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Remembering the Lawrence Strike


January 12, 2012 is the one hundredth anniversary of the commencement of one of the most important labor strikes in American history – the bloody 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike that lasted 63 days. The strike represented the organizing apogee of the radical, syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies); the strike has also become associated (albeit erroneously) in popular lore with the slogan “Bread and Roses” (the phrase originated in a poem by James Oppenheim published in 1911, but was apparently never used by the Lawrence strikers in 1912).

 

On January 1, 1912, a new Massachusetts law had gone into effect that cut the maximum work week to 54 hours. Mill workers’ pay was given out on Fridays, not for the week just ended but for the previous week; thus, on Friday afternoon, January 12, 1912, workers received their pay for the work week of Monday, January 1 through Saturday, January 6. Workers found their pay to be an average of 32¢ short, representing the fewer hours that the mill workers had toiled. On Friday, January 12, upon finding that their pay had been shorted, 11,000 of Lawrence’s 28,000 mill workers walked off their jobs immediately; by the next day, the strike had grown to 13,000 workers.

 

The position of the mill owners was the essence of simplicity: you cannot expect us to pay for work that is not done. If the Massachusetts legislature is so benighted as to limit the number of hours that workers may work, the result is that workers will directly and immediately suffer the inevitable consequence: they will earn less money. It’s not our fault; it is the fault of the misguided legislature.

 

The plight of the mill workers in Lawrence in 1912 was unimaginable by today’s standards. Adults earned between $3 and $10 a week for work that often exceeded 60 hours a week. Overtime pay did not exist. Wages were allocated in a strict hierarchy depending on the nationality of the workers – there were Syrians, Greeks, Turks, Germans, Italians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Russians, Poles, Jews, Irish; each one received a different hourly wage for identical work. Blacks, of course, were the lowest paid. The law technically forbade labor by children under 14, but children as young as 10 often worked the same work week as adults (but were only paid half as much). Workplace safety was nonexistent, and workers were frequently maimed or killed by the mill machinery. Workers, especially children, were literally (not figuratively), starving to death; infant mortality accounted for half the deaths in Lawrence.

 

On January 12, 1912, 1% of the U.S. population owned 50% of the nation’s wealth. (By comparison, today the top 1% of the U.S. population owns “only” 37% of the nation’s wealth, though it is also true that the bottom 80% own only 15% of the nation’s wealth.)

 

On Sunday, January 14, 1912, three companies of militia were called in and martial law came to Lawrence. Striking workers picketed, and soldiers guarded the mills. Also on January 14, Wobbly organizer Joe Ettor arrived in Lawrence from New York.

 

Each day during that first week of the strike, fewer people went to work. By Saturday, January 20, 20,000 of the 28,000 mill workers in Lawrence were on strike, and every mill in the city was shut. On Tuesday, January 17, the strikers issued their demands (which were also the essence of simplicity). The strikers had four demands: (1) 15% pay raise for all mill workers; (2) double pay for overtime; (3) an end to the hated “bonus system” that paid extra money for meeting special, elevated production targets; and (4) amnesty for strikers. On Wednesday, January 18, 10,000 strikers held their first public parade; incongruously they marched behind an American flag singing The Internationale. The paraders were met and dispersed by soldiers with bayoneted rifles. More companies of militia were mobilized; mills were guarded by sharpshooters. On Thursday, January 19, another parade of 10,000 striking workers defied martial law and wound through the streets.

 

Also on January 19, dynamite was “discovered” at three locations in Lawrence frequented by strike organizers. Although strike organizers were arrested for possession of dynamite, it was later shown that the dynamite had been planted by minions of Billy Wood, the most hated of the Lawrence mill owners.

