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Lawrence Strike of 1912

The Lawrence strike, one of the largest in United States history, became known as "the Bread and Roses Strike," after workers' protest signs that read, "We Want Bread, But Roses Too!" The strike, marked by violence, quickly gained national public attention and union support.

At the time, the textile industry dominated the economy of Lawrence, Massachusetts. In 1912, the city's population was nearly 86,000—60,000 of whom depended directly upon the payrolls of the textile mills. The wages for workers were poor, housing conditions overcrowded, and average life expectancy in Lawrence one of the lowest in the United States. Work in the mills was hard and dangerous for the largely immigrant population of workers, many of them children who started work at an early age.

In 1911, the year before the strike, Massachusetts had passed a new law that was to take effect on January 1, 1912, that mandated the reduction of the maximum weekly work hours for women and children under 18 from 56 to 54 hours. On average, Lawrence workers earned a weekly wage of $8.76. Half of the striking workers were women and children who earned merely $6.00 per week. Lawrence's mill owners, including the largest, the American Woolen Company, responded to the law by reducing workers' wages by 3.5%, arguing that if workers' hours were to be decreased, then wages would have to fall in order to keep competitive with mills in New Hampshire, Vermont, and in the South, where wages were even lower. Mill owners had assumed that workers would accept the pay reduction without protest. Instead, strikers demanded a 15% increase in pay, maintenance of the 54 hour work week, double pay for overtime, and abolition of the bonus system, which encouraged workers to work longer hours and rewarded only the top performers.

The Lawrence strike began with a walkout by workers on January 11, 1912. Workers cut threads, slashed power belts, and smashed windows to ensure that work could not continue. Over the course of the day, the number of protesters grew from a few hundred to nearly 10,000 men, women, and children. By the end of the ten-week strike, 23,000 workers had left their jobs.

Before the strike there had been little organized labor in Lawrence. As the strike broke out, local organizers of the small chapter of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) quickly recognized the need for leadership that could unite an ethnically diverse workforce that spoke over 20 languages. National IWW leaders Joe Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti arrived on January 13 to prepare workers for an organized strike and led a crowd of thousands to Lawrence's city hall. To control the mobs, the mayor of Lawrence called in Massachusetts militiamen and police forces from nearby cities. There were hundreds of arrests and injuries.

The strike received extensive press coverage, which resulted in an outpouring of support for workers and their families. Many supporters and witnesses testified before Congress during hearings held in early March, prompting President Taft to order an investigation of industrial conditions throughout the nation. Negotiation between government representatives, including the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor, and mill owners, concerned over the public reaction to the hearings, helped to bring the strike to an end. The American Woolen Company acceded to all the strikers' demands on March 12, 1912, and soon the rest of the Lawrence textile companies followed suit. Wages were raised for textile workers throughout New England.

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