Gregory DL Morris
Belt-driven loom ( left ) and loom floor ( right ) at the Boott Mill Museum in Lowell . Docents in period dress keep the looms operating , powerfully demonstrating how loud , fast , complex and hazardous the mill work could be .
after . “ These were women , some young women , and children . These were not burly men , or anarchists . The basic issue was one of fairness . They were not striking for a pay raise , they were striking to prevent a pay cut , so they could feed their families . The public opinion had a huge effect on the outcome .”
It is also immensely important that the IWW understood the power of public opinion . “ They organized the Children ’ s Exodus ,” said Klein . “ The IWW brought its network to bear . They had members all over who were willing to take in the children .”
That said , the strikers had to hold together long enough for that public opinion to take effect . “ It is a testament to the workers that so many ethnicities could find ways to collaborate ,” said Klein . “ By 1912 there were 51 different ethnicities living and working within seven square miles in Lawrence . It was a real American tapestry — not a melting pot . And the strike committee recognized that . It had representatives from each of the major groups .”
Professor Ileen DeVault , of the Labor Relations , Law , and History Department in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University , noted that the Bread & Roses Strike might not be as widely known as the Homestead or Pullman strikes , or the infamous Ludlow Massacre , “ but it does have a huge place in labor history . It was the first successful
attempt to organize all the workers on an industrial scale , not just the skilled crafts , but everyone across an industry .”
DeVault explained that at the time , the mainstream national umbrella organization was the American Federation of Labor ( AFL ), which focused primarily on skilled , male , native-born workers . Both the AFL and the IWW had representatives in Lawrence and other mill towns , “ but the AFL was not interested in running a strike that included unskilled workers , or a bunch of immigrants ,” said DeVault . “ The AFL was anti-immigrant , and especially the ‘ new ’ immigrant from southern and eastern Europe who they considered unorganizable .”
“ The Bread & Roses Strike proved that those workers could be organized ,” DeVault continued , “ across languages , cultures , and trades , skilled and unskilled . The AFL was blown away , and many of its members and leaders were concerned that the AFL would lose out if they did not follow the creativity of the IWW , especially the practical steps and the stability ” that were so successful in Lawrence .
In the wake of the Bread & Roses Strike , however , the AFL did not make meaningful efforts to organize unskilled , immigrant or female workers , DeVault explained . “ That ultimately happened in the ’ 30s with the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations .”
But neither did the IWW ride its success . “ The Bread & Roses Strike was the high point for the IWW , at least on the East Coast ,” said DeVault . “ They did go on to have some successes in the West after that .”
The legacy of the Bread & Roses Strike is mixed . “ The progressive reforms were institutionalized , especially in the mill cities of the North ” said Klein . “ The issues of work weeks and pay were mostly settled . There were child-labor laws . However , the textile industry started to leave the region and shift to the South .”
There was resurgence in the mills when World War I increased demand for textiles , but the Depression hit the region particularly hard . There was another recovery during World War II , but by the 1950s most of the industry had left New England .
Labor more broadly struggled as well . The Red Scares of the late teens and early ’ 20s hurt the more radical IWW , as did the rise of the CIO in the ’ 30s . For the record , the IWW is still active , with 9,000 members across North America . The AFL-CIO has 12.5 million .
Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist , principal of Enterprise & Industry Historic Research and an active member of the Museum ’ s editorial board .
www . MoAF . org | Winter 2022 | FINANCIAL HISTORY 21