Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Insurrections and Strikes in American History


Rockport History Book Club

Insurrections, Strikes and Riots that Shaped American History

History Book Club

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Bread and Roses Strike, Lawrence, 1912


Wednesday, March 29, 2023:  Insurrections, Strikes and Riots that Shaped American History.  Our history is peppered with uprisings, large and small. Read about some and show how they affected life and our laws. For instance:   Shay’s Rebellion, 1786– 1787), uprising in western Massachusetts in opposition to high taxes and stringent economic conditions. The Whiskey Rebellion (also known as the Whiskey Insurrection) was a violent tax protest in the United States (1791-1794) during the presidency of George Washington. The most violent and widespread insurrection was the Civil War In Boston we had the 1919 Boston Police Strike. Also, scores of riots like the 1885 anti-Chinese riot in Wyoming, the anti-Greek riot in Omaha, 1909; the 1921 Anti-Black riot and destruction in Tulsa, and the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King was assassinated.  [Proposed by Mary Beth Smith and Bill Tobin].

Report on strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Mass., in 1912 : United States. Bureau of Labor : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

You know this story.  Owners of textile mills in New England city draw upon abundant and cheap immigrant labor to run their business.  Pay is low, and new Americans, most who speak only German, French, Polish, Italian but no English go to work. Mill owners know that they can squeeze everything from people who will work hard and are desperately dependent upon those wages. If they strike, few have any savings to sustain them while they are not at work.

Labor organizations. Most of the new immigrants were approached by the International Workers of the World and only 300 had paid dues to join. The IWW had mottoes like: “Labor is entitled to all it produces.” And “Abolish the wage system.”  IWW’s historic mission was to do away with capitalism.

Skilled, English-speaking workers joined the United Textile Workers of America.      

Living conditions. And how did they live? In four-story wooden tenements, sharing a water closet with the neighbors.  Access to back facing apartments is along narrow hallways, barely lighted.  Fires are frequent.

          A worker’s weekly pay may be less than ten dollars,($8.76 average) and then there’s rent to pay. Probably the furniture is being paid for at a dollar a week. And then they need food. If they have small children, the wife may not be able to work, or the family can pay a neighbor for child care. Then they need clothing.

          In 1912 the population of Lawrence was 85,992, and 60,000 of those people depended solely on the mills for their livelihood.

          Helpful legislation. In 2011 the Massachusetts legislature approved a bill to protect women and children from overwork, and so reduced maximum hours worked from 56 to 54 per week for them.  With average pay of 16¢ per hour this was huge.

          Communication from mill owners to workers was poor even to English speakers, and non-existent to many who spoke no English.

          On the day that workers received their pay envelopes with hourly reductions all hell broke loose. Workers left their looms, knife-wielding strikers overwhelmed security gates and slashed machine belts, threads and cloth. They tore bobbins and shuttles off machines. They threw chunks of ice at buildings, and broke windows. Mill owners called the police, Governor Coolidge called out the U.S. Army state militia, who marched into town with fixed bayonets.

          All the ingredients were in place for real bloodshed: IWW Communists calling some of the shots, police and army units, many not too happy about all these raging immigrants. Most  of the strikers could not understand English and at the start there was no effort to communicate with them.

          Bread and Roses. One group of women carried a banner proclaiming “We want bread and roses, too!” This signified the respect due them as women, rather than just as cheap labor. The slogan caught on and got picked up in a new song.


As we go 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 go marching, marching
We battle too for men
For they are women's children
And we mother them again


Our lives shall not be sweetened
From birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies
Give us bread, but give us roses

James Oppenheim (1882 -1932) 

Bread and Roses - YouTube Music - Bing video

           The IWW surprised mill owners by providing relief to feed the strikers and the strike gained national attention. Once it was clear that the strikers had solidarity and leadership, management and city officials responded with force. The state militia broke up meetings and marches; soldiers sprayed protesters with fire hoses in frigid winter weather.   

The strike gained national attention. President Taft asked his attorney general to investigate, and Congress began a hearing on the strike. Striking workers, including children who dropped out of school at age 14 or younger to work in the factories, described the brutal working conditions and poor pay inside the Lawrence mills. A third of mill workers, whose life expectancy was less than 40 years, died within a decade of taking their jobs.

With two deaths of strikers, and growing attention to working conditions, the public tide turned in favor of the strikers for good. The mill owners were ready for a deal and agreed to many of the workers’ demands. The two sides agreed to a 15% wage hike, a rise in overtime compensation, and a promise not to retaliate against strikers. On March 14, the nine-week strike ended as 15,000 workers gathered on Lawrence Common and shouted their agreement to accept the offer.

The Bread and Roses Strike was not just a victory for Lawrence workers. By the end of March, 275,000 New England textile workers received similar raises, and other industries followed suit.

The strike which began January 11 and was finally settled on March 14, 1912.  






Japanese Zero fighter, 1941

 Wednesday, April 26, 2023:  Japan from Meiji to WWII: What were they thinking? 

The beginning of the Meiji Era in 1868 marked the introduction of a secretive, closed world to the world. Soon Japan joined the industrial era, modernized government and society and became a modern nation, building an armed force that fought China and won  in 1894, defeated the Russian fleet in 1905, joined the allies against Germany in World War I, had the third largest navy in the world by 1920, and attacked the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands and joined the Axis in World War II. Read about the dazzling rise of Japan up to its defeat. Read any book about this history.

What led to it?  Examine all or part of the rapid change of a country closed off from the world, then the Black Ships of Commodore Perry and the rapid entry of Japan to the world and the world to Japan. [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]


Franklin D. Roosevelt

Wednesday, May 31, 2023:  Presidents who redefined the presidency and shaped the United States. Here is your chance, based upon your reading about American presidents, to tell us your choice for a president who made a difference in growing the country:

 E.g.: Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, Polk with acquisition of Texas, California, etc.; OR  took us to war and fought: E.g.: Madison, 1812; Lincoln, Civil War; McKinley, Spanish-American; Wilson, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon, G.H.W. Bush, G.W. Bush, etc. OR changed the tempo of governing, E,g, Lincoln, Kennedy, Reagan, Trump. [Suggested by David M. Shribman]


St. Lawrence Seaway

Wednesday, June 28, 2023: France and the World:  Read about history of France for a time that interests you. Exploration of the St. Lawrence and development of Canada; alliance with young revolutionary America; Louis XIV, Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, North and West Africa, WWI, WWII, Vichy, DeGaulle, Dienbienphu, Post -WWII. [Suggested by Ellen Canavan.]


2.  Art periods in History:  Zoom in on Rococo, Baroque, Mannerism, Renaissance, or others, including Oriental, Prehistoric-- and find how it relates, who was involved, what caused it or what it caused.