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The Birth of Bread & Roses (from A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn)

“The IWW became involved in a set of dramatic events in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in the year 1912, where the American Woolen Company owned four mills. The workers were immigrant families—Portuguese, French-Canadian, English, Irish, Russian, Italian, Syrian, Lithuanian, German, Polish, Belgian—who lived in crowded flammable wooden tenements. The average wage was $8.76 a week. A woman physician in Lawrence, Dr. Elizabeth Shapleigh, wrote:

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.

It was January, midwinter, when pay envelopes distributed to weavers at one of the mills—Polish women—showed that their wages, already too low to feed their families, had been reduced. They stopped their looms and walked out of the mill. The next day, five thousand workers at another mill quit work, marched to still another mill, rushed the gates, shut off power to the looms, and called on the other workers to leave. Soon ten thousand workers were on strike.

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A telegram went to Joseph Ettor, a twenty-six-year-old Italian, an IWW leader in New York, to come to Lawrence to help conduct the strike. He came. A committee of fifty was set up, representing every nationality among the workers, to make the important decisions. Less than a thousand mill workers belonged to the IWW, but the AFL had ignored the unskilled workers, and so they turned to the IWW leadership in the strike.

The IWW organized mass meetings and parades. The strikers had to supply food and fuel to 50,000 people (the entire population of Lawrence was 86,000); soup kitchens were set up, and money began arriving from all over the country—from trade unions, IWW locals, socialist groups, individuals.

The Mayor called out the local militia; the Governor ordered out the state police. A parade of strikers was attacked by police a few weeks after the strike began. This led to rioting all that day. In the evening a striker, Anna LoPizzo, was shot and killed.

Witnesses said a policeman did it, but the authorities arrested Joseph Ettor and another IWW organizer who came to Lawrence, a poet named Arturo Giovanitti. Neither was at the scene of the shooting, but the charge was that ‘Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovanitti did incite, procure, and counsel or command the person whose name is not known to commit the said murder...’

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With Ettor, the head of the strike committee, in jail, Big Bill Haywood was called in to replace him; other IWW organizers, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, came into Lawrence. Now there were tenty-two companies of militia and two troops of cavalry in the city. Martial law was declared, and citizens were forbidden to talk on the street. Thirty-six strikers were arrested; many sentenced to one year in prison. On Tuesday, January 30, a young Syrian striker, John Ramy, was bayoneted to death. But the strikers were still out, and the mills were not working. Ettor said: ‘Bayonets cannot weave cloth.’

In February, the strikers began mass picketing, seven thousand to ten thousand pickets in an endless chain, marching through the mill districts, with white armbands: “Don’t be a scab." But their food was running out and the children were hungry. It was proposed by the New York Call, a Socialist newspaper, that the children of strikers be sent to sympathetic families in other cities to take care of them while the strike lasted. . . . The IWW and the Socialist Party began to organize the children’s exodus, taking applications from families who wanted them, arranging medical exams for the youngsters.

. . . after that, women returning from a meeting were surrounded by police and clubbed; one pregnant woman was carried unconscious to a hospital and gave birth to a dead child.

Still, the strikers held out. ‘They are always marching and singing,’ reporter Mary Heaton Vorse wrote. ‘The tired, gray crowds ebbing and flowing perpetually into the mills had waked and opened their mouths to sing.’

The American Woolen Company decided to give in. . . . On March 14, 1912, ten thousand strikers gathered on the Lawrence Common and, with Bill Haywood presiding, voted to end the strike.

Ettor and Giovanitti went on trial. Support for them had been mounting all over the country. There were parades in New York and Boston; on September 30, fifteen thousand Lawrence workers struck for twenty-four hours to show their support for the two men. After that, two thousands of the most active strikers were fired, but the IWW threatened to call another strike, and they were put back. A jury found Ettor and Giovanitti not guilty, and that afternoon, ten thousand people assembled in Lawrence to celebrate.”

Following the lead of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the character and spirit of this strike was encompassed in the phrase ‘We want bread, but we want roses, too!’ Workingclass culture has never been the same since the singing women and men of Lawrence.

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