The Bread and Roses Strike Was an Epic Labor Action for Workers’ Dignity

The Bread and Roses Strike began on this day in 1912, when women mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, walked out. The strike ended in a landmark victory and popularized an enduring slogan: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

Workers picket with signs around a textile mill as the Lawrence strike begins in 1912. (Wikimedia Commons)

Short pay, short pay,” shouted the Polish women weavers on January 11, 1912, as they left their looms and walked out of the factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The state had recently passed a modest labor reform cutting the maximum number of hours women and children could toil from fifty-six to fifty-four, and employers had promptly docked their pay. The day after the walkout, thousands of mill workers in the area joined them. A week later, the Lawrence mill workers’ strike was twenty-five thousand workers strong.

This storied labor action, widely known as the “Bread and Roses” strike, succeeded despite phenomenal ruling-class unity and the workers’ extreme deprivation. It deserves to be remembered every year, for its namesake slogan (“The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too”) and for its stirring example of collective action.

Birdseye view of Lawrence mill section showing areas occupied by different nationalities in 1910. (Washington Evening Star / Wikimedia Commons)

The strike was powered by an extraordinarily diverse group of workers, including teenage girls. About half the workers were young women aged fourteen to eighteen. About two-thirds were recent immigrants, including from France, Italy, Russia, Syria, Armenia, Ireland, Belgium, and Lithuania. Meetings were translated into more than three dozen languages.

The mill workers’ conditions were horrific. Pneumonia and tuberculosis ran rampant in the damp factories, and one-third of workers died before they turned twenty-five. Child workers often perished within the first couple years of employment. Workers lived in extremely cramped conditions, often on the brink of starvation. When the pay cut hit in January 1912, many workers were unable to feed themselves or their children.

The stakes of the conflict were high for the capitalist class, too. Lawrence wool mills were vital to the national and local economy, producing one quarter of all the wool in the United States, and comprising two-thirds of the local manufacturing economy and more than two-thirds of all capital invested in Lawrence.

Massachusetts militiamen with fixed bayonets surround a parade of peaceful strikers, Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1912. (Wikimedia Commons)

No wonder, then, that the state and the ruling classes mobilized to suppress the worker pushback. Mill owners turned fire hoses on the picketers. State militias and police were summoned from neighboring towns, even Marines. “A tumult is threatened,” whimpered the mayor, in a letter pleading with a militia captain to send troops “to suppress same.” Police beat up mothers and children as families attempted to put kids on the train to send them out of the dangerous chaos. Harvard allowed students, many of whom were militia members, to pass their classes if they missed exams due to strikebreaking.

Enraged by the police brutality, women strikers fought back. Italian women, confronting a police officer on a bridge, relieved him of his club, gun, badge, and even pants, and terrorized him by dangling him over the icy water. Management and cops alike found they could not control the knife-wielding protesters. One boss called the women “full of cunning and also lots of bad temper,” whining anxiously, “it’s getting worse all the time.”

Like many legendary protests, the Bread and Roses strike has often been misremembered as a spontaneous moment of anger. Much like Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955, the Lawrence strike was the product of extensive organizing. Socialists were crucial to that work. The Italian Socialist Federation led their own members off the shop floor and into the streets, helped organize the entire workforce, and connected the strikers to overseas socialist networks. About twenty chapters of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) — each organizing in a different language — had been active in Lawrence for about five years; they, too, provided critical organizing and solidarity.

Children of Lawrence strikers sent to live with sympathizers in New York City during the work stoppage. (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

The workers also had support from collective institutions in their community, modeled on those in their home countries. For example, Franco-Belgians ran a cooperative with a bakery, grocery store, and meeting hall. The latter was often used as meeting place for worker organizing in the years leading up to the strike. Franco-Belgians also ran a soup kitchen that fed strikers and their families.

The “Bread and Roses” slogan for which the strike is most well known did not originate with the 1912 walkout. Coined earlier by suffragettes — though a similar mantra also existed in radical working-class Italian movements — it became a pithy expression of workers’ desire to have both life’s necessities and pleasures. But it was a speech to the Lawrence strikers by Rose Schneiderman, a formidable organizer and the first American woman elected to a national position in a labor union, that popularized the mantra. As Schneiderman put it,

What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.

The strikers won big. Though a pay cut had sparked the action, they accomplished far more than simply reversing it. They came away with a 15 percent increase in wages, double pay for overtime, and a pledge of no retaliation against workers who participated in the strike. The big pay hike rippled across the regional labor market as well, boosting wages for many other workers.

Working-class leaders far beyond Lawrence recognized the significance of the mill workers’ victory. Eugene V. Debs called it “one of the most decisive and far-reaching ever won by organized workers.” The IWW’s Big Bill Haywood addressed workers on the town common at the conclusion of the strike, saying,

Single handed you are helpless but united you can win everything. You have won over the opposed power of the city, state, and national administrations, against the opposition of the combined forces of capitalism, in face of the armed forces. You have won by your solidarity and your brains and your muscle.