Gregory DL Morris
Boott Cotton Mills Museum , Lowell National Historical Park , Lowell , MA . This wellpreserved mill complex is very similar to the mills in Lawrence and is now a mixeduse area with residential , office and commercial space , as well as an excellent museum ( see page 21 ). Note the canal in front : all the mills were driven by water power .
were all segregated at the mills ,” Cameron explained , “ off the shop floor they all lived together . They were also able to move around the town during the strike . While shopping and other duties they were also meeting and talking . The women were able to coordinate the strike while male strikers were being kept off the streets .”
Cameron also stressed that the IWW leaders and organizers were willing to listen to the female strikers . “ It was the women who understood the consumer economics of the town , the importance of issues such as hunger and child care ,” she said . “ They were the ones who knew that the 32 cents a week that their pay had been reduced was enough to buy three loaves of bread . The men had no idea . It was a robust time for the women ’ s movement , including suffrage .”
There had been previous reduction in hours , said Bruce Watson , author of Bread & Roses : Mills , Migrants , and the Struggle for the American Dream ( Penguin Books , 2005 ), and writer of the online history magazine The Attic . “ In those instances , the workers ’ total pay stayed the same . But 1911 had been a rough year , and in 1912 the mill owners did not feel able to hold the total the same again .”
In a small irony , the ethnic loyalties on which mill owners relied to keep workers played a large role in the cohesiveness of the Bread & Roses Strike from the very start . On the first day of the walkout , a local IWW representative , who was Italian , contacted the national union . Joseph Ettor , a member of the union ’ s general executive board and also Italian , arrived in Lawrence the next day , January 12 .
“ From the start Ettor spoke to and about the strikers as one cohesive group ,” said Watson . “ He spoke five languages and so was able to engage many of the strikers on a personal level . He selected 14 representatives from the various groups for the strike committee . Ettor also engaged the entire IWW in raising strike funds and generating publicity .”
Despite the radical elements in the IWW , or perhaps because of it , Ettor was careful to emphasize patriotism . “ Within a week there was a parade in Lawrence with a big American flag . By the end it had 20,000 people as a solid , united group .”
Frightened , the mill owners over reacted . “ If the strikers could have chosen their enemies , they could scarcely have done better than the mill owners ,” Watson noted dryly . “ There was a plot to frame the strikers by planting dynamite , which was a common radical tactic of the time . But the dynamite was wrapped in a magazine on which was the name of the man who planted it .”
By the middle of February , the strikers were weakening and the mills were able to resume some production using replacement workers . Ettor was in jail on contrived charges , but William “ Big Bill ” Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn , leaders of the IWW , had come to town .
“ Haywood had the striking women go into shops with their hands in their empty pockets , then walk out again , showing local businesses that the loss of wages was a loss of economy to the whole town ,” Watson said . “ The mill owners lost the support of the merchants .”
The climax of the strike was the Children ’ s Exodus . Striking families faced hunger , so the IWW arranged for children to be sent in groups over several weeks to stay with sympathetic families in several cities . The first two were mostly unmarred , but earned national notoriety for the mill owners . Again , they and municipal authorities over reacted .
“ A new police chief was appointed to crack down on the strikers , and he sent officers to the train station to prevent the third Children ’ s Exodus ,” said Watson . “ Women and children were dragged kicking and screaming off the train and back into the station .”
That caused a national outcry and Congressional hearings . “ The IWW gathered the most articulate and sympathetic strikers to testify ,” Watson said . “ They made the issue not just the strike but working conditions . Soon after the hearings other mills around New England offered their workers 5-7 % raises and improved working conditions . They did not want anything to do with what was happening in Lawrence . That benefited 125,000 workers , eventually spreading to 300,000 .”
On March 12 , the first Lawrence mill agreed to most of the strikers ’ demands . By the end of the month all the mills had done likewise . All but a handful of the workers returned to the looms , and the children who had been sent away returned home .
Watson noted that “ Big Bill was quoted saying , ‘ the women won the strike .’”
Christopher Klein , author and historian , contrasted the tenor of the Bread & Roses Strike , as well as the national mood , with more violent labor actions before and
20 FINANCIAL HISTORY | Winter 2022 | www . MoAF . org