A vivid work of labor history, recounting a famed textile workers’ strike of 1912.
Lawrence, Mass., was a major center of textile manufacture in the early 1900s, and most of the work was done by immigrants—Italians, Portuguese, Greeks and others whom a nativist magazine called “the off-scourings of Southern Europe . . . [who] will not be assimilated [and] have no sympathy with our institutions.” Apparently, journalist Watson records, one of those institutions was poor pay. The textile makers, organizing under the banner of radical labor unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (which, Watson writes, “seemed to show up whenever labor unrest began to smolder”), complained about wages and working conditions, eliciting the response of another institution: when the workers went on strike in the winter of 1912, the mill owners prevailed upon the state to send in the militia, as if to lend credence to Jay Gould’s observation, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” Violence ensued, and workers died, including one Italian woman whom Watson nominates for residence in a Tomb of the Unknown Immigrant. Naturally, the violence was blamed on the workers. The strikers won wide sympathy, however, when they sent their hungry children down to New York City to stay with relatives; when the kids returned six or seven weeks later, well covered by the press, “they were plump—some had gained a dozen pounds or more—and well clothed.” That was evidence enough to suggest to at least some contemporaries that the immigrants were indeed being misused, and in the wake of what has come to be known as the Bread and Roses strike, the textile workers actually came out ahead: the leading plant agreed to raise wages, to pay extra for overtime work and to rehire even the most vocal of the homegrown activists. And so it was—at least for a time, when bosses across the land returned with a vengeance.
A fine reconstruction of events now too little remembered.