The Lawrence textile strike was a strike of immigrant workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912 led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Prompted by a two-hour pay cut corresponding to a new law shortening the workweek for women, the strike spread rapidly through the town, growing to more than twenty thousand workers and involving nearly every mill in Lawrence. Starting January 1, 1912, the Massachusetts government started to enforce a law that allowed women to work a maximum of 54 hours, rather than 56 hours. Ten days later, they found out that pay had been reduced along with the cut in hours.
The strike united workers from more than 40 different nationalities. Carried on throughout a brutally cold winter, the strike lasted more than two months, from January to March, defying the assumptions of conservative trade unions within the American Federation of Labor (AFL) that immigrant, largely female and ethnically divided workers could not be organized. In late January, when a striker, Anna LoPizzo, was killed by police during a protest, IWW organizers Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti were framed and arrested on charges of being accessories to the murder.
IWW leaders Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn came to Lawrence to run the strike. Together they masterminded its signature move, sending hundreds of the strikers' hungry children to sympathetic families in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont. The move drew widespread sympathy, especially after police stopped a further exodus, leading to violence at the Lawrence train station. Congressional hearings followed, resulting in exposure of shocking conditions in the Lawrence mills and calls for investigation of the "wool trust." Mill owners soon decided to settle the strike, giving workers in Lawrence and throughout New England raises of up to 20 percent. Within a year, however, the IWW had largely collapsed in Lawrence.
The Lawrence strike is often referred to as the "Bread and Roses" strike. It has also been called the "strike for three loaves". The phrase "bread and roses" actually preceded the strike, appearing in a poem by James Oppenheim published in The Atlantic Monthly in December 1911. A 1916 labor anthology, The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest by Upton Sinclair, attributed the phrase to the Lawrence strike, and the association stuck. "Bread and roses" has also been attributed to socialist union organizer Rose Schneiderman.
A popular rally cry that was used at the protests and strikes:
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!
Postcard of American Woolen Co., Washington Mills, Lawrence, Mass.
Founded in 1845, Lawrence was a flourishing but deeply-troubled textile city. By 1900, mechanization and the deskilling of labor in the textile industry enabled factory owners to eliminate skilled workers and to employ large numbers of unskilled immigrant workers, mostly women. Work in a textile mill took place at a grueling pace, and the labor was repetitive and dangerous. In addition, a number of children under 14 worked in the mills. Half of the workers in the four Lawrence mills of the American Woolen Company, the leading employer in the industry and the town, were females between 14 and 18.
By 1912, the Lawrence mills at maximum capacity employed about 32,000 men, women, and children. Conditions had worsened even more in the decade before the strike. The introduction of the two-loom system in the woolen mills led to a dramatic increase in the pace of work. The greater production enabled the factory owners to lay off large numbers of workers. Those who kept their jobs earned, on average, $8.76 for 56 hours of work and $9.00 for 60 hours of work.
Map of areas occupied by different nationalities in Lawrence in 1910.
The workers in Lawrence lived in crowded and dangerous apartment buildings, often with many families sharing each apartment. Many families survived on bread, molasses, and beans; as one worker testified before the March 1912 congressional investigation of the Lawrence strike, "When we eat meat it seems like a holiday, especially for the children." Half of children died before they were six, and 36% of the adults who worked in the mill died before they were 25. The average life expectancy was 39.