We Want Bread, and Roses Too The 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike

Right now working people are under attack. We are having our wages and benefits cut, and our work conditions are getting worse and worse. And in the face of these attacks workers are divided. We all work separate jobs, and on the job we are divided from our coworkers. But these sorts of divisions can be overcome. In 1912, 25,000 textile workers in Massachusetts fought one of the biggest strikes in U.S. history. The leaders of the strike were women, and many of them were immigrants who couldn’t even speak the same language.

Lawrence Massachusetts, A Working Class Town

In 1912, Lawrence Massachusetts was a hub of textile production. Half of the population worked in the textile mills. These workers were the lowest paid, least skilled and most replaceable workers. The largest mills were owned by the American Wool Corporation. In 1911 its total output was valued at $45 million.

Profits for the Bosses & Misery for the Workers

Life for the workers was very difficult. Women between the ages of 14-18 made up half of the workforce. The average workweek was 56 hours. Malnutrition, stress, and injury took their toll. The life of a mill worker was on average 30 years less than a middle class professional. The companies president, William Wood, was asked how many automobiles he owned and replied saying, “I don’t know, I haven’t had time to count them.”

They Had Enough

In 1912, a new law was established reducing the workweek by two hours to 54 hours per week. The employers cut workers pay for the reduced hours. When the mill workers saw there first check they screamed- “short pay!, short pay!”, then “Strike!, Strike!”, and walked out. Other mills joined in.

We Want Bread and Roses Too

The strikers were aided in their organizing by the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary movement which fought to organize the working class not just for better conditions, but for the workers to take over and run society themselves. The slogan of the strike was “Bread and Roses”. The strikers wanted a wage that they could actually live on, and they wanted time away from work so that they could enjoy life.

The strikers formed a strike committee, with two representatives for each nationality. Money was raised, and doctors volunteered their services. They formed demands: 15 percent pay increase, double pay for overtime, and no discrimination against workers for participation in the strike.

Mass picketing took place. The strike gained national attention, with support demonstrations in other cities. After ten weeks the mill owners were forced to concede to the united strikers demands.

Like the mill workers in 1912 we are under attack and divided. But their example shows that even the most divided workforce can come together and fight for better conditions and a better society – for bread and roses.