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This Day in Labor History: February 24, 1912

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On this date in 1912, the police force of Lawrence, Massachusetts brutally beat a group of children and their mothers as the children attempted to board a train to stay with union supporters in Philadelphia. This tactic, which had brought much attention to the textile workers’ cause, infuriated the mill owners who ordered the police to stop this from happening again.

Lawrence, Massachusetts was one of dozens of New England cities that had become textile centers by the early 20th century. The region had pioneered the nation’s Industrial Revolution through textile factories; the nation’s first modern factory was in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in the 1790s and the first large-scale textile community was in nearby Lowell, Massachusetts. While in the early years, manufacturers had recruited local Anglo-Saxon women to work, poor pay and degraded conditions soon pushed them out to be replaced by immigrants. At first, these immigrants were mostly Irish but as the late 19th century immigration wave washed over America, migrants from southern and eastern Europe became the new labor force. The bosses looked down on these new immigrants, seeing their needs and lives as not worth consideration.

As had been the case through the history of the textile industry, and still is today in developing world nations, young women provided much of the labor. The factory owners have always justified this by talking about young women’s dexterous hands, but the far more important reason is the gendering of the work. Women get paid less. That’s the real issue. Young women whose families were desperate for the paltry wages they brought were easily exploitable. Working conditions in the factories were deeply unpleasant. Those factories, whose ruins litter the northeast, could get brutally hot and steamy, especially during the summer. Workers breathed in textile fibers, leading to lung disease.

The so-called “Bread and Roses” strike began on January 12, 1912 when a Progressive Era reform went into effect, limiting women’s working hours at 54. Women thought the owners would not reduce their pay accordingly, but the owners did. The workers, starting with the Poles but quickly spreading throughout the polyglot work force, walked out. As was typical during this era, the American Federation of Labor ignored both the immigrant female workers and the strike; Samuel Gompers found the whole strike annoying. The I.W.W. had already done some organizing work in this community and when the workers went on strike, the Wobblies jumped into it. The workers flocked to the radical union, outraging the mill owners and forces of order.

Massachusetts militiamen surrounding a group of strikers.

A member of the school board tried to frame the strike organizers by planting bombs around town; he was caught and released without jail time. It is almost certain that one of the industrialists paid him to do it for William Madison Wood, owner of the American Woolen Company, paid the man a large sum of money the week before. This was conveniently not seriously investigated. The police shot a female striker, then charged the two lead organizers of the strike with murder, even though they were 3 miles away at the time.

At this point, the I.W.W. brought in the big guns. Big Bill Haywood. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The I.W.W. was not very good at running a union’s mundane affairs. But they were superb publicists. They revved up the propaganda machine and nationalized this local conflict. Haywood went around to all the textile towns raising funds. Writers came to Lawrence to tell workers’ stories. Wobblies also discovered the very effective tactic of centering strikers’ children in the campaign. Destitute and nearly starving without their measly wages, Wobblies got the kids out of town, placing them with supporters in New York and other northeastern cities.

This children’s strategy began on February 7. The New York Call, a socialist paper wrote:

TAKE THE CHILDREN:

Children of the Lawrence strikers are hungry. Their fathers and mothers are fighting against hunger, and their hunger may break the strike. The men and women are willing to suffer, but they cannot watch their children’s pain or hear their cries for food. Workers and strike sympathizers who can take a striker’s child until the struggle ends are urged to send their name and address to the Call. Do it at once.

119 children were placed into homes that evening.

The I.W.W.’s exodus of children was a piece of masterful propaganda. Newspaper reporters found this tactic fascinating and nothing could raise funds like the plight of kids. More trains of children followed, to Boston, Philadelphia, Vermont, New York. On February 24, another 100 children were about to board a train to Philadelphia. The police, outraged by charges of incompetence and looking down on the immigrant strikers (the police force was increasingly Irish and the Irish were the least supportive ethnic group of the strike), stepped in and blocked the path for the children to board the train. One woman made a rush to get her child on the train. The police grabbed her and that spark set off a frantic march toward the train. The police began beating the women and children. Children were separated from mothers. The train left without a single child aboard.

From the Industrial Worker, the I.W.W. newspaper

The beating of women and children received national press coverage and led to the textile owners losing the strike. Said the journalist Ray Stannard Baker, a man not exactly known for his radicalism, “If I were living in one of those miserable tenements I should join any movement, however revolutionary, to put an end to such conditions.” Workers were called before Congress to testify about their working conditions. Among those in attendance, the wife of President William Howard Taft. On March 12, the owners gave in, providing pay raises and better working conditions. The region’s other textile factories quickly agreed to these changes to avoid the negative publicity.

This was the I.W.W.’s greatest victory. And 12 months later, it was dust. The I.W.W. was terrible at the day to day activities of running a union. It general believed that workers should not sign contracts because that undermined militancy, but the lack of a written contract showed naivete because the owners quickly sought to repeal what they had given up in the face of public pressure. When the I.W.W.’s attention became distracted, so did the nation’s. Without the organizing of the Wobbly leadership, the workers divided by ethnicity and were no match for the power of the owners. Union leaders were blacklisted from the factories. By 1914, the union was in tatters and industrial unionism would not become established in Lawrence until the 1930s, long after the Wobblies had passed from the scene.

As a scholar of the I.W.W. in the Pacific Northwest, I am struck by the differences between tactics the Wobblies used in the textile mills of the Northeast and the extractive industries of the West. While men led the strike in Lawrence, the textile workers were both men and women, children were central to the campaigns, and women’s concerns were front and center. The idea of the family was used as an organizing tool. In the timber industry of the Northwest, the I.W.W. was openly misogynist, blaming women for both marrying men and keeping them from fulfilling their mission as uber-masculine men working in clean nature and standing up for themselves against the feminizing force of capitalism, and for having sex with men outside of marriage, calling prostitutes parasites.

My opinion about the Wobblies is that they were total opportunists with few real principles outside of organizing toward a vague revolution. This had its good and bad sides. They were very good at adapting to local conditions and using whatever fuel they could to build a strike. They cared deeply about workers’ lives and made incredible sacrifices to help create a better world. On the other hand, since the strike was more important than the union, they would leave as fast as they came. The I.W.W. had its place, but, like Che Guevara, it’s easy to romanticize the people who sounded very hard-core and led extreme actions, but didn’t necessarily stick around to see through the dirty work of day-to-day unionism.

For more on the Lawrence strike, see Bruce Watson, Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream.

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