 

On Tuesday, January 23, strike organizers opened the first of several soup kitchens in Lawrence to feed the starving strikers and their families. First hundreds, then thousands of dollars poured into the Lawrence strike headquarters from all over the country, often in the form of a coin or two in an envelope. On Wednesday, January 24, another dangerous, radical Wobbly organizer arrived in Lawrence: Big Bill Haywood was met at the Lawrence train station by a jubilant, singing crowd of 10,000 strikers. Formal, dues-paying, card-carrying membership in the IWW soared to an unprecedented 10,000 members in Lawrence.

 

One of the most interesting aspects of the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence is the degree to which the main strike organizers, the Wobblies, and especially Joe Ettor, explicitly preached nonviolence to the strikers. In another strike seven years later (in 1919), the famous pacifist organizer A. J. Muste came to Lawrence to aid striking textile workers. One morning in that later strike, strikers awoke to find the men guarding the mills armed with machine guns. Quite understandably, strikers also wanted to arm themselves. A.J., ever the pacifist, cautioned against arms. “Let the mill owners try to weave cloth with machine guns,” A.J. is said to have counseled. What is interesting about the 1912 strike is that (unlike A.J.) the Wobblies were most emphatically not ideological pacifists. Yet the Wobblies clearly and unequivocally counseled nonviolence as the only tactic for the strikers that could be successful.

 

From the very first day he arrived in Lawrence, Wobbly organizer Joe Ettor repeatedly told the strikers: “As long as the workers keep their hands in their pockets, the capitalists cannot put their hands in there. With passive resistance, with the workers absolutely refusing to move, lying absolutely still, they are more powerful than all the weapons that the mill owners have to attack the workers.” On Monday morning, January 15, with the city under martial law, with armed troops everywhere, Ettor advised against any resort to violence: “You cannot win by fighting with your fists against men that are armed, or against the militia, but you have a stronger weapon than they have. You have the weapon of labor, and they cannot beat you down if you stick together.” When troops fired upon parading strikers and turned hoses on them (in one of the coldest New England winters on record), Ettor said, “You may turn your hoses on the strikers, but there is being kindled a flame in the heart of the workers, a flame of proletarian revolt, which no fire hose in the world can ever extinguish.” In a speech to rallying strikers, Ettor said: “Order can be kept, but I never saw order kept by bayonets. I want you all to understand that our cause cannot be won by spilling blood. Peaceful persuasion is the only weapon advocated from this platform!” As I say, the Wobblies were emphatically not committed to nonviolence for moral or ideological reasons, but nonviolent they clearly were. Their commitment was strictly a tactical one.

 

This strategic, tactical commitment to nonviolence puts me in mind of Gene Sharp. Gene has spent much of the past 40 years tweaking pacifists; Sharp’s line goes something like this: You pacifists should abandon your quaint, holier-than-thou, elitist moral commitment to nonviolence; nonviolence should be embraced because it is far more effective than violence. And for 40 years, we pacifists have smiled indulgently at Gene’s rebukes – after all, despite his present-day posturing, Gene was himself first a moral pacifist; indeed, one who was sentenced to two years in prison during the Korean War for his outspoken (moral) opposition to conscription. I believe that there is an odd convergence here: both Joe Ettor and Gene Sharp (in their respective, different eras) are preaching a substantially similar line: forget your highfalutin moralism; nonviolent direct action is a brilliant, winning tactic for effective campaigns by the dispossessed.

 

On the eighteenth day of the strike, Monday, January 29, 1912, a striking worker, Anna LoPizzo, was shot and killed by a police officer (Oscar Benoit) during a strikers’ demonstration in the streets. On Tuesday, January 30, a second striker, John Rami, was bayoneted to death by a soldier. The same day, Wobbly organizer Joe Ettor, and another man, Arturo Giovannitti, were arrested for complicity in Anna LoPizzo’s murder. The two men were a mile away when LoPizzo had been shot. The government’s legal theory was laughable by today’s standards: if these dangerous union organizers had not stirred up trouble, there would have been no riot, and Anna LoPizzo would not have been shot. (Here is an analogy: On May 4, 1970, National Guard troops at Kent State University shot and killed four students demonstrating nonviolently for peace in Vietnam. Imagine if the next day the police had arrested the student president of the Kent State SDS chapter, who was off campus when the killings occurred – because if those trouble-making SDS organizers hadn’t stirred up trouble, there would have been no protesting students for the troops to shoot.) Ettor and Giovannitti were eventually acquitted by a jury, but not until November 25, 1912, long after the strike was over. By then, the false arrest of Ettor had fully accomplished its purpose – he had been kept in jail through the remainder of the strike.

