Celebrate the Bread And Roses Centennial!

On March 12,2012, at 7pm, at the Somerville Public Library located on 79 Highland Avenue, several people gathered for a lecture on the Bread And Roses strike of 1912. Speakers included Jim Buchesne, Visitors Services Supervisor at Lawrence Heritage Park and James Green, Professor of History and Labor Studies at UMass Boston. The event was sponsored by State Senator Patricia Jehlen because of it’s historical importance, esp. for immigrant workers and women, including how unions and collective bargaining are currently under attack today.

State Senator Patricia Jehlen / Photo by Matthew J Shochat

State Senator Jehlen began with an introduction for the evening before Jim Bushesne took the floor beginning with the history of celebrating the Bread And Roses Strike in Lawrence, whom the Lawrence Heritage Park is working with this year in organizing events for the centennial celebrations, including the Bread And Roses Heritage Committee who organize the annual Labor Day Festival on the Lawrence Common, the Lawrence Historical Society, the Lawrence History Center, the Lawrence Public Library, Northern Essex Community College, Massachusetts ALF-CIO, Western Massachetts Jobs With Justice, the Labor Heritage Foundation, and more.

Jim Buchesne and James Green / Photo by Matthew J Shochat

Bushesne then explained that Lawrence was a planned textile city by rich investors from old families like the Lawrences and Lowells, who made their money in trade and invested into the textile industry. This began in Waltham, and grew into Lowell in the 1820s, before extending further until founding Lawrence in 1845. Operations than began in 1848, utilizing the same social model as Lowell, which meant hiring young women (or “Yankee Mill Girls”) off the farms of New England as a majority of the workforce. By the late 1840s, demographics began to change with the immigration of the Irish due to famine. The workforce in Lawrence began to change as waves and waves of immigrant populations made their way to the city. Between 1900 and 1910, three large mills were built which created thousands of new jobs, which ultimately brought these new populations, that would double in 20 years between 1890 and 1910. About 86% of this population was first generation immigrant. They were more prone to exploitation than workers in previous decades as the founders had been long gone by this time. Ownership has changed hands, leading to an investment for profit mentality among the mill owners.  He then played a 20-minute clip on the broader industrialization of America.

Green then explained that the strike was also known as the “Singing Strike” because the strikers often would sing to uplift their spirits in unity. Historically speaking it was indicated this was the first time that the Massachusetts Militia was used to quell strikers, which caught the attention of many I.W.W. leaders, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Bill Haywood. Massachusetts own Governor Eugene Foss happened to be a Mill owner himself. Some tactics included to discredit the strikers included paid provocateurs, and dynamite being found in three locations which the press and the police used for that purpose of implicating two organizers of the strike. It was soon revealed by the I.W.W., however, that the BostonAmerican was off the press with the details of the dynamite discovery before they were actually found. John Breen, a local undertaker and a member of the Lawrence school board, was arrested and charged with planting the explosives in a plot to discredit the workers being fined $500 and released on bail. President Wood of the American Woolen Company was implicated, and cleared by the court although he could not explain why he had recently made a cash payment to Breen. The strikers often took to the street on “No Work Mondays” even while the Mill equipment remained on in order to deceive the workers that into thinking others were working inside. Children and mothers were often sent on trains to New York and Philadelphia during the duration of the strike to supporters. During one of these occasions, the city authorities tried to prevent the children and mothers from leaving by sending a militia to the station to detain the children, and so the police began clubbing both the children and their mothers. The press who had been there to photograph the event, covered it extensively leading to national attention, including Helen Herron Taft, the wife of President Taft. This lead to the United State Congress investigation of the strike, including the working conditions of the strikers. The House and Senate set up a special house committee to hear testimony from the children of the striker’s, unions and various city and state officials. By the end, published reports detailing the conditions in Lawrence was released. On March 12, the American Wooling Company agreed to the strikers demands. The strikers met at the Lawrence Common and voted to end the strike that day.

Parallels to the Occupy Movement

The Occupy movement began on September 17, 2011, with the group of protesters who are now known as Occupy Wall Street. They inspired a nation that has now grown to over 95 cities across 82 countries and over 600 communities in the United States. Many of the grievances of the protesers include growing social and economic inequality, greed, corruption, the undue influence of corporations on government – particularly from the financial services sector, and the growing income inequality and wealth distribution in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population.

On September 30th, 2011, Occupy Boston began with several protesters gathered in Dewey Square, at the heart of Boston’s Financial District, right across the street from South Station. By November, the protesters had come up with their very document for reasons to occupy Dewey Square.

Women’s March in Boston, taken on Dec 4th, 2011 / Photo by Matthew J Shochat

Excerpt from the Declaration of Occupation ratified on November 30th, 2011 by the General Assembly:

The Occupy Movement has started a nationwide conversation about the realities of economic inequality and the meaning of Constitutional rights.  We are committed to living the values of transparency, equality, accountability, awareness, sustainability, and compassion as we struggle against corporate predation, injustice, and oppression. We are actively seeking to include the diverse voices of the 99%. Together, we set a precedent and provide a foothold for people to demand a truer, more horizontal democracy, in which greed has no influence.

