The Bread and Roses strike
A century ago the city of Lawrence led the world in the production of worsted wool cloth and held another, grim distinction: It had the eighth-highest death rate in the country per 1,000 workers. The life expectancy for mill workers was 39.6 years.
When Massachusetts reduced the maximum workweek for women and children from 56 to 54 hours, all hell broke loose. Families could not make ends meet, even before the cut in hours and wages. Now their lot was dire. Mill workers in Lawrence represented about two dozen nationalities so taking united action was not a simple matter. But unite they did.
“Lawrence and the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike” (Arcadia) by labor historian Robert Forrant and Susan Grabski, executive director of the Lawrence History Center, is a visual history of the labor action that began in January 1912. Thousands of mill workers walked through the city, determined to avoid any confrontation with the militias called out to quell the demonstration. At least two strikers died, one after his back was punctured with a bayonet. The strike drew widespread attention and congressional hearings focused on the abysmal working conditions for children.
On March 14, 1912, 15,000 workers voted to end the strike. Their agreement with the mill owners stipulated an average 15 percent wage increase, overtime pay, and changes in the system of premiums so workers would feel less pressure to perform at a breakneck pace.
Forrant, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, has long been a student of the strike. When he became chairman of the Bread and Roses Centennial Committee in Lawrence two years ago, he dug deeper. Three aspects of the strike that particularly impressed him were the months of preparation in advance of the strike, the important role played by female mill workers and college students, and the extensive support for the workers not just in Lawrence but around the world. “Because there were so many nationalities living in the city,” he wrote in an e-mail, “the global news media of the time sent reporters who stayed in Lawrence and covered the strike daily.”
Arcadia has now published about 500 books about Massachusetts. Most are visual histories of cities, towns, and neighborhoods. “Lawrence and the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike” stands apart because it tells such a dramatic story, illustrated with photographs that appeared in newspapers and magazines of the time. Among the most striking images are those by Lewis Wickes Hine, who was hired by the National Child Labor Committee to document the plight of the nation’s youngest workers.
Grabski, of the Lawrence History Center, finds inspiration in the fact that workers speaking so many different languages banded together and achieved so much. She views this as a valuable lesson at a time when union membership has taken such a mighty tumble.
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David Lampe-Wilson of Mystery on Main Street in Brattleboro, Vt., recommends “Seven for a Secret” by Lyndsay Faye (Putnam): “In this follow-up to ‘The Gods of Gotham,’ 19th-century Manhattan’s New York Police Department is up to its neck in a bubbling broth of madams, politicians, slave traders, abolitionists, and street kids. The writing is simple, evocative, and emotional; the plotting is complex and impeccable; the characters are three-dimensional and compelling.”