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In Lawrence: Bread and Roses, then and now

Market Basket protestors earlier this month.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Market Basket protestors earlier this month.

LAWRENCE — Looking for a sign that labor still has the ability to fight?

Consider a ceremony planned for Monday as part of the 30th annual Bread & Roses Heritage Festival on the Campagnone Common in Lawrence. Laying a wreath at the 1912 Strikers’ Monument will be a group of Market Basket workers.

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“The biggest parallel that I see is the ability of a broad cross-section of workers at Market Basket to remain together over the last eight weeks,” said Robert Forrant, a University of Massachusetts Lowell history professor who will speak at the festival on comparing the Market Basket struggle — which ended Wednesday — to the nine-week strike of 1912.

“The owners never anticipated that the workers would hold fast to such a degree, and the same thing was the case in Lawrence in 1912,” Forrant said. “When the Bread and Roses Strike started, mill owners were quoted in the Lawrence newspapers the second day of the walkout [as saying that] everybody would be back to work in a couple of days and it would all be over.”

In both cases, the owners were wrong. The free annual Labor Day fest, from noon to 5 p.m., commemorates the Lawrence millworkers’ massive Bread and Roses Strike to encourage today’s workers in their struggle for social and economic justice.

"Lawrence 1912: The Bread & Roses Strike" by Ralph Fasanella is on permanent display at the Visitor's Center of Lawrence Heitage State Park.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

"Lawrence 1912: The Bread & Roses Strike" by Ralph Fasanella is on permanent display at the Visitor's Center of Lawrence Heitage State Park.

“I like to say that we’re recharging things,” said festival producing director Joshua Alba. “There’s a lot of movement in Lawrence, so we’re trying to get that to come across in the festival.

“There’s a lot more energy and pride and looking toward the future. It’s empowerment, is what it is. People feel more ownership of the city in their lives and are trying to make things change for the better.”

For the festival, that means more youth involvement and younger acts on stage, said the 30-year-old Lawrence native, and organizers are redoubling efforts to include today’s immigrant communities.

On a recent morning, Alba and several other festival committee members were assembling signs and schedules in a meeting room upstairs at the visitors center of Lawrence Heritage State Park, in a former mill workers’ boardinghouse.

“The park was created to — among other things — commemorate Lawrence history. And a big part of Lawrence history is the Bread and Roses Strike,” said park visitor services supervisor Jim Beauchesne, who is also a member of the committee. “So naturally that’s a significant element in the programming and interpretation the park does, walking tours and all the things we do. This is just an extension of that.”

Festival attendance has been as high as 5,000, for the centennial year in 2012, Beauchesne said, with as many as 100 volunteers involved on the day of the event.

This year’s fest includes performances by Vermont’s internationally known Bread and Puppet Theater, area musicians including Hot Like Fire, Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band, and Sweet Willie D. There will also be food tents, a kids’ zone, and trolley and walking tours.

But the real heart of the event may be the Lawrence History Live speakers tent, which offers talks on the strike history and today’s labor issues.

Speakers range from the executive director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center, who will talk about labor organizing for domestic workers, to one of Forrant’s students, who has been studying the Essex County Jail records from the time of the Bread and Roses strike. There also will be a separate series of workshops on social justice and organizing, and on turning workplace experiences into stories and songs.

The turmoil at Market Basket, which began in July, had threatened the future of the popular 71-store grocery chain.

The return of former president Arthur T. Demoulas — whose offer to buy out other family members for $1.5 billion was accepted late Wednesday — was the only way to make workers and customers happy and save the business, analysts said.

Market Basket workers aren’t unionized, and most of the Lawrence strikers weren’t either when they walked off the job, said Forrant, author of “Lawrence and the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike.”

The less skilled mill workers had been largely ignored by established unions who thought that immigrants and women could not be organized, and so focused only on smaller numbers of skilled workers, Forrant said. A few of the less skilled workers had joined locals of the Industrial Workers of the World that were largely organized by ethnicity, and that union — known as the Wobblies — took the forefront of organizing as the strike over wage cuts continued.

One ironic difference in the Market Basket case is that the workers had been protesting to support a boss who they felt has provided pay, benefits, and working conditions that were worth the fight.

“Nobody was striking in Lawrence in 1912 to keep William Wood as the head of American Woolen Company,” Forrant said with a chuckle.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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