Labor Militancy Inspires Generations: the Bread and Roses Strike

Labor Day typically passes without much note, serving as a symbolic holiday conceived of to keep American workers from aligning their struggle with workers across the world, who celebrate International Worker’s Day on May 1st. On Labor Day this year, however, workers in one Massachusetts industrial city had reason to be elated. In Lawrence, MA, they celebrated, with great pride, the centennial of the famous two-month long Bread and Roses mill strike. In this economically-depressed mill city, the militant history and legacy of the American labor movement is far from dead. Rather than a forgotten relic of a time long since passed, labor’s powerful tool of direct action, the strike, serves as the most celebrated part of the city’s culture.


In 1912, following a new Massachusetts state law which reduced the legal working week for women and children from 56 to 54 hours per week, workers feared that their paychecks would not be adjusted to compensate for the difference. When pay day came around, the fears proved to be justified, they received a corresponding pay cut, equal to about 32¢, or several loaves of bread, from which the strike received its famous name. For the hungry, abused and exhausted workforce, who were already barely surviving on an average of $8.76 a week, this was enough to spark a strike. Legend holds that one worker in one mill bellowed out across the hall “short pay, all out!” and the entire workforce of her mill dumped into the streets. Estimates range from 10,000 to as high as 25,000 workers who walked off the job that day, the majority of whom were women, children and immigrants.

The Bread and Roses strike was directed by America’s most radical labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World or IWW, who had been organizing in Lawrence for about 5 years. Despite membership in the IWW representing less than 1% of the total workforce of the mills in Lawrence in 1912, a combination of organizing savvy and shows of solidarity across the United States allowed the IWW to take the leading role in organizing and directing the strike. They encouraged workers to self-organize along ethnic backgrounds, and to elect representatives for the strike committee from each ethnic group. Many of their best organizers stayed in Lawrence to work on the strike, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, “Big Bill” Haywood, Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti. The presence of these leaders of labor was critical in gaining massive national and international attention to the reasonable demands of the striking workers.

Following two months of police brutality, a Massachusetts state militia occupation of the city and being forced to send all their children out of Lawrence to keep them safe, the strikers had won all of their demands. It represented the biggest victory of the IWW to date, and one of American labor’s greatest successes in history. And it is a victory the people of Lawrence have never forgotten.

The Bread and Roses Festival has been going strong since 1985, 28 straight years of celebrating the strike on Labor Day. The Heritage State Park visitor center features an exhibit on the strike and several more on worker’s history in Lawrence. Their movie theatre in the visitor center is organized into two categories, films about the strike, and “other”. The city is today, as it was in 1912, mostly an immigrant population. Their economy has been beaten down by decades of union-busting, outsourcing and “free trade” by both parties, but their radical history and pride provides the people of the city with great inspiration and hope.

The 100-year anniversary of one of American labor’s greatest triumphs was rung in by a march across downtown that stretched several city-blocks long, and had hundreds of attendees. The march route concluded in the Campagnone Common, where a few hundred more folks were waiting for a celebration of resistance to capitalist exploitation and self-organization of workers. It was there that the people of Lawrence unveiled a new monument in their largest park, dedicated to the striking workers and their families. Speakers ranging from local elected officials to anti-capitalist IWW organizers roused the crowd of hundreds, populated with families, workers, immigrants and even uniformed police, listening attentively and with pride.

The radical, anti-capitalist New England performance group, Bread and Puppet, put on a circus-themed show in the center of the common. There were three stages of music and live entertainment all day, dozens of booths from unions, social justice organizations, Occupy outlets and more. The IWW, beaming with pride from their leading role in the strike, had set up two different booths with literature, t-shirts and political discourse.

To the people of Lawrence, the strike was not just a moment in their city’s history or a bump on the road. The strike is their greatest source of pride, and this 100-year long imprint in the mind of a city should make labor leaders reconsider their strategic decisions in the last 30 years.

The modern American labor movement has much to learn from the people and history of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Spending the last several decades tying their interests to a Democratic party that has relentlessly betrayed them has made labor weaker in this country than at any other point in the last century. It is when labor takes direct action on behalf of their members, and on behalf of the dignity of all workers, that they inspire generations. The next time labor has the overwhelming support of the American people and workers the world over, in a conflict with the capitalist class, as they once did and squandered in Madison, Wisconsin, they should be careful to remember Lawrence, Massachusetts.

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