first order of business was to unite the disparate groups of language and ethnicity into a single-minded group that could stand up to the mills and their owners.
The way this was accomplished was to break them into subgroups based on the language they spoke. Then each subgroup would elect four delegates who would serve with a committee (alternates were chosen just in case "something happened" to the delegate). Decisions were to be decided "democratically" (despite the fears of those in power of it becoming something "revolutionary" once the decidedly leftist IWW stepped in). Interpreters who could be trusted were also brought in and a committee was established for raising moneyover the length of the strike it would become necessary to set up soup kitchens and provide heating fuel for almost 50,000 people. Money came in from not only the IWW, but other unions, organizations, and individuals sympathetic to the cause.
The workers came up with a list of four demands:
- The 54 hour week would be accepted but with a 15% increase in pay.
- The bonus system would be eliminated.
- Overtime work would earn double pay.
- No action would be taken against workers who took part in the strike.
These were not unreasonable
demands and there was no call for a "closed shop
" or even recognition
of the union.
Nonviolence and Violence
In order to maintain sympathy for the striking workers and to (they hoped) avoid any physical reprisals, the leaders stressed that the strike must be nonviolent.
The police and militia kept the strikers from picketing in front of the mill gates (there was a law prohibiting it). In order to get around that, the strikers encircled the entire mill district around the clock. Parades through town were held, often made up of three to six thousand people. They'd sing songs and hold banners. In reaction, the city passed an ordinance to ban parades and mass gatherings. The strikers then developed what they called "sidewalk parades" where twenty to fifty would link arms and march down the sidewalk. When the police would come, they would disperse into local businesses (which, in turn, disrupted business).
Scabs were dealt with by groups showing up at their homes in the middle of the night singing songsa reporter once remarked that "the Wobblies were a singing movement without peer in America" (1912.history.ohio-state.edu). If they didn't work, they would write letters home to the people's families in Europe, hoping to shame them out of crossing the picket line. The marchers also would wear white armbands saying "Don't be a scab."
While their example of nonviolent protest may have drawn sympathy elsewhere, the other residents of Lawrence soon lost patience with the workers. Things weren't helped by some journalists who were printing untruths about the strikers being "radicals" and committing violent acts against the police and others ("information" often coming from the mill owners). Honest investigations did not turn up any evidence of the alledged activity on the part of the workers.
On 20 January, dynamite charges were found at different locations. Naturally, the strikers were blamedEttor, in particular (the hope was to get rid of the organizer, leaving the unity to dissipate). It was discovered later that the explosives had been planted by men working for the American Woolen Company (at the direction of its president). One local businessman was convicted of the crime and fined $500. He had an accomplice but he committed suicide and was not prosecuted. Neither was William Wood, the president.
Nine days later, another opportunity arose to get rid of the two IWW organizers. By then the number of strikers was up around 25,000. After a police crack down on a parade, the participants came close to rioting and protested all day. That night an immigrant worker named Anna LoPizzo was shot and killed. Since strikers were unarmed it had to be the policewhich witnesses attested to (but why believe them?).
Despite not even being present at the time, Ettor and Giovannitti were arrested. According to the police: "Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti did incite, procure and counsel or command the said person whose name is not known to commit the said murder..." (Zinn, he spells it "Giovanitti"). A worker named Guiseppe Caruso ended up charged with the death. The three were denied bail and held in jail until trial almost a year later.
But the strike was not over and the IWW sent in more organizers, including union legend "Big" Bill Haywood, who was greeted at the train station by thousands of cheering workers. The city had, by then, called in twenty-two companies of militia and two troops of cavalry. They declared martial law, forbidding people to talk on the street. The day after the murder, another worker was bayoneted to death. Still undaunted, the strike continuedEttor said of the incident, "bayonets cannot weave cloth" (Zinn).
The strike moved into February with continued marches and the mass picketing around the mill districtthere was no end in sight. As noted earlier, there was a great deal of money and effort being expended to feed and keep warm the huge number of people involved (which included the families of the workers). This was difficult to maintain. It was suggested in an New York socialist newspaper, Call, that the workers send their children to strike-sympathizing families to be cared for during the remainder of the strike (besides the money/food situation, the increasing possibility of violent reprisal was a concern). It was a tactic that had been used in European strikes but never in the US.
