Workers meet to discuss a textile-mill strike occurring in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1912. Source: Library of Congress

Remembering the Great Strike of 1912 (Part 1): Echoes

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By Regina Lee Blaszczyk

It began on Jan. 11, 1912. The Polish women at the Everett Cotton Mills, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, opened their pay envelopes and found they had been shortchanged by 32 cents.

Since New Year's Day, when the company posted notice of a new state law that reduced the workweek by two hours, everyone had worried about a pay cut. Now that fear was a reality. The missing 32 cents would have bought three loaves of bread.

The women shut off their looms and left the mill shouting, "Short pay! Short pay!"

The next day, workers at other factories walked out. The numbers added up. Soon, 25,000 people in the city were on strike.

Thus began "the Great Strike," the worst labor/management conflict that the U.S. had ever seen. The strike would drag on for 10 weeks and make headlines in newspapers across the country. It would involve labor radicals, the First Lady, two Congressional investigations, bomb threats, fatal shootings and, bizarrely, a mass exodus of children.

We'll be looking at the strike, on its 100th anniversary, in a three-part series for the Echoes blog.

Founded in 1845 by a group of Boston investors, Lawrence was one those noble social experiments of the 19th century. It was established as a sister city to Lowell, the great cotton capital 11 miles upstream on the Merrimack River.

Lowell was the cradle of the American industrial revolution, celebrated as a workers' utopia during the 1820s. In the early days, young women from Yankee farms flocked to the city for high-paying factory jobs and the amenities of urban life.

By the 1840s, however, the Lowell mill girls had started protesting deteriorating working conditions and the influx of Irish immigrants.

The men who built Lowell learned their lessons and improved their basic model with Lawrence, "The New City on the Merrimack." Woolen manufacturer Daniel Saunders was the prime mover. Together with Abbott Lawrence and other Boston capitalists, he established the Essex Company to build the new city and manage its energy and sanitation needs. Construction began in 1845.

Everything about Lawrence was big, bold and high-tech. Whereas Lowell sat on an elbow in the Merrimack, Lawrence was laid out on a section of the river that ran straight through flatland. The Great Stone Dam, designed by the Canadian engineer Charles S. Storrow, channeled waters that originated in the White Mountains into canals that powered the mill machinery. The factories were larger than those in Lowell; eventually, they would line both sides of the river for two miles.

The plains provided ample space for boardinghouses, two large commons and a fancy shopping street. By the 1850s, Lawrence had 15 mills, 14 churches, 14 public schools and a population of 15,000.

But it was the sheep that made the city famous. The first woolen fabrics were made by the Bay State Mills, which in 1851 exhibited the "Bay State Shawl" at the first World's Fair, in London. By the 1890s, mills began to focus on worsted fabrics for suits and coats. As more men moved into office jobs, they purchased the new white-collar uniform of the middle class: a ready-made suit that was worn with a detachable celluloid collar and cuffs. Every real-life Gibson Girl who worked in an office or shop wore a tailored jacket and skirt made from fine worsted fabric. Lawrence made the material for these suits, and every Lawrencian, including school kids, boasted, "We Weave the World's Worsteds."

The largest textile corporation in Lawrence was the American Woolen Company, which operated 60 mills in seven states and produced more than 80 million yards each year. The Wood Mill was the firm's crown jewel, named after its head, William Wood. It was the largest worsted mill in the world, capable of processing a million pounds of raw wool in a week.

Such an achievement was made possible by a large workforce of Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Irish and Italians who came to the U.S. in waves after the 1880s. By 1900, Lawrence mills employed about 40,000 people, nearly half of the city's population over age 14. Most of them were immigrants -- men, women and children.

To compete with imports from Europe's low-wage economies, mills like American Woolen and the Everett sped up production and cut wages. Working conditions became unbearable. Social reformers documented the high mortality rate due to malnutrition, overwork and occupational illness.

To help alleviate the distress, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law, effective Jan. 1, 1912, that reduced the workweek for women and children to 54 hours from 56. Lawmakers didn't anticipate that the mill owners would respond by cutting wages by 4 percent.

When that happened, workers marched out of Everett Mill -- and for the first time in Lawrence's history, the bells of City Hall sounded a riot alarm.

(Regina Lee Blaszczyk is a historian affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and the author or editor of seven books, including the forthcoming "The Color Revolution." The opinions expressed are her own. This is the first in a three-part series on the Great Strike.)

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-0- Jan/11/2012 14:24 GMT