New Year's Day, 1912, ushered in one of the most historic struggles in the history of the American working-class. On that cold January 1st, the textile workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts, began a nine-week strike which shook the very foundation of the Bay State and had national repercussions.
In its last session, the Massachusetts State Legislature, after tremendous pressure from the workers, had finally passed a law limiting the working hours of children under the age of 18 to 54 hours a week. Needless to say, the huge textile corporations had viciously opposed the law.
As an act of retaliation, the employers cut the working hours of all employees to 54 hours, with a commensurate cut in wages, of course. The workers in the Lawrence factories, some 35,000 of them, answered this with a complete walk-out.
The strike itself was unique on many counts, but principally because the workers realized that they had to ignore the existing craft-union set-up. The craft unions were composed only of skilled, English-speaking workers, which excluded most of the workers. Instead, under the leadership of the International [sic] Workers of the World (IWW), a blow was struck on behalf of industrial unionism with the uniting of all textile workers in the strike.
In the course of the strike, the workers presented the bosses with the following demands:
- A 15 per cent wage increase;
- Abolition of the "premium system* (a version of present-day "incentive plans");
- Double pay for overtime;
- No discrimination against strikers;
- An end to speed-up;
- An end to discrimination against foreign-born workers.
The song... was inspired by one of the demonstrations which took place during the course of the strike. During a parade through Lawrence, a group of women workers carried banners proclaiming "Bread and Roses". This poetic presentation of the demands of women workers for equal pay for equal work together with special consideration as women echoed throughout the country.
James Oppenheim, many of whose poems reflect a working-class content and sympathy, picked up the phrase and made it into a poem. Martha Coleman set the poem to music, and the song has become a part of the singing tradition of the American working-class.
The song is more than an interesting piece of historic literature and is presented here... as a song for today, for the complete emancipation of women, who still demand "Give Us Bread -- And Give Us Roses!"
Sing Out!, Vol. 25, 1/1976, p. 8.
"The women worked in the mills for lower pay and In addition had all the housework and care of the children. The old world attitude of men as 'the lord and master' was strong at the end of the day's work . . . or now of strike duty . . . the man went home and sat at ease while his wife did all the work, preparing the meal, cleaning the house, etc. There was considerable male opposition to women going to meetings and marching on the picket line. We resolutely set out to combat these notions. The women wanted to picket!"
— IWW organizer Elizabeth Guriey Flynn, "The Rebel Girl", commenting on the Lawrence strike, reprinted ibid.
MORE BACKGROUND ON THE LAWRENCE STRIKE
In 1912, in the great woolen center of Lawrence, Massachusetts, 20,000 workers walked out of the mills in spontaneous protest against a cut in their weekly pay. Workers had been averaging $8.76 for a 56-hour work week when a state law made 54 hours the maximum for women and for minors under 18. The companies reduced all hours to 54 but refused to raise wage rates to make up for the average loss of 31 cents per week suffered by each worker because of the reduction in hours.
This caused the walkout which rocked the great New England textile industry. Under the aggressive leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World the strike became front-page news throughout the country. This is how IWW leader Bill Haywood described the Lawrence strike in his autobiography, Bill Haywood's Book:"It was a wonderful strike, the most significant strike, the greatest strike that has ever been carried on in this country or any other country. And the most significant part of that strike was that it was a democracy. The strikers had a committee of 56, representing 27 different languages. The boss would have to see all the committee to do any business with them. And immediately behind that committee was a substitute committee of another 56 prepared in the event of the original committee's being arrested. Every official in touch with affairs at Lawrence had a substitute selected to take his place in the event of being thrown in jail."After ten weeks the strikers won important concessions from the woolen companies, not only for themselves but also for 250,000 textile workers throughout New England.
During one of the many parades conducted by the strikers some young girls carried a banner with the slogan: "We want bread and roses too." This inspired James Oppenheim to write his poem, "Bread and Roses," which was set to music by Caroline Kohlsaat,
There is also an Italian song with the same title, "Pan e Rose," written by the Italian-American poet Arturo Giovannitti which is used by the Italian Dressmakers' Local 89 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.
Edith Fowke & Joe Glazer (eds.), Songs of Work and Protest, New York, NY, 1973, p. 71
Lyrics as reprinted ibid.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,
For the people hear us singing: "Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!
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!
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler -- ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!
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