Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 9. Segment 8
Speaking Out

There was one group of workers who hated Samuel Gompers 's American Federation of Labor. American Separation of Labor, they called it. AFL members were skilled workers, and not everyone was welcome. The I.W.W.—the International Workers of the World, or Wobblies—were completely democratic: anyone could join. Utah's William "Big Bill" Haywood opened their founding convention in Chicago in 1905, when he pounded on a table and said, "Fellow workers, this is the Continental Congress of the Working Class."

Lucy Parsons joined him on the platform. Her husband, Albert Parsons, had been hanged after the Haymarket riot. Lucy knew he had nothing to do with the bombing, so she took her two children and went off and spoke at hundreds of meetings until she sparked a worldwide protest movement. Wobblies had the idea that all workers, not just skilled workers, should be in unions See It Now - A Strike of Coal Miners. Their goal was one big union. At first, most of the Wobblies were miners, from the West. There was an abundance of writers among them, and they wrote poems and songs about their problems and hopes. Just about every member had a copy of the little red IWW songbook; singing seemed to come naturally to them. If a local union needed help, Wobblies would hop into train boxcars, arrive, march, climb on soapboxes, speak, get thrown in jail, and sing Check The Source - "Solidarity Forever": An I.W.W. Song by Ralph Chapin.

It was in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that the Wobblies had their finest moment. The legislature passed a law saying that women and children couldn't work more than fifty-four hours a week. The owners of the textile mills in Lawrence weren't going to accept that! Women and children had been working fifty-six hours. The owners speeded up their machinery so workers would produce as much in fifty-four hours as they had in fifty-six (they had to work faster to keep up). Then they took two hours' pay (about 32 cents) out of each wage envelope. Since the average worker earned about $7 a week, 32 cents—the price of three loaves of bread—was a lot. The American Woolen Company's net profits in 1911 were close to $4 million. The president of the company, William Wood, made this comment: Hear It Now - William Wood "To pay for fifty-four hours' work the wages of fifty-six would be equivalent to an increase in wages, and that the mills cannot afford to pay."

It was January of 1912, and bitter cold, and when they got their envelopes with less money than the week before, some women left their looms. Before long 25,000 millworkers had walked off the job. Most were foreign-born, and many had come to Lawrence after reading advertisements in their native lands telling of opportunities in the mills. When they got to Lawrence they found that their pay barely kept them from starving. They wanted more than just enough to eat. So they picketed with signs that said, "We Want Bread and Roses, Too." But they didn't have a real leader, so they appealed to the IWW for help See It Now - A Man in an I.W.W. Hat . Big Bill Haywood was soon on his way east Check The Source - The Buccafori Defense: A Speech by William D. Haywood. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn came too. Flynn had chained herself to a lamppost in Spokane, Washington, after officials began jailing Wobblies for having meetings to protest job-hiring methods. But it was twenty-six year-old Joe Ettor who turned out to be the leader in Lawrence. He spoke several languages and was a terrific organizer. He said: "You can hope for no success on any policy of violence. Violence means the loss of the strike."

But there was violence at Lawrence. It was police violence. Strikers were the victims. The mayor said, "We will either break this strike or break the strikers' heads." Militia were brought in. Then detectives pretending to be striking workers smashed streetcar windows and tried to start a riot. The strikers stayed orderly. Joe Ettor made sure of that, as Collier's magazine reported: "It is wrong to charge that the doctrine of the I.W.W. at Lawrence was a doctrine of violence; fundamentally it was a doctrine of the brotherhood of man."

People all over the country began reading about Lawrence. Most hadn't known about conditions in the mills. Some offered to care for strikers' children. On the forty-third day of the strike, forty children and their parents were gathered at the train station See It Now - Strikers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The children had been invited to Philadelphia, where families had arranged to "adopt" them until the strike was over. Suddenly police appeared. The Boston Common reported it this way: "Police, acting under orders of the city marshal, choked and knocked down the innocent wives and babies of the strikers."

That was too much. Congress investigated. Dr. Elizabeth Shapleigh of Lawrence said that "thirty-six of every hundred of all men and women who work in the mill die before or by the time they are twenty-five years of age." Fourteen-year-old Camella Teoli told of catching her hair in a machine and having it all pulled out. President Taft ordered an investigation of industrial conditions. The mill owners agreed to raise wages, pay overtime, and rehire the strikers. The Bread and Roses strike was over.

But what were the longer-term results of the strike? The I.W.W. was still widely hated, and industry was still eager to fight unions. According to Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis See It Now - Louis Brandeis, "industrial slavery" remained America's foremost social problem. And the right of people to govern themselves, including the right to form unions, was still a pressing agenda in America's quest for freedom.

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