This Month in Counter-Cultural History

BOSTON COUNTER CULTURAL HISTORY: Bread & Roses

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Written by Neil Horsky, this column was originally published in the January 2015 issue of the Boston Compass

Art by Anna Newton, Untitled

In 1900, the textile mills of Lawrence, MA produced a quarter of all woolen cloth in the United States. The industrialists who financed Lawrence’s development profited greatly from this productivity, partly due to wise capital investment but also through the exploitation of immigrant labor. Most were young female immigrants and their children – desperate people with no economic alternatives – who faced miserable conditions at work and home. Exposure to harsh chemicals and stagnant air in the mills literally poisoned the workforce; crowded and unsanitary tenements spread diseases; and wages were so meager that proper nutrition was unattainable. In addition to profits, this system produced a culture where most women died by age 25 and many of their children died on the job.

Despite substantial returns, on January 1 1912 wages were cut after a law was implemented reducing working hours for women and children from 56 to 54 per week. To the owners’ surprise, after the first wages were issued on January 11 1912, the women and children walked out of their jobs together. They demanded not only bread, but roses too – a living wage, and to be treated with dignity and respect as human beings. Thus began the Bread & Roses strike. By the next day 25,000 workers had taken to the streets.

To declare the truth of their plight and their pressing needs, strikers held signs, hung broadsides, distributed pamphlets, and sang the protest anthem “Bread & Roses.” Word spread to the International Workers of the World (IWW) who descended upon Lawrence and assumed a leadership role in negotiations and organizing. Donations of food and money from sympathizers across the Northeast poured in to sustain the strikers.

Authorities employed severe measures in an attempt to subdue the strike. Police, militia and even university students from many cities and towns joined local forces. Demonstrators were beaten, arrested and several were killed. The Federal government sat idly by as unrest persisted until a February 24 Lawrence train station incident made national headlines. Reports of police brutalizing a group of mothers as they attempted to spare their offspring from starvation by sending them to volunteer host families in Philadelphia struck a chord with the greater public – it could no longer be denied who was in the wrong. A Congressional investigation of the textile industry commenced and shortly thereafter the strikers’ demands were met. The settlement was matched across industries as owners feared further strikes and government intervention.

Over the next six decades Lawrence was subjected to a propaganda campaign to erase from public memory the brave refusal of the Bread & Roses strikers. An annual “God & Country” parade framed the events of 1912 as an unfortunate disruption initiated by the anti-American IWW outside agitators, which was overcome by a legion of patriotic Lawrence citizens. Not until the 1970s, when the New York painter Ralph Fasanella came to Lawrence with an historian and journalist to resurrect the people’s history through an exhibition at the public library, did the Bread & Roses narrative that’s now celebrated annually in Lawrence return to the fore of public consciousness – a true testament to the power of art.

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