100th Anniversary of the Strike That Changed American Unions


On January 12, 1912 in Lawrence Massachusetts a strike of textile workers started innocuously enough.  Polish women in the Everett Mill received their pay envelopes and noted their pay was less than it had been previously.  This was not a surprise.  Massachusetts had enacted a law reducing the work week from 58 hours to 56 hours.  Mill operatives all over the state implored their employers to not let the reduction in hours effect their pay.  The average pay of a textile operative was about $7 a week at the time, or about 1/2 the average wage of people working in just about any other field.

Massachusetts was not different from any other state with regards to pay.  Other centers of textile production, New Jersey, Georgia, and Alabama, were equally poor in the pay of operatives.  What made the Lawrence situation different from any other location was the number of operatives involved in the manufacture of textiles in one city.  It is estimated that Lawrence employed over 40,000 people in that one industry.  Typically the number of people working in a textile mill in any one city was between 500 and 1500 people.  There were a few exceptions but even these exceptions the number of people was still far below that of Lawrence.

The beginning of the 20th Century in America saw a huge influx of immigrants.  Prior to 1900 most immigrants came from Ireland, France, and Germany.  After 1900 there was a radical shift to immigrants from Italy, Poland, and the Eastern Mediterranean.   The immigrants were different from those before because they were far poorer and were frequently fleeing persecution of some sort.  Even more, most of them came to America with little or no education.  They were usually farmers with no experience in mill work.

American industrialists played on this.  It is known that they advertised in the countries of origin, something that was actually illegal, telling the people of a wonderful life they would find  in America.  They showed pictures of housing that textile workers in America enjoyed.  What they failed to tell the immigrants is that the housing shown was for shop bosses.  What these immigrants found upon arrival was tenements that were overcrowded.  My own investigation showed over 70 people living in one four-floor tenement building.  A report done for the U.S. Dept. of Commerce declared one part of Lawrence to be the most densely populated city in the U.S.

Textile operatives were entirely at the mercy of the mill owner.  Only a small number, those considered skilled workers, were allowed to join the A.F. of L. (American Federation of Labor).  In Lawrence, a city of more than 40,000 textile operatives, only about 500 were union members.  That meant the rest were subject to the whims of the mill owner.  For these people steady work was virtually unknown.  The worker never knew when he would show up for work only to be turned away, or told not to come back the next day due to lack of work.  Of course this impacted their take-home pay which was little enough as it was.  Most families had to have all members over the age of 14 working, and some even sought out false documents so those under the age of 14 could work.

In the early summer of 1911 the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) came to Lawrence seeking members.  Unlike the AFL, the IWW accepted anyone into their union who wanted to join.  The IWW, however, came with a lot of baggage.  It was a socialist organization that had been connected with violence in strikes and the anarchists who associated with them.  Americans still remembered vividly that it was an anarchist who had killed President William McKinley.  The AFL did not fear the IWW given that.  But it was with the IWW in December 1911 the earliest thoughts of a Lawrence strike were fomented.

When the Polish women of the Everett Mill walked off the job yelling “short pay! short pay!” No one knew how quickly the strike would snowball.  The women, and the men from the mill they took with them, marched the short distance down Union Street to the Wood Mill, the largest mill of any sort in America.  Along the way the passed the Kunhart Mill and Lawrence Duck imploring the operatives to join them, which they did.  By the time they reached the Wood Mill, and the Ayer Mill across the street, the crowd of people was huge and loud.  Strikers entered the mill and got more operatives to walk off the job with them.  That was on a Thursday.  By the following Monday the strike had spread to all of Lawrence’s woolen mills, the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Pemberton, and the Arlington.  The mills were virtually shut down, although the mill owners denied that to be true.  By that time at least 15,000 people were on strike, more than any single city in the U.S. had ever experienced.

Wood Mill 1912

Arlington Mill Lawrence MA

In past strikes the mill owners around the state had a simple answer.  They fired the strikers and hired people to take their place.  The AFL, and the Knights of Labor before them, were far too weak to stop such actions.  But these strike seldom involved more than 50 people so replacing strikers was never a problem.  Mill owners knew there was plenty of immigrant labor looking for work.  But 15,000 striking workers were far too many to replace.