Within three days, the paper had received some four hundred letters from people offering to help take in the children. The IWW and the Socialist Party began to organize what would be necessary to pull off the plan. Investigators looked for suitable families in the New England area, applications were sought from the strikers, as were identification papers and permission arranged. Medical exams were also given to the children.
Starting on 10 February, the first group of children left for New York City. They numbered over one hundred and were greeted at Grand Central Station by about five thousand singing Italian Socialists. A week later, another hundred left Lawrence for there and thirty-five went to Vermont. If the strikers could move out all the children, continuing the strike would be far easier. And the publicity was helping gain them sympathy. To counter this, the cityusing a child neglect statute that was on the booksforbid any more children from leaving Lawrence.
On 24 February, in defiance of the city's attempt to stop them, a large group of children and their mothers went to the railroad station in order to send the youths to Philadelphia. The police were ready. A member of the Women's Committee of Philadelphia described the scene:
When the time approached to depart, the children arranged in a long line, two by two, in orderly procession, with their parents near at hand, were about to make their way to the train when the police closed in on us with their clubs, beating right and left, with no thoughts of children, who were in the most desperate danger of being trampled to death. The mothers and children were thus hurled in a mass and bodily dragged to a military truck, and even then clubbed, irrespective of the cries of panic-stricken women and children. (Zinn)
A week later the police attacked again, this time clubbing women who were returning home from a meeting. A pregnant woman who had been beaten unconscious was carried to a hospital. The baby was delivered dead.
The beginning of the end
The police had crossed a line the public was unwilling to accept. The media condemned the acts and public opinion turned in favor of the workers, even in Lawrence. More money and donations came in, leaving the strikers in good position to continue.
Further, Congressman Victor Berger (a Socialist from Wisconsin), demanded an investigation into the strike and the treatment of the strikers. Hearings were held in Washington, D.C. where testimony was heard from not only workers but their children. This brought even more sympathy for the people and outrage at the city and its "law" officers. The marches continued and there was no sign of them letting up.
In early March, the American Woolen Company capitulated.
Initially, the company agreed to a 5% pay raise effective on 4 March. AFL's UTWA accepted and returned to work (the union's president had been trying to break the general strike from the beginning anyway). The IWW and its strikers felt that was not good enough. They did send delegates to negotiate with the company.
A settlement was agreed to on 14 March, which met with nearly all of the original demands. Raises of varying levels were instituted (the highest going to the workers with the lowest earnings), time and a quarter for overtime, and a promise not to discriminate against those who struck. On the twenty-fourth, the strike was called off, the committees were disbanded, and the state militia went home.
In addition to the deaths and beatings, it was determined that the police had made 355 arrests (a figure that didn't include ones arrested, held, and released without being charged).
Afterword and results of the strike
In September came the trial of Ettor and Giovannitti. There was a great deal of support for them throughout the country. In New York and Boston parades were held. On 30 September, the workers in Lawrence staged a twenty-four hour strike as their show of support and solidarity (following that demonstration, two thousand were fired but rehired when the IWW threatened to strike for real). The two were found not guilty. The same afternoon, some ten thousand people gathered and celebrated in Lawrence.
Despite the victory, the unionization in Lawrence didn't last longby 1913, the local IWW branch was down to seven hundred members (at one point having had over fifteen thousand). It was also the "peak" of success for the IWW and even then they were being "discredited and attacked" (www.loyno.edu). The union never was able to repeat its success from the Lawrence strike and eventually lost nearly all its power (helped by its leftist ideas and opposition to WWI).
On the other hand, it was a success. The workers prevailed against strong odds and had their demands met. Other factories and mills in New England raised wages (some) to avoid similar strikes and movements toward unionization. It also showed that the AFL's attitude toward unskilled workers and the assumed inability to organize them was incorrect. And it gave new (nonviolent) tactics for those wishing to strike in the future as well as inspiration for workers who would also come to demand better treatment, wages, and even benefits in years to come.
(Sources: Howard Zinn A People's History of the United States 1980, 1999: twentieth anniversary edition; www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1987-8/muth.htm, 1912.history.ohio-state.edu/labor/lawrence.htm)