 

Lawrence mill owners specifically, and U.S. capitalists more generally, responded to progressive calls for improved working conditions in at least two different ways. First, mill owners refused to negotiate with strikers. They relied on troops to keep order, and (where possible) on scabs to keep mills open. Strike organizers were fired and then blacklisted, so they could never find work elsewhere. If necessary, they were framed and sent to prison (like Joe Ettor) or shot (like Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill, who was framed for murder and executed by a Utah firing squad on November 19, 1915).

 

A second way of dealing with calls for improved working conditions was through the courts. This was the so-called Lochner era, during which a deeply conservative Supreme Court struck down literally hundreds of progressive state laws involving minimum wages, maximum work weeks, worker safety, child labor, and so forth. The eponymous case for which the era was named was Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), which struck down a New York law setting a maximum of 60-hour work week and 10-hour work day in New York bakeries. Another famous case of the era was Coppage v. Kansas, 236 U.S. 1 (1915), which struck down laws that restricted so-called “yellow-dog contracts” – that is, the Court was striking down union-backed legislation that made it illegal for employers to require that employees not join a union. The ideological underpinning of the Lochner-era cases was “freedom of contract,” as guaranteed in the Constitution. If the mill workers of Lawrence want to work 60 hours a week for, say, 15¢ an hour and send their 10-year-old children to work in the mills for half that amount, the sanctity of freedom of contract required that the state not interfere.

 

The strikers in Lawrence had another tactic. In several successive waves, they sent away hundreds of the starving, emaciated children of strikers to New York, Philadelphia, Vermont, and elsewhere to stay with wealthy families who would care for the children for the duration of the strike. The exodus of malnourished children made national headlines and generated considerable sympathy for the strikers. On Sunday, February 25, 1912, heavily armed police and soldiers used violence to break up a huge crowd of strikers seeing their children off at the Lawrence train depot. The reports of the brutal police riot were reported nationally and helped to build further support for the strikers – in much the same way that extensive media coverage of Police Chief Bull Connor’s turning attack dogs and fire hoses on civil rights marchers in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1963 built support for the civil rights movement (leading President Kennedy to comment that no person since Abraham Lincoln had aided civil rights more than Bull Connor).

 

On Saturday, March 9, 1912, the first mill owner capitulated to the strikers, and other mill owners soon followed suit. The strikers did not win a complete victory, but they did win a substantial one. There were across-the-board wage increases; the increases averaged about 15% and the lowest-paid workers realized the largest increases, thereby making wage scales somewhat more equitable. Overtime pay was not granted, but the hated bonus system was substantially curtailed, and there was an amnesty for most strikers (except prominent strike organizers who were, of course, blacklisted). And the Lawrence strike had cascading effects elsewhere: in the weeks and months after the successful conclusion of the Lawrence strike, 250,000 other textile workers throughout New England won substantial pay increases from mill owners without striking! Eugene Debs, running for President that year on the Socialist Party ticket, commented, “The victory at Lawrence was one of the most decisive and far-reaching ever won by organized workers.”

 

And it all started 100 years ago, on January 12, 1912.

 

Jerry Elmer is an attorney in Providence, Rhode Island. He was a Vietnam-era draft resister, and was the only convicted felon in his graduating class at Harvard Law School. He is the author of Felon For Peace (Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), which was published in Vietnam as “Toi Pham Vi Hoa Bing” (The Gioi, 2005); this was the first book by a U.S. peace activist ever published in Vietnam.

  

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