Textile strikers facing Massachusetts Militia

The mill owners decided they would simply wait out the workers, knowing full well how impoverished they were and counting on empty stomachs to bring them back.  What few believed, particularly the AFL, was how well the IWW had set up an organization to deal with the strike and the striker’s needs.  Soup kitchens, food banks, and even monetary handouts were arranged by the IWW.  Its leader, a quiet Italian named Joseph Ettor, was jailed at the strike’s two-week point on the charge that he had incited riots and possibly be responsible for dynamite supposedly brought into the city.  It was quickly shown that one of the mill owners, William Wood, had been responsible for the dynamite.  It did not gain Ettor’s release and he was kept in jail until long after the end of the strike.  The IWW quickly replaced Ettor with William “Big Bill” Haywood, a sharp-tongued IWW activist who had been involved in the coal strikes in Wyoming and Colorado, and, who had been charge with the murder of Gov. Frank Steunenberg of Idaho.  He was not guilty of such which the jury found true.  But just the charge was enough to give him a really bad image with East Coast Americans.

Joseph Ettor

William “Big Bill” Haywood

The mill owners, state politicians, and others, hoped the strike would end quickly.  They did not understand the plight of the mill operatives.  They also did not understand how the IWW worked.  Unlike the AFL, the IWW did not believe in a single leader.  It put in place a leadership committee, some 28 people, who made all decisions regarding the strike.  That meant that the arrest of Ettor had little impact on the progress of the strike.  The true leadership of the strike was vested in a committee that had representatives from every ethnic group and nationality taking part in the strike.  These were people who could clearly send out the message of the strike to all the people and clearly.  They did not allow language or custom to become an issue.

Industrial Workers of the World

As the strike dragged on into mid-February, far beyond the week or two everyone expected, mill owners still felt confident that the strikers were becoming disillusioned with IWW promises and would soon return.  A group of workers who were in particularly dire straits, decided to send their children to relatives in New York City.  The movement of the children had not been anything more than economics but when mill owners engaged the militia, who had been “guarding” the city since the outset of the strike, to keep more children from leaving the city a cry went out that was heard around the nation.  The first group of children sent to New York was reported on by the New York Times, and other newspapers, brought into focus the plight of the workers.  Not a single child was noted to have any sort of underwear on even though it was quite cold and the clothes they wore were threadbare.  But denying people a basic right of free movement brought everything into focus.

Children leaving Lawrence for New York City

This last move brought the strike to the attention of President William Howard Taft’s wife, and of course, to him.  This persuaded Taft to convene a committee to investigate the strike.  The writing was on the wall and the mill owners knew it.  In an effort to end the strike before the investigation went to far, the mill owners said they would give the strikers an immediate 10% increase in wage, not the 15% the strikers demanded and without agreeing to any of the other four demands made by the strikers.  The strikers turned down the offer and the strike continued on another 10 days until March 14 when the owners agreed to meet all but one portion of the strikers’ 5 demands.

Child labor in woolen mills

From all this it is reasonable to assume that membership in the IWW skyrocketed but that was not the case.  It is doubtful that IWW membership ever went over 1000 at any time during the strike even though as many as 33,500 were on strike at one time.  AFL membership went down slightly.  A simple reason for that is that the strikers could not afford to pay the dues for membership.  Although the AFL would have seen that as an impediment to representing a group of workers, the IWW did not.

Textile workers marching down Essex Street in Lawrence during 1912 strike

What the IWW lead strike in Lawrence showed was how it was more effective to represent a group of workers according to the industry they were in rather than the trade that they plied, as was the AFL tact.  The IWW involved women in its activities, another thing the AFL had refused to do.  The IWW had provisions for worker health and welfare, another thing the AFL had never done.  These things were, of course, very attractive to the striking worker and allowed him to have more faith in a successful outcome to the strike he was engaging in.

Even though the IWW never held much favor with the American public, its tactics in this strike were noted and used by the more traditional American unions in future strike.  The IWW had used one other revolutionary strike tactic in a strike in Schenectady NY in 1911, the sit-down strike.  It too had been entirely successful.  But the size of the Lawrence strike and the tactics used changed the way strikes were waged after that.

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