The intensive organizing behind one of history’s most famous “spontaneous” strikes

G DeJunz explains that while the 1912 Bread and Roses strike is often described as spontaneous, it was in fact made possible by more than a decade of organizing and strike action

On the afternoon of Thursday, January 11th, 1912, when pay was being distributed at the Everett cotton mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, it was short, confirming the workers’ expectations. On January 1, a Massachusetts state law had gone into effect reducing the maximum work week from 56 to 54 hours. The English-language branch of Local 20 of the IWW had written to mill owners, asking if they intended to cut pay in response to the new law, but owners had refused to say. Payday was the first moment workers could be sure of management’s intent.

Shouting “Short pay! Short pay!” 200 Polish women walked out in unison, leading a walk-out of 1,750 workers in total. 

The next day, the morning of the 12th, Italian workers at the Washington mill went from department to department, shutting down and sabotaging machinery, clearing out the mill. From there, they marched with flags to the Wood mill, where they overpowered the gatemen and went from room to room shutting off power and clearing out the mill. By evening, their numbers had grown to roughly ten thousand men, women, and children.

Strikers meeting on the common in Lawrence, 1912

This is where most tellings of the “Bread and Roses Strike” begin. A “spontaneous” uprising in direct response to employers cutting pay. That trigger led to a nine-week general strike of about 25,000 workers in a town with a population of 86,000. From there, most tellings go into the details of how the strike played out: the IWW celebrities that came from out of town to lead the strike and give rousing speeches, the innovative IWW tactics, the mill owner missteps, the demands made, the police violence, the wins, the trials, and the after-effects going into 1913 and beyond.

What isn’t discussed much is what led up to that day. Who were those Polish women? Who were the Italians? How did they so effectively shut down the mills in those first two days? What organizing made the 1912 strike possible? And what lessons can we draw as 21st century labor organizers?

The IWW’s National Industrial Union of Textile Workers

In the lead-up to the strike, the Italian branch of Local 20 of the IWW held a series of meetings. The final meeting, on the eve of the strike, had 1,000 workers in attendance — mostly Italians, but also a large number of Poles. They voted unanimously to strike with the trigger of seeing reduced pay.

These meetings and strike vote were the culmination of IWW efforts that had been building since October, when the law was first passed (before it went into effect). But what brought the Polish workers to the IWW meetings in late 1911 and in January? 

Women strikers in Lawrence, 1912

A few years earlier, in April 1908, 200 Polish members of the IWW had come together to form a Polish-language branch of the IWW’s Local 20. This had been part of an IWW textile organizing push across New England that led in 1907 to several new branches and, on May 1st 1908, to the formation of the National Industrial Union of Textile Workers (NIUTW), the first officially chartered “industrial union” in the new IWW.

IWW textile industry organizing in the area goes back even further, though. Founded in June 1905, the IWW’s textile organizing bore fruit nearly from the start. In December 1906, silk workers in West New Brighton, NY went on strike in response to the firing of IWW members. In March and April 1907, IWW members in Skowhegan, ME and surrounding towns held a successful strike for higher wages and the right to “live rather than merely exist,” foreshadowing the famous “bread and roses” slogan of the Lawrence strike. At the same time, IWW textile workers in Paterson, NJ held strikes in multiple silk and dye shops. In July through September 1907, mill workers in Mapleville, RI formed a new IWW branch of 80 members and successfully struck for higher wages and safer conditions. In October 1907, 19 delegates from IWW textile locals across New England met in Providence, RI to elect officers and start to build a structure that was better organized to support IWW strikes and organizing across the region — a first step towards the NIUTW founding convention the following May.

The Socialist Trades and Labor Association 

They didn’t wait until May, however, to continue organizing new locals. In December of 1907, IWW organizer James P. Thompson visited Lawrence. Thompson met with Lawrence organizers who, before the IWW founding, had been active in the Socialist Trades and Labor Association (ST&LA) for years: Gilbert Smith and August Detollenaere. Detollenaere came to Lawrence in 1901 from Roubaix, France after being blacklisted following a 5-year strike wave organized by the largely anarcho-syndicalist Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). Shortly after arriving, he became active in the ST&LA. The ST&LA, a radical union associated with the Socialist Labor Party, had split off from the Knights of Labor in 1895. It had existed in Lawrence and surrounding towns for years, with locals in the area making their presence known as early as 1896. Textile ST&LA locals were involved in an 1898 strike in New Bedford, MA, a big strike in 1899 in Slatersville, RI, and a 1902 textile strike in Olneyville, RI that saw a sympathy strike launched by Franco-Belgians in Lawrence. 

