Bread and Roses - 100 years from the Lawrence Strike

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A hundred years ago this Thursday, on January 12th 1912, 20,000 textile workers walked off the job in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and changed the world. Their centenary will be marked and their praises sung at Sandino’s on Thursday night.

Music is the appropriate medium. The enduring legacy of the Lawrence strike is enshrined in the song that came to define the inspiration and aspirations of women workers everywhere.

“As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,

A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,

Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,

As the people hear us singing: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”

There’ll be other Wobbly songs, too, at the Sandino’s gig, and Irish union songs and hopefully something from the work of the wonderful Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders.

The Lawrence action, contrary to some accounts, wasn’t an all-woman affair. Perhaps half the strikers were men. What made it particularly relevant to women was that it appears to have been the first mass industrial action in which women came to the fore and took the lead and thereby shifted perceptions of women’s place not only in the workplace but in the labour movement and in society generally.

Thousands of immigrant workers, mainly from southern and eastern Europe, had swarmed into Lawrence at the beginning of the century, drawn by the prospect of jobs in the 20 or so mills which had made the city the textile capital of eastern US - to some extent in the way, I suppose, of the “factory girls” of Derry. Because they were immigrants, and because so many of them were women, it was generally assumed they’d put up with whatever was handed down.

Their average weekly wage was less than nine dollars for 56 hours in relentless, sweat-shop conditions. They lived in overcrowded tenements, an average of four or five persons to a room. Thousands of children joined their parents on the production line so that their families could survive.

But the main US union body, the American Federation of Labour, regarded workers such as these as unorganisable because they were unskilled, not all men and from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. The socialist and anarchist-influenced Wobblies - the Industrial Workers of the World - stepped in, called a mass meeting thousands strong, won a vote for strike action and elected a strike committee which was half women and included representatives of 14 nationalities. The immediate issue was the response of mill-owners to new legislation reducing factory hours from 56 to 54. The owners complied, but froze the weekly wage - effectively reducing the hourly rate.

Thousands walked out on January 11th, then next day picketed out the rest of the Lawrence factories. Women and men fought together against police attempts to break picket lines. A disproportionate 300 women were among those arrested and charged, the police apparently regarding their involvement in disorder as especially disgraceful.

A hint of the relevance of Chrissie Hynde to these events was given in an interview a few years back pegged on International Women’s Day in which she mentioned Mary Wollstonecraft as one of her heroines.

If it’s possible to point to a single founder of the modern movement for women’s liberation, it’s Wollstonecraft. She was a philosopher, novelist, poet and political activist, and wild and free. In 1792, she published “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”, complementing and responding to Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”, which had appeared the previous year. She wrote: “How many women thus waste life away, the prey of discontent, who might have practised as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility, that consumes the beauty to which, at first, it gave lustre.”

Soujourner Truth knew the feeling. In the year that Wollstoncroft died, 1797, she was born a slave in New York. She was a fighter from the age of 11 for abolition and women’s rights. Her speech in September 1851, at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, still rings down through the years.

‘That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne 13 children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

Six years later, on March 8th 1857, the slogan “Ain’t I A Woman” was carried on placards by women textile workers in Soujourner’s home state of New York, protesting against low wages and inhumane working conditions. The date was later to become International Women’s Day. (The fact that International Women’s Day derived from a trade union demonstration is rarely mentioned in modern feminist commentaries: it doesn’t fit into shallow “identity politics”.)

The 1857 march left a deep impression. It was commemorated by a women’s demonstration 15,000 strong through the garment area of New York on March 8th 1908, demanding shorter working hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labour. Placards summed up their demands as “Bread and Roses.” The march and the slogan were to inspire a poem by James Oppenheim, published in The Atlantic magazine in 1911. And the poem, somewhat adapted, became the marching song of the women workers in Lawrence,the following year.

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead

Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.

Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.

Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too!

One of IWW organisers in Lawrence was 21-year-old Irish socialist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. At a fund-raiser for the strikers, echoing Wollstonecraft and Soujourner Truth, she declared: “The queen of the parlour has nothing in common with the maid in the kitchen; the wife of a department store owner shows no sisterly concern for the 17 year old girl who finds prostitution the only door open to a $5 a week wage clerk. The sisterhood of women, like the brotherhood of men, is a hollow sham to labour. Behind all its smug hypocrisy and sickly sentimentality are the sinister outlines of the class war.”

A hundred years to the day after Soujourner Truth’s speech, on September 7th 1951, also in Akron, Ohio, Chrissie Hynde was born. She attended Kent State University, was an anti-war activist and close friend of Jeffrey Miller. One of the iconic photographs of the age shows another student kneeling over Miller’s body, gunned down by National Guardsman while protesting the invasion of Cambodia.

Her band the Pretenders’ 1994 album “Last of the Independents” includes her song for Jeffrey Miller, “Revolution”:

The fond fear of danger,

That’s what sets us apart,

Couldn’t wait for the real world

To test the strength of the lion’s heart...

When we watch the children play,

Remember how the privileged classes grew.

And from this day, we set out

To undo what won’t undo.

Looking for the grand in the minute.

Every breath justifies

Every step that we take to remove what the powers that be can’t prove

And the children will understand why.

I want to die for something.

Bring on the revolution,

Don’t want to die for nothing.

Bring on the revolution,

I want to die for something.

There’s why Mary Wollstonecraft meant so much to Chrissie Hynde. That’s why it’s worth celebrating the centenary of the Lawrence strike at this time of cut-backs and war on the poor and women bearing the brunt.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;

Hearts starve as well as bodies: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

It’s the tradition coming down, the river ever flowing, the women marching, marching .

Eamonn McCann writes in the Journal every Tuesday