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On the Great Strike of 1912 (Part 3): Echoes

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By Regina Lee Blaszczyk

In late March 1912, the Great Strike that had for three months paralyzed the mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, came to an end.

The strike had begun on Jan. 11, when weavers walked out on the job to protest wage cuts. It soon grew and turned violent, with 25,000 workers joining in the protest.

On Feb. 24, the police had barred volunteers from the Socialist Party of Philadelphia from transporting some of Lawrence’s downtrodden children to foster homes outside the city to escape the worsening conditions. At the train station, they kept women and children from boarding and hurled “them in to the patrol wagon like old rags.”

Political cartoonists around the country dramatized the scene. One especially memorable caricature showed a larger-than-life policeman called the Lawrence Way threatening innocents in the Hunger City, his nightstick poised to clobber frightened women and children.

As the press decried the brutality, the governor of Massachusetts, Eugene Foss, ordered his attorney general to investigate the actions of the police and the state militia, while U.S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham asked federal prosecutors to launch a probe. The Senate authorized Labor Commissioner Charles P. Neill to undertake a study of living conditions in the Lawrence slums.

But it would take months for these bureaucratic initiatives to produce results. Officials in Washington wanted facts and wanted them fast.

On Capitol Hill, the House spent the week of March 2 listening to eyewitnesses recount the strike, the children’s exodus and conditions in the factories. Shocking testimony was printed in the official Congressional report, "The Strike at Lawrence, Mass."

The story of Camella Teoli, a teenager who worked in the mills, was horrifying. At age 13, Teoli used forged documents saying she was 14 to quit school and take a job in the spinning room at the Washington Mill of the American Woolen Company to augment her father’s weekly paycheck of $7.70. One day, Teoli's hair got caught in a yarn-spinning machine during a production speedup. Her hair and scalp were yanked away from her skull.

She was hospitalized for seven months. The American Woolen Company paid her doctors' bills and hospital fees, but not her wages. Teoli went back to work, still under a physician’s care for her wounds. Depending on the workload, she could make from $2.64 to $6.55 per week. Her reason for joining the strike: “Because I didn’t get enough to eat at home.”

The congressional hearings put mill owners in the hot seat and compounded their troubles. At the time of the Great Strike, the textile industry was in the midst of a trade depression. In April, the president of the National Association of Cotton Manufacturers looked back and explained: “Few mills earned dividends; most mills which paid dividends took them from surplus accumulations of other years, and many were compelled to pass dividends entirely.”

The last thing Lawrence mill owners needed was the U.S. government breathing down their necks. For weeks, William Wood, the rags-to-riches head of the American Woolen Company, had felt squeezed. On one side, textile manufacturers in other New England mill towns complained that a wage increase in Lawrence would force them to pay higher rates. On the other, the great cultural imperative of the Progressive Era was for economic elites to do the right thing for society. Progressive citizens, labor leaders, and some stockholders began to advocate for pay increases that would enable unskilled workers to enjoy a higher standard of living.

A few days before the congressional hearings, the Lawrence papers hinted that an end to the strike was within sight. The Arlington Mills released a notice: "A readjustment of wages will be made upon a comparative basis as to occupations involving increases in the rates now paid by the hour and the piece … The new schedule of wages will go into effect Monday, March 4, 1912."

Within a day, all the other major mills -- the American Woolen Company, the Pacific Mills, the Atlantic, the Lawrence, the Duck and the Kunhardt Mill -- issued similar announcements.

But radical labor leaders, including those from the Industrial Workers of the World, or the Wobblies, refused to budge. They were steadfast in their demands for a 15 percent pay increase on the new 54-hour week and double pay for overtime. A stalemate looked unavoidable until operatives from the United Textile Workers of America accepted the mill owners’ proposal. On March 9, the American Woolen Company announced that work would resume. For the shorter 54-hour week, an average worker was slated to get a modest wage increase.

Some radicals continued to protest. They picketed the mills and strong-armed those who tried to go back to their jobs.

But by March 15, everyone was exhausted, and weary strikers began straggling back to the monster mills. The Great Strike that had preoccupied the nation for weeks on end was over. The toll included two deaths, a loss of more than $1 million to mill owners and workers, and almost $300,000 for the police and the state militia.

It has been 100 years since the Great Strike dominated the newspapers, and its significance has been long forgotten. It was one of several important strikes that led President William Howard Taft to establish the Commission on Industrial Relations to investigate factory conditions across the nation. Teoli's testimony came to symbolize the horrors of child labor, and inspired a generation of Progressive reformers who lobbied for federal laws against child labor and for health-and-safety regulations in the workplace.

These stories of tragic industrial accidents and the battle for wage equity may seem alien to us today, as the manufacturing sector has become more high-tech and global, and less visible. But the Great Strike was an important moment in economic history, a moment of labor's struggle and triumph.

(Regina Lee Blaszczyk is an 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 third in a three-part series. Read Part 1, Part 2.

To read more from Echoes, Bloomberg View's economic history blog, click here.

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-0- Mar/15/2012 14:13 GMT