ST&LA was one of the unions that founded the IWW in 1905, merging its members in the process. This involved the creation of the first IWW local in Lawrence in 1905, made up primarily of English immigrants, notably William Yates, who was to become the secretary of the NIUTW in 1910 and one of the many leaders of the 1912 strike. He had arrived in the U.S. from England in 1900, having been active in textile organizing there since he was a teen. When he arrived, he immediately joined the ST&LA, following it into the IWW.

Multiple ethnic branches

Within a week of meeting with Thompson in 1907, IWW organizers from the ST&LA had chartered a Franco-Belgian branch of Lawrence’s IWW Local 20, with 50 members. Thompson reported, “There is splendid material in this new French branch, and great things are expected from the new recruits, some of them having received their training in the French Confederation of Labor.” Soon after, French IWW locals from Lawrence, Providence, and Woonsocket held a French language congress in Woonsocket. Detollenaere went to Lowell, MA in March 1908 to help charter a Belgian textile local.

In 1908, after the founding of the NIUTW, they held a second French-language congress, this time with 16 delegates, seating additional delegates from Philadelphia, PA; New Bedford, MA; Olneyville, RI; and Lowell, MA. By August, 1908, the French IWW branch in Lawrence went on strike over wage cuts. These workers were supported by the larger NIUTW, then at 1,350 members across the region. 

IWW textile organizing continued beyond 1908 in Lawrence and neighboring towns: in 1910, the Belgian local in Lowell formed with help from Lawrence returned the favor. They came back to Lawrence to help organize a Flemish branch of Local 20. Also in 1910, the Franco-Belgian branch invited notable Italian wobbly orator and organizer Joseph Ettor in an effort to get an Italian branch started. The mass speaking event was no substitute for building direct relationships among the Italian workers, however. The recruitment effort was not as successful as they’d hoped, and they failed to form an Italian branch at that time, but they did meet and sign up Angelo Rocco, an Italian immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1902 and worked in mills all over the region before arriving in Lawrence in 1909. Later, in 1910 through 1911, the IWW launched a series of slowdowns and strikes, larger than previous actions, but still generally within one mill at a time. In the summer of 1911, the IWW federation of French textile branches across the region met in Lawrence, again inviting Joseph Ettor, who stayed at Rocco’s house over three days. This time, thanks to Rocco’s organizing and the expanding IWW action in the mills, the Italian workers were more receptive, with packed meetings resulting in the founding of the Italian branch of 300 members and Rocco elected as secretary. 

A continuous thread

This close collaboration between nearby towns, most within a 40-mile radius on the map, was invaluable to the growth of the IWW before the big strike in Lawrence. Through the ST&LA, IWW textile organizing in the area had a continuous thread going back to the late 1890s. 

In summary, while the 1912 general strike is often described as “spontaneous,” in reality the IWW in Lawrence already had more than a decade of organizing and strike action behind it, with ST&LA organizing textile workers in the area since the 1890s. Learning and building through the ups and downs over many years, organizers from that time built up a wealth of experience. It is in this context that the Italian IWW branch started holding their large meetings in late 1911, preparing their response to the coming expected pay cut. 

The Bread and Roses strike

In August 1911, 100 French weavers walked out of the Atlantic mill, joined by 100 English weavers. Detollanaere was on the strike committee, along with another IWW member, Joseph Bedard, a French-Canadian the Franco-Belgian wobblies first met at a May Day party in 1903. During the months-long strike, the IWW hosted daily open-air meetings with enormous crowds. In the midst of that, an independent textile union of 500 members in Lawrence joined the IWW. At this point, the IWW in Lawrence alone had grown to over 1,300 members in over a dozen language-specific branches. 

Many have pointed out that the IWW’s voluntary dues collection system meant that only 300 of these members were fully paid up on dues at the start of the 1912 strike–the majority in the long-established Franco-Belgian branch of IWW Local 20. This is true, but it is also important to remember that this was decades before the US system of dues being automatically deducted from pay by employers. In Lawrence in 1911, IWW members paid dues directly in person and in cash to a union official. With this system, month-to-month fluctuations in the number of members fully caught up on dues was common. This also predates the IWW’s more distributed system, introduced in the 1910s, of “job delegates” collecting dues.

Much is also made of the arrival of big-name IWW leaders who “ran” the strike. Instead, it was mostly nameless local IWW organizers who organized the strike committee and got the action off the ground. From there, it was the striking workers themselves, both IWW members and not, who made everything happen. In the days leading up to the strike, the Italian IWW branch saw growing momentum and sent a telegram on the 11th inviting back Joseph Ettor, asking him to assist. Able to speak Italian, English and Polish fluently, and able to understand Hungarian and Yiddish, it was clear he could be a big help. He arrived late at night on the 12th after workers had already walked off the job and elected a tentative strike committee at a meeting called by local IWW organizers at the Franco-Belgian hall. The committee was composed of all of the nationalities involved at that time. The next day, with the strike still growing, Ettor chaired a mass meeting where striking workers elected the committee of 56 that immediately got to work democratically running the strike. 

Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrived significantly later.  Ettor was arrested on January 30th and was replaced by longtime local IWW textile workers William Yates and Francis Miller, who called for Haywood and Flynn to come aid the strike. So impressed by what he saw of the democratic organization of the strike, Haywood later described it thus:

the most significant part of that strike was that it was a democracy. The strikers handled their own affairs. There was no president of the organization who looked in and said ‘Howdydo.’ There were no members of an executive board. There was no one the boss could see except the strikers. The strikers had a committee of 56, representing 27 different languages. The boss would have to see all the committee to do any business with them. And immediately behind that committee was a substitute committee of another 56 prepared in the event of the original committee’s being arrested.

Lessons for organizing today

In the end, workers in Lawrence won their key demands of a 15% wage increase, double pay for overtime, concessions on the “premium” speed-up system, and no retaliation against strikers. The win reverberated beyond Lawrence, with workers in textile mills throughout New England and in other industries receiving similar increases. 

What lessons can we draw from the IWW’s textile industry organizing that led to the 1912 strike? For one, we can reject the caricature narrative of naïve spontaneity driven to success by a handful of outside leaders. Several of the IWW leaders during the 1912 strike had worked in the mills of Lawrence and surrounding towns, organizing textile workers for over a decade. Some of those organizers had learned from their years of experience organizing in European countries. No doubt many dozens more IWW organizers and leaders kept their names out of the newspapers and off the mills’ blacklists, thereby avoiding mention in the history books. But we can see the work that they did, methodically growing and taking action on the job.

As is often the case in the present day, the main window onto organizing is what is published in the mass media of the time. This is the face of a union after it has “gone public”, but extensive organizing efforts that build up to that are often left out of the public record, sometimes intentionally. This can create a false impression that successful organizing consists entirely of well-publicized mass speaking events followed shortly by large, headline-grabbing strikes, sparked by employer action. Looking at the below-the-fold notes in mostly internal-facing IWW publications, however, reveals a different story. This coverage of the textile industry in and around Lawrence highlights a progressive, multi-ethnic expansion of ST&LA and then IWW local branches alongside growing direct action in the mills. 

Workers in Lawrence from the 1890s through early 1900s faced many of the same obstacles often talked about now as uniquely 21st century obstacles to organizing: precarious workers without legal protections, immigrant workers divided by language, low union density, long work hours sapping energy for organizing, conservative politics among workers, and state repression. The win disproved the assumption that such workers could not organize and win major concessions from their employer. How they chose to respond to those challenges is an inspiration. They built up a union piece by piece and fight by fight over a decade, growing in raw numbers from at most a few dozen members in Lawrence to well over a thousand on the eve of the strike. Just as importantly, they grew in tactical ability, and ability to coordinate democratically, to put it all together to struggle and win.

Sources

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Brissenden, Paul F. The I. W. W.: a study of American syndicalism. New York, Columbia University, 1919.

Cameron, Ardis. Radicals of the Worst Sort: Laboring Women in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1860-1912. The University of Illinois Press, 1995.

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Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall Be All: a History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Quadrangle Books, 1969.

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Flynn, Elizabeth G. The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography, My First Life (1906-1926). International Publishers Co Inc., 1978.

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Haywood, William D. “Speech of Wm. D. Haywood on the Case of Ettor and Giovannitti.” Lawrence, Massachusetts: Ettor-Giovanitti Defense Committee, 1912.

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Kornbluh, Joyce. “Bread and Roses: The 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike.” Excerpt from Rebel voices: An IWW anthology. Charles H. Kerr Publishing, 1988, https://network23.org/wsol/files/2013/10/BR1912A5.pdf (accessed on April 13, 2020).

Kornbluh, Joyce L. Rebel Voices: An I.W.W. Anthology. The University of Michigan Press, 1968.

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Massachusetts. State Board of Conciliation and Arbitration. Annual Report of the State Board of Conciliation and Arbitration: For the Year Ending December 31, 1912. Wright & Potter, 1913.

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United States. Bureau of Labor, and Charles Patrick Neill. Report On Strike of Textile Workers In Lawrence, Mass., In 1912. Washington: Govt. print. off., 1912.

Watson, Bruce. Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream. Penguin Books, 2006.

G. DeJunz

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