The Great Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 — Part 3


On January 25, 1912, a full 2 weeks after its beginning, the strike was showing no signs of ending. Members of the strike committee met with mill owners in an attempt to end the strike but failed. The strike committee represented operatives from every mill but the mill owners, in a statement to the Boston Globe (Boston Globe, January 26, 1912, p. 1) said, “. . . agents . . . have had . . . full authority to meet and discuss any grievances or complaints with the employes of the several mills.” This reflects the manner in which mill owners had historically dealt with union members from the AFL. Additionally, the AFL had formally stated it would not partake in the strike, that any grievances would be voiced through the Local 20 to the mill involved. And so you had a union backing the position taken by the mill owners. William Wood stated firmly that he absolutely would not deal with any general committee representing the strikers.

The tack being taken by the mill owners was a basic divide and conquer. They felt that by holding fast and demanding to only hear grievances from employees of their particular mill the resolve of the strikers would be weakened. They also claimed to not know what particular grievances the strikers had even though a list of five grievances had been submitted to them on January 16.

The strikers demands were:

  1. A 15% pay raise on the 54-hour pay basis
  2. That the premium system be abolished
  3. That all of the mills shut down for three days in order that a settlement could be reached
  4. That double time be paid for all overtime
  5. That no striker would be punished for walking out upon settlement

The “premium system,” to which they referred, was a complicated system of paying a worker according to his output. The idea was to hold a carrot out to improve productivity. But in fact, the workers had little control over their output. They were of course at the mercy of work available, the speed at which a machine ran, and how frequently a machine broke down. The latter was the worst because the various machines broke down with some regularity. The machine attendant who usually tended to 5 machines, saw his output drop while repairs were made. The company made no concessions for such instances.

During those two weeks almost daily meetings of the strike committee were held. All ethnicities were represented with Joseph Ettor leading the meeting. Ettor had assured Mayor Scanlon at the very beginning of the strike that he would implore his people to obey all police directives and to not cause trouble. Ettor reiterated this at the meetings. At two weeks there had been virtually no violence and certainly no strike. But the city of Lawrence felt like it was in a state of siege with not only a very visible police force, but three companies of Massachusetts militia stationed around the mills, rifles in hand. What the strikers did not know is that William Wood had hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to send men ostensibly to ferret out the possibility of vandalism. But their unstated mission was to cause trouble, rabble rouse, at any and all IWW gatherings. But try as they did, they failed.

If the strikers in Lawrence felt they were going it alone, they were correct. The Massachusetts state legislature, Gov. Foss, the Massachusetts militia, police forces and even the general public were aligned against them. Then, as now, people believed whatever they read in the newspapers. The Lawrence newspapers, the Lawrence Eagle and the Lawrence American, were decidedly against the strike. But what struck most hurtfully at their core was the fact that the most powerful priest in the state, Cardinal O’Connell, had commanded his priests to preach against the strike at mass. Considering at least 90% of the strikers were Roman Catholic, this hurt them greatly. The spiritual head of the Catholic Church in Lawrence, Father James T. O’Reilly, spoken vehemently against the strike.

But January 25 was important for another reason, removed from the strike negotiations going on in Boston. On that day 150 children we put aboard trains bound for Boston and then changed for trains going to New York. The IWW in New York City had managed to gain sympathy from some of the city’s elite who in turn offered to sponsor those 150 starving children coming to them.

The picture below shows noted suffragette Margaret Sanger in Lawrence with the departing children.

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Figure 1 Children preparing to leave Lawrence

It was well known and well documented that the strikers and their families were starving. But when the children from Lawrence arrived in New York City, those who were there to receive them were shocked at what they saw. Not only was the children’s malnourishment obvious, but their threadbare clothing shocked them. Their clothing was barely enough to cover their bodies but far short of what was necessary to fend off the cold weather. The New York Times covered the event and word of the condition of the children quickly became national news.

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Figure 2 Lawrence children paraded down a New York City street

Other cities quickly offered to taken in more children, most prominently Philadelphia. Public perception was quickly changed, the Lawrence strikers finally had national support.

Around 4:30 in the afternoon of January 29 a large crowd had gathered near the Everett Mill on the corner of Union and Common Streets. The strikers had gone there to try to convince people who were still working in the mills to join the strike. What happened next was detailed by a Boston Globe reporter:

“The soldiers clubbed their guns, and swung them hard, so hard that they smashed the butts of two rifles on strikers’ heads. The police clubbed right and left, and the crowd broke and ran.” It was at that point a single gunshot rang out, striking and killing Anna LoPizzo. Her assailant was unknown, to this day, but on January 31 Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti were arrested and charged with murder. This was in spite of the fact that the two men were over a mile away at the time at a union meeting. When the police realized the murder charge would not hold up they changed the charge to inciting to riot, again, even though the two were nowhere near. They were taken into custody and held in the Salem County jail until October when their trail was finally held and they were of course exonerated. But the police and mill owners had done what they had wanted all along, rid themselves of the ostensible strike leadership. The IWW, however, had planned for just such an occurrence which is one of the reasons the council of 56 was formed. They were the true leadership of the strike and even without Ettor present, they were more than capable of continuing the strike.

The mill owners stood firm, however, even as they felt control over the strike slipping from their grasp. The Lawrence strikers had been buttressed by small sympathy strikes at the Steven’s Mill and Brightwood Mill in North Andover and at the Marland Mill in Andover. Those mills were also textile in nature so they had an interest in a favorable strike outcome for the strikers.

By the first of February, even though the AFL was still against the strike, some of its Lawrence membership had joined the strike. The Lawrence strikers were also joined by the firemen. In this case fireman refers to the men whose job it was to keep the giant mill furnaces burning to power the mills.

And also by February, Bill Haywood in his travels around New England had gathered considerable monetary support which went directly into the strike fund and thence to feeding the strikers and getting them some coal for their stoves. But even more importantly, after the children had arrived in New York City, people from around the nation began to send money to the strike fund. The sums were not great but they were enough to keep the strikers fed.

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