Memorial Unveiled at Bread and Roses Festival
Labor history is about struggle, not just victories, says historian and labor activist Dexter Arnold. But the victory of workers 100 years ago in Lawrence MA is still worth remembering and celebrating.
“In January, 1912, 20,000 workers, mainly Southern and Eastern European immigrants, nearly half of them women, walked out of the mills and walked into history in a strike that captured national attention, won important economic gains, and created a new pattern of labor activism in Lawrence,” Brother Arnold said this afternoon at the unveiling of a monument dedicated to what has become known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.” Uniting across lines of language, gender, and ethnicity, workers won improved wages after going on strike when textile mill bosses cut their pay.
Memory of the 1912 strike animates the annual Bread and Roses Festival that draws thousands to a Lawrence park, just a few blocks from the mill buildings where workers wove wool fabric. This year’s festival, in the centennial year of the historic strike, had special significance for the activists, historians, civic leaders, and artists who have kept the festival going. And where else would you hear a high school girls choral group sing “God Bless America” and “The Internationale” in the same set?
“Outsiders marveled at what was happening on the streets of Lawrence,” Arnold said of the nine week strike that rocked Lawrence a hundred years ago. “They marveled at the cooperation among members of different ethnic groups, at the workers’ enthusiastic militancy and effective organization, at their determination and courage in the face of brutal repression.”
The walkout was not spontaneous, according to Arnold, but followed agitation by militant members of the Industrial Workers of the World. In fact, one thousand Italian workers attended an IWW-organized meeting the night before the strike began and voted to strike if pay was cut. The IWW sent in experienced organizers later, and the strikers received tremendous support from workers in other communities.
“Solidarity was crucial but the strike was won on the streets and in the neighborhoods of Lawrence” Arnold said.
An injury to one is still an injury to all
The importance of community mobilization is just one of the lessons we can learn from Lawrence. Steve Thornton, a Connecticut labor activist who has been researching IWW history in that state, highlighted another: the importance of organizing immigrants and low-skilled workers. The American Federation of Labor, the dominant labor organization of the early 20th century, focused on native born, skilled workers, ignoring most of the women and immigrants in the workforce. Lacking the vote, they found their voices in the workplace through direct action, which Thornton called “an under-utilized tool in our toolbox.”
“People’s victories come first and foremost from people’s movements,” Thornton said, not from elections or legislation.
Of course, if all you knew of the labor movement came from this morning’s Labor Day Breakfast in Manchester you might draw the opposite impression. This is an election year, and nasty, anti-union politics have nearly prevailed in New Hampshire over the past two years. And while Brother Thornton might be right that victories come from movements and direct action, big defeats can come at the ballot box. Election of anti-labor candidates in November will pave the way for backwards motion that would need years of organizing to reverse. So perhaps it was fitting that the breakfast felt a bit more like a political than a labor rally. The stakes are high indeed.