Bread and Roses revisits a pivotal labor strike in Lawrence

Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream
By Bruce Watson
New York, Viking, 352 pages

Winter 2006

Bruce Watson, a journalist and author of The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made, turns an event, the 1912 “Bread and Roses” mill strike in Lawrence, into an opportunity to examine the times, the people, and the conflicts that precipitated and evolved from it. The event itself is well known. It’s featured in accounts of the history of labor, industry, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as the Wobblies), and in textbooks. There are popular treatments, academic accounts, movies, plays, and songs about it. In the 1960s Donald B. Cole treated it as a paradigm of melting pot America in his Cold War version of the tale, Immigrant City. In Radicals of the Worst Sort, Ardis Cameron examined gender and ethnicity and described a much more nuanced event in the 1990s.

Watson tells a thorough but lively story of the players and their times, an embodiment of early 20th-century America. It was a period of burgeoning conflict between capital and labor, Social Darwinists and Progressives, and newer and older immigrants, and Watson embeds the strike in the broader picture, to good effect. He has consulted the academic accounts bearing directly on the strike and done exhaustive research in contemporary periodical literature. The innumerable details bring the story to life, as callous plutocrats and wretched immigrants, blue-blooded militia men and hard-bitten Wobblies, emerge to do battle with one another.

When the state Legislature mandated a cut in the work week from 56 hours to 54, factory owners cut wages as well, reducing them from meager to infuriating. Thirty thousand workers left the giant mills of Lawrence and began a long and bitter struggle. Wobbly organizers, including Joseph Ettor, Big Bill Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, came to help the many ethnic groups organize and manage this enormous effort. National attention focused on the battle between the intransigent mill-owners and the mysterious, even frightening, foreigners who rejected their assigned place as disposable workers and demanded something better. The “Wool Trust” headed by William Wood and his American Woolen Company, a Horatio Algeresque immigrant himself, pitted itself against anarchists, syndicalists, socialists, and impoverished immigrants. Dynamite was planted to implicate the strikers; children were sent from the city to escape the hunger and deprivation the strike exacerbated; shootings, beatings, murder charges, and wild accusations filled the newspapers.

The strength of Watson’s account lies in the detailed view he culled from his voluminous sources. He not only recounts a fascinating story, but reaches into the surrounding environment for connections that inform the strike’s larger significance. Characters take shape, emerging as individuals from the cast of thousands. Watson also places the event in its time, a period of unbridled capitalism that governments had just begun to think about restraining. The mills paid vast sums in dividends while Lawrence workers lived and, as Watson shows, died prematurely in some of the most crowded tenement housing in the country.

If the details drawn from rich sources makes the story of the strike come to life, Watson’s reliance on some of those sources, with their exaggerations and contradictions, is the book’s undoing. At times, Watson seems to mimic the newspapers he quotes from, describing his strikers as “a vengeful mob” and Lawrence as “designed to be a utopia.” As for the context he tries to put the strike in, Watson often betrays the limits of his knowledge. Competition, not the arrival of cheap help as a result of Ireland’s famine, led to the replacement of paternalism by neglect. Mill owners didn’t “flee to mansions in nearby Andover”; they had lived in Boston’s Back Bay from the start, with only the lesser lights and supervisors on scene. He labels anarchists as bomb-throwers and Wobblies as violent, although his own evidence shows otherwise. Relying on newspaper accounts leads him to exaggerate the machine breaking of the strikers, of which there was little.

In his desire to glorify the multiethnic character of the strike, Watson fails to distinguish between the situations —and the actions—of the various immigrant groups. Irish, English, French Canadian, and German workers did not all join the strike at first, as he suggests. The English occupied the highest positions in textiles, with only a few working even as highly skilled workers, while the Irish still in the mills had, over 60 years, risen to the next step below; Germans were generally also skilled (many were dyers), and the French Canadians considered the work temporary, holding them over until they could make their way back to Quebec. Each group had their reasons for resisting association with the other “ethnics,” though they did ultimately join in the strike.

Watson fails to distinguish among immigrant groups.

None of this stops Watson from ascribing questionable—and contradictory—motivations to people whose minds and hearts he has no way of knowing. Thus, he portrays immigrant workers as seeing America’s promise in a “life of individual freedom” even as he roots their actions as strikers in the communal traditions of village, church, and work. When referring to the workers, Watson’s language is often harsh, as they are said to grow “dangerously brazen” and their strike “bitter and vindictive” (though given “a human heart” by the women), but he makes no connection between these feelings and the mill owners’ dividend giveaways. In one place, Watson asserts that “pay was only a pretense” for the strike, with the true causes of rebellion to be found in mistreatment, infant mortality, and short life spans; in another, Watson describes a “city of loyal immigrants whose cause was not revolution but two hours pay.”

Watson’s confusion extends to life in the mills, as well. Contrary to his description, most of the rooms weren’t very noisy; people could talk, and did so even in the weave rooms. Though some mills were immense, there were no hundred-yard vistas; firewalls prevented that. “Speedup” refers to running machines faster and faster, not the morning’s starting bell, as he so often repeats. (“Then each gate was unlocked. Final whistles signaled the morning ‘speedup.’ And with a great groan and surge of muscle, steam, and turbine, thousands of machines all over the city started up at once. Another workday had begun.”) Mistakes such as these, which are repeated throughout the text, and a lack of understanding of how the machines he refers to operated, make it difficult to understand the workers’ true situation.

The book comes across as having conflicting loyalties. His account aims to be sympathetic to the workers, it appears to me, but he too often disparages them, forgets the wrongs he has described, and muddles his account. When the author quotes the distorted reporting on either side, it is easy to see how contemporary observers both described events and revealed their prejudices. But when he assigns feelings and beliefs himself, Watson seems to have absorbed the views of the local opposition to the strike. Bread and Roses is a readable book, but it does not always provide the broader view it aspires to.

The tumultuous events of 1912 drew national attention to the dissatisfaction and rebelliousness that the unskilled immigrants were capable of. But Watson finds the legacy of the strike in a more conciliatory William Wood and a city desperate to redeem its image through a “God and country” campaign—the civic rejoinder to an anarchist’s placard—of parades and other festivities that persisted for decades.

The Bread and Roses strike remains an archetypal event of the American labor movement. It demonstrated the potential for joint action by the new immigrants, unity among skilled and unskilled, men and women, and for industrial unionism. But it did not initiate a path soon to be followed. The owners’ power did not diminish, nor did wages continue to improve. The textile industry’s move south, already begun, did not slow. The patterns of industry, a moveable feast for the owners, did not change.

The strike did not initiate a path soon to be followed.
Meet the Author
Labor was buoyed by government recognition during World War I, but soon fell before the power of wartime propaganda, the Red Scare, and the inability to build on successes such as Lawrence’s in that climate. When unskilled immigrants again demonstrated their cohesiveness in the Great Steel Strike of 1919, they were defeated. Success would not come until government gave labor a “bill of rights,” the Wagner Act, during the New Deal. Perhaps the greatest significance of 1912 is its life in labor’s memory, an inspiring story of the triumph of the weakest over the most powerful.

Laurence Gross is associate professor of regional economic and social development at University of Massachusetts–Lowell and author of The Course of Industrial Decline: The Boott Cotton Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, 1835–1955.