Back in 1912, the strikers in Lawrence, too, came up with a proclamation supporting their grievances due to the horrible working conditions they faced and mistreatment by the government and the Mill Owners.

Women of the Bread And Roses Strike, taken in 1912 / Unknown

An excerpt from the Proclamation of the Striking Textile Workers of Lawrence  (1912):

The history of the present mill owners is a history of repeated injuries, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these textile workers. To prove this let facts be submitted to all right-thinking men and women of the civilized world. These mill owners have refused to meet the committees of the strikers. They have refused to consider their demands in any way that is reasonable or just. They have, in the security of their sumptuous offices, behind stout mill gates and serried rows of bayonets and policemen’s clubs, defied the State, city, and public. In fact, the city of Lawrence and the government of Massachusetts have become the creatures of the mill owners. They have declared that they will not treat with the strikers till they return to the slavery against which they are in rebellion. They have starved the workers and driven them to such an extent that their homes are homes no longer, inasmuch as the mothers and children are driven by the low wages to work side by side with the father in the factory for a wage that spells bare existence and untimely death. To prove this to the world the large death rate of children under one year of age in Lawrence proves that most of these children perish because they were starved before birth. And those who survive the starving process grow up the victims of malnutrition.

These mill owners have charged the strikers with violence and then in the best of times they have paid the workers a starvation wage. They have built large mills within the last 10 years, and paid annual dividends, and they ask the workers to submit to a wage that even a coolie would despise. They have pitted the women and children against the men and so brought wages down to a level where an honest living is beyond the average textile worker. They have introduced improved machinery into the factories and thrown the workers out on the streets to starve, or used the surplus labor created by labor-saving machinery to grind the lives out of those who were fortunate enough to have a job.

These mill owners not only have the corrupting force of dollars on their side, but the powers of the city and State government are being used by them to oppress and sweep aside all opposition on the part of those overworked and underpaid textile workers. The very courts, where justice is supposed to be impartial, are being used by the millionaire mill owners. And so serious has this become that the workers have lost all faith in the local presiding judge. Without any attempt at a trial, men have been fined or jailed from six months to a year on trumped-up charges, that would be a disgrace even in Russia. This judge is prejudiced and unfair in dealing with the strikers. He has placed all the strikers brought before him under excessive bail. He has dealt out lengthy sentences to the strikers as if they were hardened criminals, or old-time offenders. He has refused to release on bail two of the leaders of the strike, while he released a prisoner charged with conspiracy and planting dynamite, on a thousand dollars’ bail. He sentenced, at one morning’s session of court, 23 strikers to one year in jail on the fake charge of inciting to riot. This judge has declared he is opposed to the union that is conducting the strike.

The brutality of the police in dealing with the strikers has aroused them to a state of rebellious opposition to all such methods of maintaining order. The crimes of the police during this trouble are almost beyond human imagination. They have dragged young girls from their beds at midnight. They have clubbed the strikers at every opportunity. They have dragged little children from their mothers’ arms and with their clubs they have struck women who are in a state of pregnancy. They have placed people under arrest for no reason whatsoever. They have prevented mothers from sending their children out of the city and have laid hold of the children and the mothers violently and threw the children into waiting patrol wagons like so much rubbish. They have caused the death of a striker by clubbing the strikers into a state of violence. They have arrested and clubbed young boys and placed under arrest innocent girls for no offense at all.

Upon looking at both pieces, common themes immediately come forward. Both speak of a present corruption and greed within the local government and business, and both also speak of the woes of economic inequality. These issues were as serious then as they are today, with current issues such as home foreclosures, and lack of available jobs for Americans to continue to support themselves, all the while Corporate CEOs continue to get bonuses, and banks getting bailed out of financial ruin while citizens remain in crisis.

Police brutality, too, is also no stranger to the Occupy movement as it had been to the Bread And Roses Strike. Occupy Oakland in particular has faced a heavy amount of police brutality, including the October 25th, 2011 protest which was met with police in riot gear, using flash bang grenades, and refusing to identify themselves by covering their badges, breaking the California Penal Code § 830.10 which states “Any uniformed peace officer shall wear a badge, nameplate, or other device which bears clearly on its face the identification number or name of the officer.” Occupy Boston and Occupy Wall Street have faced the presence of the Long Range Acoustic Device (or LRAD) on the nights of their evictions on November 17th and December 10th, 2011 respectively, but were not used in either instances. Agent provocateurs also have been widely suspected within the movement, including Occupy Oakland and Occupy Wall Street, though no substantial evidence has supported any claims.

Lastly, collective bargaining has come under attack, when Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin a year ago signed into law the Anti-Collective Bargaining Bill which stripped state employees of any bargaining rights. Such rights had allowed the Bread And Roses Strikers (and later Suffragists) to achieve the victories they sought for a more equal and just America. On March 11, 2012, the first year anniversary that Walker signed the bill into law, up to 60,000 activists and protesters gathered outside the state Capital in Madison, Wisconsin. According to Wisconsin ALF-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt,“They didn’t think we could sustain it. Not only have we sustained it. We’ve gotten stronger.”

As the Bread And Roses song goes:

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.
As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.


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