Friday, March 30, 2012

'Bread and Roses' strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts

Bread and Roses

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: "Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for -- but we fight for roses, too!
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler -- ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

By James Oppenheim, published in American Magazine in December 1911

The poem above was written as a tribute to the women who conducted a strike in 1911, in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

In 1905 the American Woolen Company built the world's biggest textile plant in Lawrence, hiring Arab, Russian and East European immigrants. By 1911, people of 25 different nationalities lived within a one-mile radius of the mill.

They lived in crowded company-owned tenements. Eight to 10 people from different families shared one living space. Whole families--including children under 14 years old--worked in the mills. The mills were hot and humid. The work was fast paced, with high accident rates.

Rickets were common among children for lack of milk. Nearly half died before they were 6 years old. Over one-third of the mill workers died before age 25, mostly from tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses.

Jan. 12 was the start of the 1911 'Bread and Roses' strike--one of the most significant struggles in the history of the U.S. working class--in Lawrence, Mass.

A new state law had reduced the work week from 56 to 54 hours. A small gain for workers? Sounds like it. But of course the bosses found a way to gain the advantage. They speeded up the looms and cut the average wage of $6 a week--a last straw for workers living on the edge of starvation.

Some 23,000 people left the mills and poured into the streets in protest.
The Lawrence strike broke new ground in two ways. Women led it. And there was a conscious effort to unite workers of all nationalities. Every union meeting was translated into 25 different languages.

There were four demands: a 15-percent wage increase, a 54- hour work week, double pay for overtime, and rehiring of all strikers without discrimination. The strike drew national and international publicity, and donations began to pour in.

Two months later on March 14, the strikers won a 25-percent raise for the lowest-paid workers and smaller increases for higher-paid workers, time-and-a-quarter pay for overtime, and no discrimination against strikers.

The strikers wanted not only decent pay, but a chance to enjoy the good things of life. They carried signs saying, "We want bread and roses too!"

The women who participated in this strike had the courage to stand up for their rights and their actions made a difference in the future of industrial workers.

They shaped the future of this country and this reinforces for me that notion that if one is aware of injustice then the right thing to do is to speak up against it and let those in power know that it is not acceptable. These women were among the forerunners of equal rights.

The photos above show women of the day working in the factory and also, those on strike being confronted by the National Guard.

During this month we have taken time to celebrate Women's History Month and we give honor to those brave women who have gone before us.


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