Little Bits of History

January 11

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 11, 2017

1912: Workers notice a drop in their pay. Lawrence, Massachusetts was home to several textile mills. It had been founded in 1845 and was booming by 1900. The mechanization of the industry allowed many of the skilled workers to be laid off and replaced by unskilled workers. These unskilled workers were mainly women and children. There were many children under the age of 14 working in the mills and half of the workers at the American Woolen Company (four of the city’s largest mills) were females between the ages of 14 and 18. In 1912, the Lawrence mills employed a total of about 32,000 men, women, and children and boasted notoriously horrid working conditions. A two-loom system was introduced which increased production but made massive amounts of extra work for the laborers (after superfluous labor was laid off). The average pay was $8.76 for a 56 hour work week.

The workers at the mills were divided between ethnic lines with the skilled labor force comprised of English, Irish, and German descent workers. The unskilled workers were Québécois, Italian, Slavic, Hungarian, Portuguese and Syrian immigrants. It was assumed these varied immigrants could not join forces effectively. On January 1, 1912 a law went into effect shortening the work week by two hours. The workers were thrilled with this extra time off, but only if their pay was not cut as a result. The first paychecks of the year were issued on this date and a group of Polish workers noticed their employer had docked their pay $0.32 and they walked out. The next day, more workers at the Washington Mill and the American Woolen Company also noticed a shortage and they, too, walked.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWWW) had been organizing the unskilled laborers for five years and they were ready to help the fight. Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti took the leadership roles and organized a strike after forming a committee of 56 (4 members from each nationality). Meeting notes were translated into 25 languages to keep members apprised of the situation. The city responded by calling out the militia. It was a brutally cold winter and they sprayed the strikers with fire hoses. The strikers picked up the chunks of ice and threw them at the plant breaking windows. They were arrested and jailed. The neighboring states also sent in militia, but the strike continued.

Finally, organizers gathered the starving children of the striking mill workers and sent them to families in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont. The rest of the country was horrified by the condition of the children and their over-worked parents. With this external pressure, it was finally possible for the strike to be settled. Mill owners not only improved the lot of the Lawrence, Massachusetts workers but those throughout New England. Wages were raised by 20%. There were three deaths associated with the strike. One woman was shot in the chest, mostly likely by police. One man was brought down with a bayonet by the militia. A third person was beaten to death months after the strike ended because he was wearing a pro-labor lapel pin.

Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. – Karl Marx

I believe in the dignity of labor, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a living but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living. – John D. Rockefeller

The working class owes all honor and respect to the first men who planted the standard of labor solidarity on the hostile frontier of unorganized industry.  – Ralph Chaplin

Let the workers organize. Let the toilers assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim their injustices and demand their privileges. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America. – John L. Lewis


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