Lawrence Public Library

Lawrence, Mass. Textile Strike of 1912

The Lawrence textile workers strike of 1912 began January 12 and ended March 14 of that year. 27,000 workers were affected and the cost would be figured at around $3,000,000 in lost wages, revenue, extra expense in policing, and harm to the general business community. 500 people were arrested and two died of injuries incurred during altercations. The result was an increase in wages from 5 to 25 percent, a modification of the “premium system,” and a 25 percent increase in overtime work. In a broader perspective, textile workers throughout New England were given a wage increase of 5 to 7 percent.

The International Workers of the World (IWW) or Wobblies conducted the strike. The local police department was unable to control the mass of demonstrators. The Metropolitan Park Police Department was sworn in to increase the force from 84 to 200 officers. The state militia was also called in.

The impetus that started the strike was the enforcement of the 54-hour workweek, dropping two hours off the week. This law prohibited women and children working in the mills more than 54 hours. Since the work of the women and children fed the work of the men, the men’s workweek was also decreased. Consequently everyone was bringing home a smaller pay envelope. This was complicated by the fact that present wages were barely feeding and housing the workers before the strike.

The workers insisted that they receive the same pay they were receiving for 56 hours of work even though now they were only working 54 hours. On January 11, 500 weavers and spinners walked out from Everett, Arlington, and Duck Mills. Rumblings of discontent had already started earlier on January 2 at the Duck Mill. On Friday morning, January 12, at 7:30 a.m., the workers started to gather in the streets of the city during a growing snowstorm. By 10:00 a.m., 12,000 people had begun to march through the streets and into the Wood Mill. The angry crowd, armed with homemade weapons, vandalized machinery and forced the remaining workers out of the mill. They moved on to the Ayer Mill and finally the Duck and Kunhardt Mills, breaking many windows.

The International Workers of the World (IWW) went into action sending Joseph J. Ettor, an Italian organizer, from New York to galvanize the workers. At this point he became the leader of the strike committee. By Saturday night, 15,000 workers were on strike. On Sunday the 14th, the committee met with Mayor Michael A. Scanlon and members of the Board of Aldermen. The strikers were advised to keep the peace and desist from the destruction of property.

Monday morning found every police officer in the city on duty and the state militia on the scene. The strikers formed a parade that resulted in clashes with police. The gate at the Washington Mills was stormed where a number of strikers were arrested. The police used streams of water from fire hoses to quell the mob at the Pacific Mills. Shots were fired. One striker was bayoneted, though not seriously. From this point on, the military took over the city. The militia occupied the mills and sharpshooters manned the factory towers. Col. E. Leroy Sweetser commanded the troops in the city.

During the rest of the month, there was constant unrest and clashes between strikers and soldiers. A mysterious discovery of dynamite within the area of the strikers’ homes was broadcast as a “plot” although it was later determined to be a “plant.” The whole incident was later brought to trial, but the mill owners were never convicted of trying to discredit the workers. On January 29, strikers smashed the windows of trolley cars on Essex Street that were taking mill operatives to work. Many of the workers fled to their homes. That evening, a crowd assembled and attempted to parade down Union Street. The police tried to stop the mob and shots were exchanged. Anna LoPezzi was killed, and Officer Oscar Benoit was wounded.

Ettor and Arturo Giovanitti were arrested the next day for the murder of LoPezzi by inciting the crowds to riot. William D. Haywood, another union organizer, took charge of the strike during Ettor’s imprisonment. Ultimately, Ettor would be acquitted. The only other fatality was John Remi who was bayoneted on January 30.

At one point, striking families began to send their children out of Lawrence into the hands of union sympathizers. The mill owners looked on this as exploitation and the enterprise was eventually stopped. The last major conflict of the strike took place February 26, where a number of shots were fired and one man was wounded. Strike relief funds came from all over the country and the American Federation of Labor maintained a relief station to distribute food, clothing, and fuel.

The strike ended March 14 with a 3 to 25 percent increase in wages. The aftermath of the strike rippled throughout the industrial northeast. On September 29, Carlo Tresca, an IWW leader, led a parade through the streets of Lawrence. The streets of the city saw images of red flags and banners proclaiming “No God; No Master!” The city fathers and clergy of all denominations were terrified of anarchism and socialism. They answered with the first God and Country Parade on October 12, Columbus Day, displaying patriotic fervor. 50 years later the city would evince its loyalty again with a second God and Country Parade.

The Lawrence textile Strike is of great significance in the march of the history of the United States. There were other strikes before and after, but the strike of 1912 was a milestone for the city. It was also a milestone for labor history, the textile industry, American immigration, and the development of cities and towns in the northeast. The Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912 is remembered during recent years with the Bread & Roses Heritage Festival on the Campagnone Common in Lawrence held, appropriately, on Labor Day.

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