Lawrence History Center
Militia confront strikers in Lawrence , MA , soon after the strike began in January . Note the flags held by the strikers , mostly men . Strike leaders emphasized the patriotism of the workers as a way of building cohesion among them , and also of emphasizing the strike was not the work of radicals .
female labor reformers banded together to promote the 10-hour day , in the face of strong corporate opposition . Few strikes succeeded , however , and Lowell ’ s work force remained largely unorganized .”
That all changed in 1912 . In a tragic preamble , the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that killed 146 people in New York almost exactly a year earlier — March 25 , 1911 — drew national and international attention to the sweatshops where young women , some just girls , worked long hours in dismal conditions . The International Ladies Garment Workers Union had been formed in 1900 in the ‘ needle trades ’ making garments , but did not extend to the textile workers making fabric .
Hence the surprise at the cohesiveness of the Bread & Roses Strike . “ Observers were impressed by the strikers ’ interethnic cooperation , their soup kitchens , the important role of women and their reliance on song to bolster their spirits and express their beliefs ,” the BRHC wrote . Although a use of the phrase ‘ Bread and Roses ’ during the strike has never been documented , the words later became associated with it as symbolizing the workers ’ fight both for subsistence and for dignity .
The tide turned against the mill owners when police and militia , attempting to prevent strikers from sending their children to the care of sympathetic families in other cities , caused a melee at the train station which received national and international condemnation .
“ At a subsequent Congressional hearing ,” the BRHC wrote , “ the testimony of Carmela Teoli , a young mill worker who had suffered a terrible injury to her scalp , shocked the nation . Soon the mills came to the bargaining table , and the strikers won most of their demands .”
The BRHC stated that the strike “ drew attention to the problems of child labor , workplace safety , and the unequal distribution of the profits of industry . It was an important step in organized labor ’ s long struggle to gain benefits that many of us take for granted today . As the nation again faces an era of increasing inequalities of wealth , as well as a growing immigrant population , we can take inspiration from the workers of Lawrence .”
The mill owners did not just give in , said Ardis Cameron , distinguished professor emeritus of the University of Southern Maine in Portland , and author of Radicals of the Worst Sort : The Laboring Women of Lawrence , Massachusetts , 1888 – 1912 ( University of Illinois Press , 1993 ). She plotted the lives of 2,000 of the strikers and interviewed some of the last living participants of the strike . “ The strikers won because
there was tremendous outcry in Congress and from First Lady Helen Taft , the President ’ s wife .”
Cameron also sought to dispel other myths about the strike , such as the belief that the immigrant workers had displaced the local mill girls . “ The immigrant workers did not replace the Yankee girls ,” said Cameron . “ The Yankee girls left because of the working conditions , and the mill owners actively recruited workers in Italy , French Canada and other places . The investors in the mills did not care about the benevolent model [ on which some of the first mills had been founded ]. The era of the ‘ mill girls ’ was only about the first 10 or 12 years . And even then the turnover was high , with individual young women working an average of 2½ years in the mills .”
Part of the reason that mill owners recruited from multiple regions of the world was to keep the workforce fragmented . “ The immigrant workers were all segregated ,” said Cameron . In addition to their inherent differences in language , customs , lifestyles and religion , “ their wages were different ,” she explained . “ It was arranged to exacerbate the ethnic antagonisms .”
The flaw in the plan , however , was that the female workers were accommodated in boarding houses . “ While they
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