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This Day in Labor History: February 24, 1912

[ 31 ] February 24, 2012 |

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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Comments (31)

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  1. firefall says:

    Fascinating article, if a bit butchered in composition (I’m assuming a late-night writing binge)

  2. DrDick says:

    But, Erik, everyone knows that the capitalists and managers always look out for the best interests of the workers. Brad told me so.

  3. L2P says:

    Thanks, this is great.

    So why was the IWW not good at following up on it success here? What was the problem?

    • Richard says:

      One of the problems was that it rejected capitilism and therefore considered it a betrayal of principal for workers to sign any deal with management. That, as Erik points out, severely limited its abilities to turn short term gains into something greater.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      To build on what Richard said, victory for the IWW was revolution. Therefore, they never really thought through what would happen when they won, either the revolution or a local struggle. They never put any time or energy into fostering a local union’s ongoing success.

      • To put a finer point on it, there was a faction of the IWW that not only didn’t believe in contracts, they didn’t believe in institution-building – that was stale, AFL, business union bureaucracy.

        As a result, the IWW could never hang onto any of its victories.

    • bobbyp says:

      that anarchism thing……in ‘anarcho-syndicalism’

    • Frank Fletcher says:

      This was an interesting article, especially since I was born in Lawrence and have been studying the textile industry as well as the causes and events of the strike. From its inception in 1905, the I.W.W. advocated the overthrow of the “wage system,” and putting workers in control of their own work lives through industrial organization. They believed that workers needed to come together in “One Big Union” and organize a cataclysmic general strike that would paralyze the economy and force a working class takeover. They were chief organization in the United States representing the doctrines of syndicalism. The IWW was initially opposed to the use of labor contracts and quickly rejected electoral politics as a solution to the problems of the workers. This proved a great obstacle to building up a stable union organization.

  4. joe from Lowell says:

    The region had pioneering 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.

    Sub-topical: Lowell is important not just as the first large-scale industrial community, but because it and its industry were built by the first investor-owned industrial corporation. Previously, mills were built and owned by people who made their money operating mills. Mr. Burbank in Fitchburg built a paper mill, and he owned and ran that mill as his business plan.

    The Massachusetts Manufacturing Company, on the other hand, was a collection of investors who formed a corporation and invested/raised for the purpose of building mills, operating them at a profit for a while, and then selling them at a profit, using the capital they earned to do it again. And again.

    So, they were less like George Romney, the car guy who rose up to a prominent position in his industry until he was running a large car-building enterprise. They were more like Mitt Romney, textile-industry financiers who made their money a couple steps removed from running manufacturing operations.

  5. matt mckeon says:

    Wood ended up shooting himself a few years later.

  6. Lee says:

    Erik, I have a demographic labor question for you. During the Gilded Age how many native born American workers were part of the union movement. Particular those of White Protestant background. Even the more moderate parts of the union movement seemed to consist of immigrants or their children and most were from Jewish or Catholic backgrounds. Second and latter generation Americans seemed to not get into the labor movement at all. White Protestants in particular.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Well, I don’t really know but that’s a good question. I can say that the major demographic divide with the loggers I study in the Northwest was foreign-born versus American-born, with the native-born less likely to join the I.W.W., but that’s one case and pretty generalized even there. There may be statistics out providing some of that material, but I have not seen them. However, I do think there’s a significantly lower likelihood for native-born Protestants to join labor unions. I think much of that comes from foundational myths of the nation as made of independent workers and much of it from ethnic and racial prejudice.

    • Lots of native-born whites were union, even quite a few WASPS – it just depended on the industry. Native whites were heavily represented in the skilled trades that the AFL organized (hence part of the reason for the AFL’s immigration policy in the turn of the century). Region also played a factor – the UMW in Appalachia were old-stock WASPS through and through.

  7. david mizner says:

    Wait — the wobblies are still in existence. Although not much of force after the 20s, they never “passed from the scene” — right?

    Good post, though. It’s worth pointing out that it was not only on this day in history but exactly 100 years ago.

  8. Richard says:

    Good post, Erik.

  9. Yosemite Semite says:

    The National Park Service museum in Lowell runs an audiovisual presentation that almost perfectly lays out a Marxian view of capitalist behavior and industrial development. Unwittingly, I’m sure, and ironically. From the excellent wages and conditions of the “mill girls” in the early 1800s to the cutting of wages after the economic crises of the mid-1800s and labor unrest to the hiring of lower-cost immigrant labor and more labor unrest around the turn of century to the moves of the mills to even lower-cost sites in the South.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      Do you remember the title of that little film? “A Revolutionary City” lol.

      But unless you’re already well-versed in Marxism, you wouldn’t come out of that intro movie thinking you’d just seen a Marxist history.

      Maybe it’s just that the facts of the matter are so completely consistent with such a view of history that a straight depiction of events can’t help but have Marxist tinge.

  10. BradP says:

    119 children were placed into homes that evening.

    This is awesome.

    I wish libertarians would focus on the shared struggle voluntarily taken on by unions. They are negligent to their own goals when they don’t.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I like the historical writing and research, but I don’t quite follow your thesis about how folks like Che, who actually fought battles on two continents for nearly a decade and the anarcho-syndicalists like the Wobblies, who also laid their bodies on the line, are somehow dilettantes because they didn’t show up at the office Monday morning.

  12. [...] This series has also covered events including the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and the beating of the women and children in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. [...]

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  14. [...] General Strike February 11, 1937–The Flint Sit-Down Strike ends. February 24, 1912–Beating of the women and children at Lawrence March 25, 1911–Triangle Shirtwaist Fire April 4, 1968–Assassination of Martin Luther [...]

  15. [...] to help them because of the Wobblies’ success the previous year at Lawrence, Massachusetts (although that success was already falling apart after the Wobblies stopped paying attention to the w…). The Wobblies responded with vigor. They found the Paterson strike more to their revolutionary [...]

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