Militiamen point their bayonets at the striking Lawrence workers (1912)
LAWRENCE, Mass.—This Labor Day the Communist Party USA-Boston will be celebrating the memory of the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike as a participant in the Bread and Roses Heritage Festival. We will be remembering the successes of the past and planning to unite with other working people to overcome the challenges which face us in Massachusetts, the nation, and the world.
Back in 1911, the Massachusetts state legislature passed a law reducing the fifty-six-hour workweek to fifty-four hours for women and children. This is a textbook example of why even well-meaning wealthy liberals cannot “help” the working class as if we were children who don’t know what’s good for us. Workers welcomed the two-hour reduction, but walked out of the mills in January 1912 when they received a pay cut. This wasn’t just in Lawrence, but all over New England and New York. Labor was gutsy, brave, and most importantly, well organized and disciplined.
The Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) organizer Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti of the Italian Socialist Federation of the Socialist Party of America formed the strike committee, which was an extremely diverse group of working people from more than a dozen countries.
For his work, Ettor was falsely accused of shooting Ann LoPizzo who was one of the strikers—this, despite the fact he was three miles away giving a speech to another group of protesters at the time of the shooting, which was undoubtedly the work of the police. Instead of trying to please their oppressors or seek a middle ground, the striking workers demanded a 15% increase in wages for a 54-hour work week, double time for overtime work, and no discrimination against workers for their strike activity. Many workers were imprisoned.
The government’s response was to collude with the industrialists, as they do today, by sending out the state militia (now the National Guard) and the state police. Three people, including one woman, were killed. After trying to frame the strike leaders, the governor declared martial law, squelching all public meetings and called out twenty-two more militia companies to patrol the streets.
In response to the state’s violent attempt to silence the strikers, the IWW sent in the big guns: notoriously effective labor leadersElizabeth Gurley Flynnand Big Bill Haywood. Haywood went from mill town to mill town all over New England to raise funds for the strike, while Flynn unleashed her formidable organizing skills in Lawrence. Some might remember her as the “Rebel Girl”, still others as the national chair of the Communist Party USA.
The strike made minimal gains. Some workers got a 5% increase in wages, others a bit more. The details of the violent campaign of the capitalist class to suppress these brave women, men and children, are like those faced by working people who bear the brunt of capitalist violence every single day.
Although the material gains of the Bread and Roses Strike were small, the taste of what was possible—the hope that someday workers’ rights and even socialism would be made a reality—was forever imprinted in the memory of those who participated and were inspired by it.
As we remember the immigrants whose labor built the industrial might of this Commonwealth, let’s also remember the immigrants who keep it going every day, and are repaid with racism, low wages, and the threat of deportation.
Let’s remember the people who have died in the recent violence in Charlottesville, as well as the draconian treatment of over 30 anti-racist protestors right here in Boston, some of whom were beaten, sprayed with mace and arrested during the recent Fight Supremacy rally on Boston Common on August 19th.
Finally, let’s honor the three workers who were killed as a result of the Lawrence Strike, the strike now remembered by the chant by the women workers, “We want bread and roses, too!”
Anna LoPizzo, an Italian immigrant who was shot in the chest during a clash between strikers and police;
John Ramey, a Syrian youth who was bayoneted in the back by the militia; and
Jonas Smolskas, a Lithuanian immigrant beaten to death several months after the strike ended for wearing a pro-labor pin on his lapel.
May they rest in power.
Make this Labor Day the day you join our century-long struggle and become a member of the Communist Party USA!