Today is Labor Day, so I thought it would be a great time to post about some workers’ history. One hundred years ago today was the beginning of the Lawrence Textile Mill Strike. If you think you haven’t heard of it, you may know more about it than you think you do.
The strike is better known as “The Bread and Roses Strike” or “The Three Loaves Strike.” It’s also where the “No Gods, No Masters” phrase originated. The strike was fictionalized by one of my favorite children’s authors, Katherine Paterson, in the book Bread and Roses, Too (Yay! Three cheers for middle grade fiction!).
In 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, an area dominated by the textile industry, mill owners liked to use cheap labor, which usually meant women, children, and immigrants. Mill workers lived very cheaply—most couldn’t afford meat—and lived in dangerous, overcrowded apartments, often several families to a dwelling. The mortality rate for children under age six was 50%.
That same year, a new law was passed reducing the hours of the workweek from 56 to 54. The workers feared their employers would respond by docking their pay—and that’s exactly what happened. The strike began with Polish women leaving their looms in protest. Within a week, 20,000 workers were on strike. Though many workers spoke different languages and might have had difficulty organizing on their own, they found a sympathetic ally in the Industrial Workers of the World labor union.
Soon the police tried to subdue the workers, but when they started beating women and children, the press took notice and soon the issue had national attention. The Lawrence mills also received negative press when the children of strikers were sent to live with families in other cities. Finally, when President Taft ordered an investigation into working conditions in factories both in Lawrence and throughout the nation, the mills were embarrassed into settling with the workers.
The workers received some concessions (a pay raise, overtime pay, and amnesty), but not all of them stuck, so change happened more gradually than they would have liked. However, the strike teaches an interesting lesson—that even when a group of people is less educated or oppressed, they can make a difference when they work together. And one more lesson--don't make a Polish woman mad. Happy Labor Day!