Lawrence Textile Strike

In the early part of the 20th century, Lawrence, Massachusetts, was one of the most important textile towns in the United States. Its principal mills were those of the American Woolen Company whose yearly output was worth $45,000,000. The woolen and cotton mills employed over 40,000 people. Many of these were foreign-born immigrants on low-wages.

It was estimated that about 50 per cent of Lawrence's textile workers were women and children aged under eighteen. A study by Dr. Elizabeth Shapleigh discovered that: "A considerable number of the boys and girls die within the first two or three years after beginning work. Thirty-six out of every 100 of all the men and women who work in the mill die before or by the time they are twenty-five years of age."

In January 1912 the American Woolen Company reduced the wages of its workers. This caused a walk-out and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who had been busy recruiting workers into the union, took control of the dispute. The IWW formed a strike committee with two representatives from each of the nationalities in the industry. It was decided to demand a 15 per cent increase in wages, double-time for overtime work and a 55 hour week.

The mayor of Lawrence called in the local militia and attempts were made to stop the workers from picketing. Thirty-six of the workers were arrested and most of them sentenced to a year in prison. Money was collected throughout America to help the strikers. One of the IWW's leading figures, Arturo Giovannitti, arrived in Lawrence to help organize relief. A network of soup kitchens and food distribution stations were set up and striking families received from $2 to $5 cash a week. Soon afterwards Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Bill Haywood, and Carlo Tresca of the IWW arrived in Lawrence and took over the running of the strike.

Art Young, Industrial Worker (21st March, 1912)
Art Young, Industrial Worker (21st March, 1912)

Dynamite was found in Lawrence and newspapers accused strikers of being responsible. However, John Breen, a local undertaker, was charged and arrested with planting the explosives in an attempt to discredit the IWW. It was later discovered that William Wood, the president of the American Woolen Company, had paid Breen $500. Another man, Ernest Pitman, who claimed that he had been present in the company offices in Boston when the plan was developed, committed suicide before he could give evidence in court. Wood was unable to explain why he had given Breen the money but charges against him were dropped.

The Lawrence Textile Strike became so violent that as William Cahn has pointed out in his book Lawrence 1912: The Bread and Roses Strike (1977): "To safeguard the health of small children during the strike, parents would send them to relatives and friends in other cities. Small tots were bundled up, with identification tags hung around their necks, and sent off to spend a few weeks in New York or Bridgeport or Barre or Philadelphia. Usually a reception demonstration would be given the children upon their arrival in a community.

The governor of Massachusetts ordered out the state militia and during one demonstration, a fifteen-year old boy was killed by a militiaman's bayonet. Soon afterwards a woman striker, Anna LoPizzo was shot dead. The union claimed that she had been killed by a police officer, but Joseph Caruso, a striker, was charged with her murder. Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti, who were three miles away speaking at a strike meeting, were arrested and charged as "accessories to the murder".

Faced with growing bad publicity, on 12th March, 1912, the American Woolen Company acceded to all the strikers' demands. By the end of the month, the rest of the other textile companies in Lawrence also agreed to pay the higher wages. However, Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti, remained in prison without trial. Protest meetings took place in cities throughout America and the case eventually took place in Salem, Massachusetts. On 26th November, 1912, both men were acquitted.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Bill Haywood with children returning to Lawrence.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Bill Haywood with children returning to Lawrence.

Primary Sources

(1) Ray Stannard Baker, American Magazine (May, 1912)

It is not short of amazing, the power of a great idea to weld men together. There was in it a peculiar, intense, vital spirit if you will, that I have never felt before in any strike. At first everyone predicted that it would be impossible to hold these divergent people together, but aside from the skilled men, some of whom belonged to craft unions, comparatively few went back to the mills. And as a whole, the strike was conducted with little violence.

(2) Louis Untermeyer, Sunday, The Masses (April 1913)

Down the rapt and singing streets of little Lawrence

Came the stolid columns; and, behind the blue-coats,

Grinning and invisible, bearing unseen torches,

Rode red hordes of anger, sweeping all before them.

Lust and Evil joined them - Terror rode among them,

Fury fired its pistols, Madness stabbed and yelled

Down the wild and bleeding streets of shuddering Lawrence

Raged the heedless panic, hour-long and bitter;

Passion tore and trampled men more mild and peaceful,

Fought with savage hatred in the name of Law and Order.

And, below the outcry, like the sea beneath the breakers,

Mingling with the anguish rolled the solemn organ.

Eleven in the morning - people were in the church -

Prayers were in the making - God was near at hand -

It was Sunday!

(3) Arturo Giovannitti, speech to jury (November, 1912)

If there was any violence in Lawrence it was not Joe Ettor's fault. It was not my fault. If you must go back to the origin of all the trouble, gentleman of the jury, you will find that the origin and reason was the wage system. It was the infamous rule of domination of one man by another man. It was the same reason that fifty years ago impelled your great martyred President, Abraham Lincoln, by an illegal act, to issue the Proclamation of Emancipation - a thing which was beyond his powers as the Constitution of the United States expressed before that time.

They say you are free in this great and wonderful country. I say that politically you are, and my best compliments and congratulations for it. But I say you cannot be half free and half slave, and economically all the working class in the United States are as much slaves now as the negroes were forty and fifty years ago.