Lawrence, Massachusetts became a textile center in the mid 1800’s. By 1900 local textile mills employed 32,000 half of whom were girls between 14 and 18 who earned less than $9.00 a week for 56 hours of work. In 1911 Congress enacted laws that limited the number of weekly hours that women and children could work. Factory owners reacted by reducing pay to match the shorter hours. The women and children were already working for subsistence level wages were angered by the cuts in pay and some went out on publicized strikes. Within a week more than 20,000 workers were on strike. To circumvent an injunction against loitering in front of the mills, the strikers formed the first moving picket line in the US. Many held signs that read “We want bread but we want roses, too.” The strike was called “The Bread and Roses Strike.”
Whereas the skilled laborers were English, Irish and American and represented by the American Federation of Labor, the strikers were viewed as uneducated immigrants and not laborers worthy of representation by the AFL. This left more radical labor groups such as the International Workers of the World to step in and take control. The IWW organized all workers, regardless of skill level, immigrant status, gender or skin color. The committee, which arranged for its strike meetings to be translated into 25 different languages, put forward a set of demands; a 15% increase in wages for a 54-hour work week, double time for overtime work, and no discrimination against workers for their strike activity. Those opposed to the strike saw the strikers as dangerous, un-American and perhaps worst of all, atheists. They formed the Citizens Committee to fight radicalism stating they were for God and country and against the IWW’s “principles and methods,” denouncing union leaders and members as “godless communists.”In January 1911 a peaceful parade of the strikers was charged by the militia and officer Oscar Benoit fired into the crowd killing striker Anna Lo Pezza. Strike leaders Joseph Ettor of the IWW and Arturo Giovannitti of the Italian Socialist Federation of the Socialist Party of America were charged with the murders even though they had been 3 miles away speaking to another group of workers at the time. The authorities declared martial law, banned all public meetings and called out 22 more militia companies to patrol the streets. The IWW raised funds on a nation-wide basis and arranged for several hundred children to go to supporters’ homes in major east coast cities for the duration of the strike. When city authorities tried to prevent 100 children from going to Philadelphia in February 1911 by sending police and the militia to the station to detain the children and arrest their parents, the police began clubbing both the children and their mothers while dragging them off to be taken away by truck; one pregnant mother miscarried. Public opinion turned against the mill owners.
On November 26, 1912 in Salem, Massachusetts Ettor and Giovannitti were acquitted of charges of murder resulting from the strike. Ettor addressed the court in his closing statement :
“Does the District Attorney believe . . . that the gallows or guillotine ever settled an idea? If an idea can live, it lives because history adjudges it right. I ask only for justice. . . . The scaffold has never yet and never will destroy an idea or a movement. . . . An idea consisting of a social crime in one age becomes the very religion of humanity in the next. . . . Whatever my social views are, they are what they are. They cannot be tried in this courtroom.”
Acquitted Bread and Roses Strike leaders – Joe Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti