In Lawrence, Massachusetts, the textile industry had become the center of the town's economy. By the early 20th century, most of those employed were recent immigrants. They often had few skills other than those used at the mill; about half the workforce were women or were children younger than 18. The death rate for workers was high; one study by Dr. Elizabeth Shapleigh showed that 36 out of 100 died by the time they were 25 years old. Until the events of 1912, few were members of unions, other than a few of the skilled workers, usually native-born, who belonged to a union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
Some lived in housing provided by the companies -- housing provided at rental costs that did not go down when companies reduced wages. Others lived in cramped quarters in tenement houses in the town; housing in general was priced higher than elsewhere in New England. The average worker at Lawrence earned less than $9 per week; housing costs were $1 to $6 per week.
Introduction of new machinery had sped up the pace of work in the mills, and workers resented that the increased productivity usually meant pay cuts and layoffs for the workers as well as making the work more difficult.
Early in 1912, mill owners at the American Wool Company in Lawrence, Massachusetts, reacted to a new state law reducing the number of hours that women could work to 54 hours per week by cutting the pay of their women mill workers. On January 11, a few Polish women at the mills went on strike when they saw that their pay envelopes had been shorted; a few other women at other mills in Lawrence also walked off the job in protest.
The next day, on January 12, ten thousand textile workers walked off the job, most of them women. The city of Lawrence even rang its riot bells as an alarm. Eventually, the numbers striking rose to 25,000.
Many of the strikers met the afternoon of January 12, with the result of an invitation to an organizer with the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) to come to Lawrence and help with the strike. Strikers' demands include:
- 15% pay increase
- 54 hour work week
- overtime pay at double the normal rate of pay
- elimination of bonus pay, which rewarded only a few and encouraged all to work longer hours
Joseph Ettor, with experience organizing in the west and Pennsylvania for the IWW, and who was fluent in several of the languages of the strikers, helped organize the workers, including representation from all the different nationalities of the mill workers, which included Italian, Hungarian, Portuguese, French-Canadian, Slavic, and Syrian. The city reacted with nightime militia patrols, turning fire hoses on strikers, and sending some of the strikers to jail. Groups elsewhere, often Socialists, organized strike relief, including soup kitchens, medical care, and funds paid to the striking families.
On January 29, a woman striker, Anna LoPizzo, was killed as police broke up a picket line. Strikers accused the police of the shooting. Police arrested IWW organizer Joseph Ettor and Italian socialist, newpaper editor, and poet Arturo Giovannitti who were at a meeting three miles away at the time and charged them as accessories to murder in her death. After this arrest, martial law was enforced and all public meetings were declared illegal.
The IWW sent some of its more well-known organizers to help out the strikers, including Bill Haywood, William Trautmann, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Carlo Tresca, and these organizers urged the use of nonviolent resistance tactics.
Newspapers announced that some dynamite had been found around town; one reporter revealed that some of these newspaper reports were printed before the time of the supposed "finds." The companies and local authorities accused the union of planting the dynamite, and used this accusation to try to stir up public sentiment against the union and strikers. (Later, in August, a contractor confessed that the textile companies had been behind the dynamite plantings, but he committed suicide before he could testify to a grand jury.)
About 200 children of strikers were sent to New York, where supporters, mostly women, found foster homes for them. The local Socialists made their arrivals into demonstrations of solidarity, with about 5,000 turning out on February 10. Nurses -- one of them Margaret Sanger -- accompanied the children on the trains.
The success of these measures in bringing public attention and sympathy resulted in the Lawrence authorities intervening with militia with the next attempt to send children to New York. Mothers and children were, according to temporary reports, clubbed and beaten as they were arrested. Children were taken from their parents.
The brutality of this event led to an investigation by the U.S. Congress, with the House Committee on Rules hearing testimony from strikers. President Taft's wife, Helen Heron Taft, attended the hearings, giving them more visibility.
The mill owners, seeing this national reaction and likely fearing further government restrictions, gave in on March 12 to the strikers' original demands at the American Woolen Company. Other companies followed. Ettor and Giovannitti's continued time in jail awaiting a trial led to further demonstrations in New York (led by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn) and Boston. Members of the defense committee were arrested and then released. On September 30, fifteen thousand Lawrence mill workers walked out in a one-day solidarity strike. The trial, finally begun in late September, took two months, with supporters outside cheering the two men. On November 26, the two were acquitted.
The strike in 1912 at Lawrence is sometimes called the "Bread and Roses" strike because it was here that a picket sign carried by one of the striking women reportedly read "We Want Bread, But Roses Too!" It became a rallying cry of the strike, and then of other industrial organizing efforts, signifying that the largely unskilled immigrant population involved wanted not just economic benefits but recognition of their basic humanity, human rights, and dignity.