“Bread and Roses”

Immigrants Coming Together


Published in the Irish Emigrant on January 18, 2016

Written by John Rattigan

Bread Roses Logo II

The inequality between labor and capital is always an issue as it is again this Presidential election year. This month also marks the 104th anniversary of the so-called “Bread and Roses” strike in the Lawrence, Massachusetts, woolen mills.

In 1912, Lawrence had a population of about 85,000 of which it is estimated that approximately 60,000 worked in some capacity in the many textile mills situated in the city. Half of the employees were females between the ages of 14 and 18. Their pay averaged about $6.00 for a 56 hour work-week. Life in a mill town was generally miserable. Wages were low, rents were high, and living conditions were crowded and unhealthy. The factories were hot in summer and severely cold in winter. The machinery was dangerous to operate increasing the risk of accident and injury.

The mills and the community were divided along ethnic lines: most of the skilled jobs were held by native-born workers of English, Irish, and German descent. Most of the unskilled workers were newcomers from the Middle East, and southern and eastern Europe. A dozen different languages were spoken around the mill floors.

In January of 1912 a new law took effect in Massachusetts reducing the maximum weekly hours for females and children from 56 to 54 hours per week. As feared, the factory owners responded by ramping up production and reducing wages by thirty-two cents. That may seem insignificant but that amount of money would buy three loaves of bread for a needy family.

Polish women were the first to shut down their looms and take to the streets. They were soon joined by workers from other mills. At first it was thought that it would be impossible to mold these divergent people together. Soon, a strike committee was formed, made up of two representatives from each ethnic group in the mills. The committee arranged for its strike meetings to be translated into 25 different languages. The Industrial Workers of the World, (I.W.W.) stepped in and sent organizers to Lawrence. Relief committees were formed to provide food, medical care, and clothing to strikers and their families.

The authorities declared martial law, banned all public meetings and called out the state militia to patrol the streets. The strikers persisted and organized huge marches. One group of women carried a banner proclaiming, “We want bread and roses too.” Roses signified the respect due to them as women, rather than just as cheap labor.

In February a particularly vicious attack occurred and thirty women were detained in jail. This was widely reported throughout the country and the public was outraged.

The United States Congress held hearings on the issue and President William Howard Taft ordered an investigation into industrial conditions in Lawrence. All of this negative publicity was too much for the mill owners and on March 12, 1912, management agreed to the strikers’ demands for a 15% pay raise, double pay for overtime, and amnesty for strikers.

Three labor organizers were arrested for the murder of a woman striker, most likely shot by the police. The trial was held later in the year and was presided over by Joseph F. Quinn, the first Irish-American judge appointed in Massachusetts. All three defendants were acquitted.

This amalgam of women and immigrants, thought to be powerless, showed to the world that by working together, much could be accomplished.