In Lawrence, Massachusetts, everyday life changed on Jan. 11, 1912, when Polish weavers marched out of the Everett Mill in protest of wage cuts. That evening, throngs of workers met at a local hall and voted to back the weavers. The next day, 2,200 workers from the mill went on strike.
When workers at the American Woolen Company’s gargantuan Wood Mill opened their pay envelopes and saw their money was short, they joined the Everett workers in solidarity. By mid-January, the city’s monster textile mills were at a standstill as 25,000 factory workers were refusing to do their jobs.
The Industrial Workers of the World, a radical union also known as the Wobblies, supported the strikers from a local office, while Joseph Ettor, one of the union's best organizers, was summoned from New York.
Despite the union presence, the Great Strike was a grassroots effort by immigrant women, who made up a large portion of the city’s textile workforce, and whose children often worked in the mills to help make ends meet. Immigrant families lived in ramshackle wooden tenements in the city center, Poles next to Lithuanians, Syrians and Italians. The slums were crowded, yet living in close proximity had advantages. It created a sense of community that translated into solidarity after the pay cuts.
Angry women paraded from factory to factory, carrying American flags and wearing red, white and blue. They shouted, waved their arms and generally tried to intimidate the police. At times, they marched through the neighborhoods 10,000 strong. Older women hung from third-storey windows, throwing cold water on strikebreakers who dared to head toward the mills.
The strike soon turned violent. On Jan. 29, a young striker named Anna LoPizzo was fatally shot in the chest during a protest. Witnesses testified that a policeman had fired his revolver, but the local authorities targeted labor radicals. They arrested Ettor and two other organizers and charged them with the murder.
The incident attracted national attention. Celebrity activists such as "Big Bill" Haywood of the Wobblies and the activist and feminist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn descended on the city. Some 15,000 strikers met Haywood at the train and carried him to the common, where he roared to the crowd: “Those kids should be in school, instead of slaving in the mills.” Reporters had a field day.
By mid-February, the mayor and the mill owners had lost patience with the Wobblies and the women. The city banned mass public meetings. Mill owners rented the area's largest baseball park to prevent strikers from picketing there. One popular vaudeville house refused to let workers meet inside.
The New England winter also exacted a toll from the strikers’ families. Without income, mothers feared their kids would freeze or starve. On Feb. 9, they launched the “children’s exodus,” a plan to lodge the children in sympathetic homes in Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania. Nurses such as Margaret Sanger, who later gained notoriety as a birth-control advocate, accompanied the children. Sanger led 119 young refugees to temporary foster homes in New York.
Many of the children were pale, emaciated and dressed in cotton rags. They tried to look nice for the trip; as Sanger said, “The girls wore their best ribbons.” But only four had underwear, and “their coats were eaten off as though they were simply worn to shreds.” None of them wore wool, despite the bitter cold. Each had a large paper indentification tag around the neck. A week later, an additional 92 kids boarded the train and headed for safety.
The children’s exodus was tailor-made for the newspapers. Society women such as Alva Erskine Belmont, the widow of banker Oliver Belmont and the ex-wife of railroad magnate William K. Vanderbilt, took up the workers’ cause. Astute observers noted the contradictions: Lawrence textile mills made the world’s finest woolen cloth, but its workers couldn’t afford to feed and clothe their own children.
The real drama came early in the morning of Feb. 24, when 40 children lined up with their mothers at the train depot for the ride out of town. Mounted state militia and police surrounded the crowd and charged with raised weapons. Two women from the Socialist Party of Philadelphia, Tema Camitta and Jane Bock, described the scene: The police “closed in on us with the clubs, beating right and left, with no thought of the children, who were then in the most desperate danger of being trampled to death. The mothers and children were thus hurled in a mass and bodily dragged to a military truck, and even then clubbed, irrespective of the cries of the panic-stricken women and children. We can scarcely find words with which to describe this display of appalling brutality.”
This strike was unlike any other in American history.
(Regina Lee Blaszczyk is an historian affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and the author or editor of seven books, including the forthcoming "The Color Revolution." The opinions expressed are her own.)
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