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Bread and Roses

9/28/2015
Eilene Grandau, a member of the Cicero Council of the West Suburban Teachers Union, Local 571, was inspired to tell this powerful story from labor history in hopes that union – and non-union – readers will understand how banding together in unions helps workers overcome obstacles and demand the dignity we all deserve.
 
Introduction
It's amazing how far we've come, and what was fought for by our grandparents and great-grandparents to get us here. There is no denying that I do take some things for granted. My father was born in 1928. His mother, my grandmother, who came from Germany, could have been one of the women in this story had she gone to New England instead of Chicago. But this is not my story. This story belongs to someone else.
 
The Story
In January 1912, not so very long ago if you think about it, a group of Polish women walked out on their job at a textile mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts when they noticed their pay was cut. Thus began the strike that shook America: The Strike for Bread and Roses.
 
At that time, Lawrence produced close to 25 percent of all of America's wool cloth, as well as producing paper-making machinery. Although textile mill owners were making money, working and living conditions in Lawrence were abysmal. We've all seen the Hollywood portrayal of immigrant slums during the turn of the century. Those slums were the reality for most people of Lawrence. A typical meal for those immigrants was bread, molasses, and beans. Clean, running water was a luxury. Death rates were high, and one-third of all mill workers did not live past the age of 25. 
 
Most people working in the mills were women and girls between the ages of 14 – 18. It is believed that the owners thought women to be more “malleable” than men. How wrong they were!
 
When a law was passed changing the work week from 56 hours to 54 hours, owners decided to cut the salary of the workers to make up for the lost time of labor. That was when, on January 11, 1912, those Polish women walked out, calling and chanting as they did. This caught the attention of other workers, and soon a major walk-out was formed.
 
There had been very little organized labor in Lawrence before this strike. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) saw this walk out as an opportunity to unite them and help organize them. A strike committee was formed of 250 – 300 members with over 20 different languages represented. Leaflets were printed and handed out. The community banded together to help each other. They ran soup kitchens for strikers and their families. Food distribution centers were established. They shared coal with their neighbors to help with the harsh New England winters. Children of strikers were sent to New York City and Philadelphia to live with labor supporters. Few could believe that a labor strike made of mostly women and young girls could be this cohesive. This was an organized labor movement on a scale that had never been seen before!
 
The IWW leaders promoted passive resistance. There were massive pickets, “sidewalk parades,” and strikers locking arms together. The police and militia were called out to handle the mobs. The press published pictures of hoses being turned on the female strikers and of police beating and dragging them away. They also published pictures and interviews of the young girls who worked in these mills. All of this press coverage swayed the public to support the strikers.
 
On March 12, 1912, the mill owners conceded to the demands of the unions. Soon after, other mills in New England offered the same working conditions as well. Some of which were: a 15 percent pay raise (while keeping the 54 hour work week) and double pay for overtime.

Three laborers died while fighting for what they believed in: a living wage and a shorter work week of 54 hours. Yet, their sacrifice remained muted by the twists of history.  Because of the IWW's socialist politics, Lawrence began a “God and Country” parade to overshadow the strike. Anti-union sentiment grew in the city. Eventually, it became shameful to have supported or participated in the strike. In the 1970's, however, historians began to retell the story of the Bread and Roses strike so that our fallen heroes may not be forgotten, including Anna LoPizzo, age 34, who was shot during the strike; John Ramey, age 20, who was stabbed with a bayonet; and Jonas Smolskas, age 27, who was beaten to death for simply wearing a pro-labor pin on his lapel.
 
Relevance
Why “Bread and Roses?” Union leader and spokesperson at that strike, Ms. Rose Schneiderman, said, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.”  Today, we find ourselves in a similar situation.

We want a fair wage, but we want our dignity as well. The press, the public, elected officials, and aspiring candidates for public office are doing their best to wipe away our individual identities in an effort to portray us all as “union thugs.”  They want someone to blame for the breakdown in society. They are seeking to shrug off their own responsibility in the financial mess we find ourselves in by laying it at the feet of union members.

We cannot let them. Yes, we are part of the American Federation of Labor. Yes, we are union. They try to dehumanize us to make it easier to vilify us. But we are everyday, hard-working men and women. We are mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. We care for our own children, we care for elderly parents, and we care for all those we serve. We are many things to many people.
 
But we are people first and foremost, and we want – and deserve – our dignity too. Working together in our unions, we will ensure that no one takes it from us.

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