Bread and Roses Centennial: A Symbol for International Women’s Day

Pitssburgh, PA–(ENEWSPF)–March 8, 2012.  Statement by United Steel Workers (USW) International President Leo W. Gerard:

“This is International Women’s Day, and four days from now is the centennial of the Bread and Roses victory by women woolen mill workers in Lawrence, Mass.

“The triumph in Lawrence established a credo for which women worldwide continue to struggle today: life in which work is justly rewarded and human dignity is respected. On International Women’s Day, the win by the women of Lawrence provides hope for all workers.

“In 1912, some 35,000 workers, mostly women and children immigrants from 30 European countries, labored long hours for sub-poverty wages in 11 Lawrence textile mills. Children as young as 10 worked barefoot at the looms, even though state law prohibited employing a youngster under age 14 in the factories. One 13-year-old girl was scalped when a machine snagged her hair two weeks after she began work.

“As in company-owned coal towns, Lawrence workers paid rent to live in squalid mill-owned houses. For a 56-hour, six-day work week, the typical laborer received less than $6.

“By contrast, the mills made the owners fabulously wealthy. The largest factory, American Woolen Mill, made nearly $4 million in profit in 1899. Its owner, William M. Wood, said at the time, ‘I never had time to count how many automobiles I own.’

“But when the state passed a law limiting work to 54 hours a week instead of 56, Wood said owners like himself would cut pay because keeping it the same ‘would be an increase in wages, and that the mills cannot afford to pay.’

“After workers opened their reduced paychecks on Jan. 12, 1912, they shut down the looms and left, more than 25,000 of them. Their rallying cry was a poem by James Oppenheim published the month before in American Magazine titled “Bread and Roses.” The key verse, later set to music, is this:

As we come marching, marching, we battle too, for men,
For they are in the struggle and together we shall win,
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.’

“For 63 days the workers rallied and remained on strike. They persisted even after police beat mothers and children at a train station as the youngsters were sent to live with volunteers for the duration of the strike. They persevered even after a young woman and a 16-year-old boy were shot to death.

“With public opinion against the owners and Congress investigating conditions at the mills, Wood and the other proprietors caved on March 12, 1912. They agreed to give workers a wage increase, to pay overtime and to refrain from retaliating against the strikers. The additional money moved the workers incrementally closer to a life in which they received some respect, in which there was an occasional rose.

“Bill Haywood, a labor leader who believed all workers of all ethnicities should unite and who had gone to Lawrence to help, said afterward, ‘The women won the strike.’

On this International Women’s Day, the women of Lawrence are an inspiration for all workers who seek work with dignity.”