On this day in history, the owners of the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile mills announced a two-hour cut in workers’ pay in response to a new Massachusetts law reducing the maximum number of hours of work per week for women and children from 56 to 54, effective January 1, 1912. On January 11, workers discovered their employers had reduced their weekly pay to match the reduction in their hours. That difference in wages amounted to several loaves of bread a week. When the first reduced pay slips appeared on January 11, 1912, Polish women at the Everett Cotton Mills walked out of the mill in protest. That night, the news spread throughout Lawrence, and to the surprise of the mill owners, the next day some 23,000 workers walked off their jobs. It was known as the Bread and Roses strike because underlying the demand for adequate wages (bread) was a demand for dignity on the job and in life more generally (roses).
The majority of workers were unskilled young women, representing 51 different nationalities. Because they spoke so many different languages, were uneducated, and of course were women, the textile companies thought they posed no threat to their management decisions. But to make sure, they deliberately placed workers together who spoke different languages and thus would be unable to communicate with one another.
The conditions in the mills were oppressive. Workers put in nine and ten hour days, six days a week. Because the water in the mills was undrinkable, supervisors ran a profitable sideline selling water. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s Report on the Strike (1912), in 1910 Lawrence had the eighth highest death rate per 1000 in the country; the seventh highest death rate for infants in the country; and the fifth highest death rate in the country for children under 5. Life expectancy for millworkers in Lawrence was an astounding 22 years less than those who did not work in the mills.
The strikers solicited help from unions, and the Industrial Workers of the World responded. (The American Federation of Labor at that time only represented skilled white male workers). IWW leaders Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn came to Lawrence to run the strike, mobilizing support and generating sympathetic press coverage. They set up soup kitchens and food distribution stations, and volunteer doctors provided medical care. They dramatized the strikers’ needs by arranging for several hundred children to go to supporters’ homes for the duration of the strike, with the first group being sent to New York City.
When another 100 children were set to leave for Philadelphia, city authorities sent police and militia to the train station to detain the children and arrest their parents. Encountering resistance, the police started clubbing the mothers as well as their children; one pregnant mother miscarried. The press, there to photograph the event, reported extensively on the attack.
The strikers may not have been able to speak with each other, but they could sing together, and marched through the streets signing songs of solidarity. Thus the strike also became known as “The Singing Strike.”
Some 14,000 of the original strike group held firm for nine and a half weeks. They gained a pay raise among other concessions, and returned to work on March 18.