The Bread and Roses Strike, 1912: What strategies worked?


Lawrenceville, Massachusetts was a textile town which produced almost 45 million dollars worth of woolen and cotton goods per year. Among the forty thousand unskilled workers, only twenty-two thousand were employed due to new labor replacing machines. The average salary was 7.56 dollars per week and the average rent was 6.00 dollars per week. Housing was congested with 58% taking in boarders. Diets consisted of mostly bread and any meat was considered to be a rare delicacy; and malnutrition was rampant. A Congressional study held in March of 1912, later found that 36 of 100 workers died before they were 25 years old and a large number of child-workers died within 2 or 3 years of starting work in the mills. Hence, it only took a spark to ignite the frustrations of  this largely disenfranchised group of immigrants and to raise those feelings into a dedicated unified voice for change. In addition, this unvoiced group of workers, never having had a union prior to this time, gained a political voice when organized by union workers from IWW.


The State of Massachusetts passed a law limiting work weeks to 54 hours a week (down from 56 hours). When Polish working women noticed a drop in their paycheck of 32 cents, or three loaves of bread, they were enraged and shut down the machines. This spark resulted in a general strike whose demands later became threefold: a 15% increase in overall wages; overtime pay for excess hours; and, no reprisals for those involved in the strike.  The latter was in response to the employer strategy of simply “killing off” strikers and their families by refusing them any future work in the mills.


Strikers were greeted with bayonets. They were hosed with fire hoses in the middle of freezing winter temperatures. When they sent their children to live with supporters in NYC, the local police met them at the train station; and beat women and children and arrested them and placed them in jail. When President Taft’s wife heard about this, a Congressional Investigation was initiated, thus bringing the brutality of the police and mill owner to national attention. The marches of the strikers provided plenty of publicity as the militias’ blocking of the marches and their invocation of martial law and physical violence against the strikers worked to garner more support for the strikers.


IWW helped to provide organizers. They helped the strikers to create relief committees who set up kitchens and food distribution stations. Volunteer doctors gave free medical care. Two to five dollars were given to each family each week so that no family had to go without in order to participate in the strike. As a result the strikers were able to minimize strike related frustrations and to unify as a group which “cared” about each family. In addition, each ethnic group was asked to send two spokespersons to a central organizing group, so every group who were ordinarily suspicious of the others, were represented, guaranteeing fair representation and a sense of “membership”.


During the non-martial-law, daytime hours, striking workers wandered in and out of shops and stores. Their decentralized, leaderless wanderings were unnerving to shop owners and town politicians.  To avoid arrest,  picket lines moved constantly.   They created an atmosphere of gaiety in which singing and dancing were the norm. They were nonviolent in all of their direct actions.  Despite bad press which was in the pockets of the mill owners, press which described them as “mobs” and as violent, they overcame all of the brutality and prejudice by being positive and joyful. It is only my opinion, but I suspect that this was the first American strike in which unskilled workers united to shut down a mill town. That the unskilled could unite for a strike was simply a revolutionary event.

Helpful Links:

Bread and Roses: The 1912 Lawrence textile Strike – By Joyce Kornbluh

1912 Lawrence Textile Strike – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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