The strikers were all women and children who worked in the local textile industry. Most of the women were immigrant workers. Lawrence had been a textile town for about seventy years. In 1845 most of the workers employed were skilled workers but by the turn of the century, with industrialisation and mechanisation, the owners of the various (by now) factories had got rid of the skilled workers and replaced them with non-skilled women and children. They were paid far less, had few if any rights and worked longer hours.
In the decade before the strike, conditions had worsened. The work had
always been dangerous, but became more so with the introduction of the two-loom system in the woollen factories. It allowed the owners to speed up production, reduce wages and lay of large numbers of workers. Those still working earned less than $9 a week for 56 hours of work. They also lived in awful conditions. The apartment buildings they made their homes in were overcrowded and dangerous. Most families survived on a diet of bread, molasses and beans. Meat was a rare treat. At this period the mortality rate for children under the age of six was 50%. 36 out of every hundred men and women who worked in the woollen mills died by the age of 25.
The strike was caused by a new Massachusetts law which came into affect on January 1st 1912. The maximum number of hours that women and children were allowed to work dropped from 56 hours a week to 54 hours. On January 11th workers realised that what they had feared had come to pass: their employers had dropped their wages to take into account the fact that they were working two hours less per week. A 32c drop meant several loaves of bread for a family and the difference between just about getting by and dropping into abject poverty.
The first mill to see the strike action begin was the Everett Cotton Mill. Polish women walked out shouting “Short pay! Short pay!” The next day workers from other factories also walked out and by the end of the week 20,000 women, mostly immigrants, were on strike.
The strike was led by the Industrial Workers of the World union, who had been organising in the city for some time before the strike. The union was, as the name might suggest, a socialist group. This didn’t go down well at all and meant that the strikers and the union leaders met some horrific opposition from the Police, judicial system and the factory owners. The union, for their part, arranged for all strike meetings to be translated into 25 different languages, so that all strikers could know exactly what was going on and put out a set of demands: 15% increase in wages, a 54 hour week, double time for any overtime work and no discrimination against workers for strike activities.
The strike went on until March. In that time strikers had to put up with
a lot. The local militia walked the streets to “police” the “trouble”. The strikers then formed mass pickets. The mill owners reacted by turning fire hoses against them. The strikers, who were determined not to be put down, reacted by throwing ice at the factory windows. 36 women were arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for throwing ice and breaking windows. The judge said “The only way to teach them is to hand out severe sentences.” The governor of Massachusetts then ordered out the state police and state militia in order to stop the strikers.
At the same time the United Textile Workers, a conservative union, tried to break the strike, but the women were having none of it. Anna LoPizzo, a striker, was murdered, almost certainly by the police, but the local leaders of IWW were arrested and kept in jail for several months after the end of the strike, despite the police knowing that they had been three miles away from the murder at the time it happened.
There was also a problem with looking after the children of the strikers, with the lack of money coming in. On a national level donations were being made and there were soup and food kitchens, but several hundred children were sent to the homes of IWW supporters in New York, which was publicised and brought more sympathy for the strikers. Another hundred children were going to be sent to Philadelphia, but they and their parents were met at the station by police who refused to allow them on to the train. The police clubbed both women and children before dragging them off into a truck. One pregnant woman miscarried. All of this was captured by the press. They were taken to a police court where the women refused to pay the fines levied and chose instead to be put in jail with their children, some of the women had babies in their arms.
All of this helped more sympathy toward the rights of these women throughout the country. One person who was disgusted by what was going on was Helen Taft the wife of President Taft. Finally, the union was able to claim a victory. By the end of April the women were back at work with a 5% rise in pay and a promise of better conditions.
Unfortunately, within a few years all the gains won had been reversed, but for a short period of time, immigrant women, were able to bring a city to its knees, simply by refusing to accept less than was their absolute right. Conservative unions had claimed that it was impossible and ridiculous to try to try to organise immigrants in Unions as they were just not capable of understanding/taking part. The IWW and the immigrant women of Lawrence proved that this was just a pile of stuff and nonsense.
Despite the eventual bad ending to this whole situation, it has a lesson for us all, 100 years later. When people are organised and share a strong feeling of right and a refusal to give in to corrupt and inhuman forces, sometimes they can make a difference. These women, who were seen as nothing but factory fodder, whose rights were nothing but a joke to their employers and whose lives were often short and harsh, stood together and demanded to be treated with decency. For a time, they won that right. They refused to be put off by violence, lies and unfairness. Th need to stand up and be counted is just as strong 100 years later.
Right! After getting a bit “we’ll keep the red flag flying here”, I thought I’d find a birthday of someone really hateful and get all sweary about them, but instead I found that it is the birthday of a childhood crush, so …
Today is the birthday of Australian Actor and man who I am still a little bit in love with, Rod Taylor.
I know a lot of you will be going, “who?” well shut up! His first leading role was in The Time Machine and then everyone in the world realised he was brilliant and put him in a lot of other films, including The Birds and The V.I.P.s. Also, if you love the proper, original One Hundred and One Dalmatians he did the voice for Pongo, which is probably why you all love Pongo so much.
In the 1970s he did a lot of television work, which I’m not interested in, because I like him in films and more recently he’s apparently been in Inglourious Basterds playing Winston Churchill. He is now 81 though, so I don’t want to look at him and see all that lost beauty. Not that he was particularly beautiful in a pretty boy way; he was more manly man. sigh. Anyway, I loved him, even when he was a bit older and appearing, every so often in Murder She Wrote with Jessica Fletcher (yes, I know she’s a character! I’m being intentionally stupid, thank you very much).
To be completely and utterly honest here, my love for him has always been pure, because he sort of reminds me of my dad. I probably fell in love with Rod not long before my dad died and I’ve stayed in love with him because he’s my little reminder of my dad. If you cry at that, you’re a wimp, so just stop it!
Anyway, I love Rod Taylor and I hope he has the best birthday ever and lives to be 101 in good health with lovely twinkly eyes and all his wonderfulness.