A Common Thread Weaved in Lawrence
by Noël Cody
More than 100 years ago, textile workers walked out of the building that is now Riverwalk and into the bitter cold to join 30,000 workers who paraded, picketed and clashed with authorities during the famous Bread and Roses Strike of 1912.
Known originally as the Wood Worsted Mill complex, Riverwalk has earned a place in the National Register of Historic Places as the backdrop of a landmark victory for American Workers. In January of 1912 there was a sudden silence that enveloped the mill community here in Lawrence. And when an official investigated why the thunder of the power looms had ceased he found women standing motionless next to idle machines, paychecks in hand. Their weekly wages had decreased by 32 cents due to a new Massachusetts law that had reduced the workweek of women and children from 56 to 54 hours. And for workers who averaged $8.75, the missing 32 cents made a huge difference for the families depending on that income to survive.
Word quickly spread of the women’s strike and the following morning the walkout extended throughout the city crossing all ethnic and gender barriers. Shouts of “Short Pay! All out! All out!” filled the streets and soon rioting workers had reached tens of thousands of strikers who braved artic temps, singing protest songs as they paraded through streets. With residents from 51 nations, Lawrence was known as “Immigrant City,” but even though they spoke different languages, they were united by a common goal. With militiamen pointing bayonets at picket lines where men, women and children protested, it was the women who gave passionate speeches and carried banners demanding both living wages and respect. They chanted “We want bread, and roses, too,” which gave this famous work stoppage its name, the Bread and Roses Strike.
News of the strike began to filter throughout the country, American laborers took up collections and local farmers sent food. But by the end of January it had taken a violent turn, prompting parents to send their children to relatives in New York City for safety. When the first train of 119 children arrived at Grand Central Station they were met by a cheering crowd of 5,000 strangers. And when the second train from Lawrence arrived, all of the children paraded down 5th Avenue together in an event which would become known as the “children’s exodus.”
The increased publicity translated to more violence on the picket lines and caught the attention of President Taft who asked his attorney general to investigate. Congress began a hearing on March 2 where children testified to the difficult working conditions and lower life expectancy of workers. Mill owners soon agreed to a 15% wage increase plus overtime compensation and a promise not to retaliate against strikers. On March 14, the strike ended as 15,000 workers gathered on Lawrence Common and shouted their agreement to accept the offer.
One of the most significant labor struggles in U.S. history, the Bread and Roses Strike was not just a victory for Lawrence, it marked the beginning of women raising their voices, fair wages and the protection of children through Taft’s creation of The Children’s Bureau.
At Riverwalk, we walk in the same space once occupied by these workers, the brave men, women and children whose passion and grit spurred positive change in our country and continues to inspire today.