the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Feb 28, 2022
110 years ago, 23,000 workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, shut down the largest center of woolen cloth manufacture in the country. These workers were women, men, and children, and comprised dozens of immigrant groups speaking many languages. Over the following three months, they organized themselves, fought the police and National Guard, and used their power to extract wage increases and other demands from the manufacturing capitalists.
Lawrence was founded as a kind of company town, 30 miles from Boston, for wool and cotton cloth makers in the middle of the 19th century. Mill work drew immigrant women workers to Lawrence, which became a city of immigrant women from the 1850s on. From that time forward, they confronted "the difficult art of making three dollars out of one,” working in the mills, then taking care of house and home and their children.
Conditions inside the mills were terrible. The machinery was deafening, running from dawn to dusk. One teenage worker was hospitalized for 7 months after a machine tore off her scalp. The thread had to be kept humid in order prevent it from breaking, but the humidity made the heat very hard to bear, especially in the summer. The humidity, along with the dust in the air, allowed diseases like tuberculosis and asthma to run rampant. Life expectancy for mill workers was under forty years. A Slavic priest said of his parishioners: "My people are not in America, they are under it."
By 1912, the working class in Lawrence consisted of dozens of ethnic groups. English, Scottish, Irish, French Canadian, Portuguese, and German workers who came in the 19th century were joined by Italians, Hungarians, Syrians, Poles, and Jews in the early 20th. With so many groups concentrated in a small town, blocks, and even buildings, became a patchwork quilt of different groups.
Worker neighborhoods started out filled with small cottages with yards; by 1912, many lots had been bought by speculators, who crammed four-story tenement houses together, one by the next, with barely a gap to let in the sunlight.
The jobs that drew increasing numbers to these shores offered pay rates that sounded good to the immigrant workers, especially in the old country. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn said of them, "They thought they were rich, till they had to pay rent, buy groceries, clothes and shoes. Then they knew they were poor."
The working class was hit by inflation in the first decade of the 20th century. Food went up by 20% overall, eggs, bread and milk all went up almost by half, and meat prices nearly doubled. That added to the high rents charged by the companies and housing speculators. Families could not make ends meet with one parent working, so mothers and children poured into the mills to pick up the slack—said a paper, "in Lawrence, all the family must work if the family is to live." The companies hired children as young as 14 and turned a blind eye when younger ones faked paperwork so they could take jobs to turn out cloth for them.
The Massachusetts legislature passed a “do-gooder” law, cutting the work week from 56 hours to 54 for women and children under 18. Workers, pressed for money, repeatedly asked American Woolen management whether that would mean a pay cut—the company remained silent. The law went into effect on January 1st, 1912.
Thursday, January 11th was the first payday. Polish women weavers at the Everett Mill counted their pay: 32 cents short! That was the signal; they marched through the plant: "short pay, all out!" The next day infuriated Italian workers at the Washington Mill, the largest in Lawrence, went from room to room, shutting off the power, cutting belts, shredding cloth, smashing lightbulbs. By the end of the day, 14,000 workers had “hit the bricks” and walked off the job.
Workers called for a 15% raise for the workday and double time for overtime. They did not limit themselves to pay: the call “We Want Bread, and Roses Too” was seen on many banners throughout the strike. This was the idea that workers need pay and to be able to eat, but that we also have a right to enjoy the nice things in life.
The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, a revolutionary union organization, played a leading role in the strike. A few hundred workers were IWW members before the strike; they had been organizing in the weeks before the pay cut hit. Once the strike started, Joe Ettor and Arturo Giovanitti came to Lawrence to lead the strike. They organized a strike committee of 56 workers: 4 from each of 14 ethnic groups. They made sure to have workers there from each plant, and from each department. The committee allowed the workers to control the strike, to discuss strategy and tactics, to take decisions, and to communicate those out. They held their meetings on the Common—that is, the main town park. All the speeches were translated into 25 languages, so that all strikers could participate. At its peak 23,000 workers were on strike.
The government from the beginning directly served the mill bosses. Early in the strike, police turned a firehose on thousands of marching strikers—in the middle of the freezing winter! Workers responded by throwing chunks of ice through the windows of the mills. The bosses outlawed picketing. The workers’ response was to parade in the thousands, keeping the plants closed.
The governor called out the National Guard; they frequently brandished bayonets at the workers. Joe Ettor noted that "bayonets cannot weave cloth." Ettor and Giovanitti constantly counseled the strikers against responding violently to the ruling class’s provocations—they knew the bosses would use anything they could against the workers.
In one scuffle, a young worker, Anne LoPizzo, was shot dead by a policeman. Nineteen workers testified that the cop shot her. Nonetheless, the politicians used it as excuse to repress the strike, arresting Ettor, Giovanitti and another worker as responsible, though none was at the scene of the crime.
The IWW brought in Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Bill Haywood to take over leadership. They mobilized their network to raise funds from other workers in the region and organized a system of 11 strike kitchens. Workers from a nearby mill town sent a cow.
French and Belgian workers had an idea that had worked back in Europe: sending children out of the strike zone. This was partly to relieve pressure on striking parents. And it also was a way to put their strike in front of the country. The Socialist Party organized to take 119 strikers’ children to Manhattan, where they stayed with relatives or sympathetic Socialist Party members. A parade was held when they arrived. The newspapers saw that the children were malnourished and poorly clothed—though their parents made clothing! Many of the children were strikers themselves. That embarrassed the bosses. A second round of children gathered two weeks later to travel to Philadelphia—but they were confronted and attacked by police. Police beat children and parents with batons and made arrests—all in front of newspaper reporters. A Congressional investigation was begun.
The pressure was enough to move American Woolen to settle. The investigation raised the possibility that Congress might revoke the tariff on woolen imports that protected the company. American Woolen offered a five percent raise at the beginning of March, then a 20% raise two weeks later, and addressed most of the strikers’ other demands. The other companies in Lawrence quickly followed suit—it was Victory!
One last battle remained. Ettor and Giovanitti, the strike’s leaders, remained in jail with another striker, framed for Anne LoPizzo’s death. Workers struck once again, shutting down Lawrence for several days as the trial began. Several thousand workers in plants and mines around the country struck in sympathy. The jury returned a verdict of innocent by November.
The Lawrence strike put the power of the working class on display for all to see. A workforce made up primarily of immigrants, women and children brought to heel one of the most powerful corporations in the country. They were able to unify themselves, despite speaking different languages, and they defied violent opposition of the local state apparatus.
Today, we do not see many large fights by the working class. But many of the conditions faced by the Lawrence workers are still faced by workers today: inflation, high housing costs, safety.
This strike seemed like a bolt from the blue. We could today see a big fight once again, appearing to drop from the sky.