Bread & Roses NOT JUST SUBSISTENCE , BUT DIGNITY
The 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike set precedents for industry-wide action , inter-ethnic collaboration and women ’ s leadership
By Gregory DL Morris
In 1912 , a state law in Massachusetts went into effect reducing the work week of women and children from 56 to 54 hours , according to the Bread & Roses Heritage Committee ’ s ( BRHC ) brief history of the Lawrence Textile Strike . “ But because so many women and children worked in the mills , men ’ s hours were also reduced . When the first paychecks of the year revealed a cut in pay , thousands of workers , already barely surviving on an average
Cartoon published in Collier ’ s on March 9 , 1912 . Original caption : On February 24 and 25 , soldiers and policemen forcibly prevented parents from sending their children away from Lawrence to cities that offered food and shelter . pay of $ 8.76 a week , walked out of the mills ” on January 11 .
For nine weeks in a bitterly cold winter , more than 20,000 workers , mostly new immigrants , dared to challenge the mill owners and other city authorities , the BRHC wrote . “ Thousands of picketers , many of them women , faced state militia armed with guns and clubs . But the strikers were generally peaceful . The three fatalities were strikers . A cache of dynamite , first attributed to the strikers , turned out to be planted by mill owners and their friends in a clumsy plot to discredit the strikers and their radical union , the Industrial Workers of the World ,” ( IWW ) often called the Wobblies .
Victory for the workers is widely seen today as a high-water mark for labor rights and working conditions across the industry and the region . The New England textile industry began in Lowell , Massachusetts in 1823 , which was founded as a company town with mills and boardinghouses for the workers , young women recruited from farms of the region . The work was difficult and the rules strict , but the women earned cash wages , education and a degree of independence impossible on the farm .
“ Lowell ’ s textile corporations paid higher wages than those in other textile cities , but work was arduous and conditions were frequently unhealthy ,” according to the Lowell National Historical Park , a wellpreserved mill town not far from Lawrence . “ Although the city ’ s corporations threatened labor reformers with firing or blacklisting , many mill girls protested wage cuts and working conditions . Female workers struck twice in the 1830s . In the 1840s ,
18 FINANCIAL HISTORY | Winter 2022 | www . MoAF . org