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For the Shame of Doing Right

Though mill workers in Lawrence won an epic strike a hundred years ago, few have wanted to celebrate it, much less talk about it. Until now.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012
Lewis Hine Photo
1911 portrait of mill workers from Lawrence, Massachusetts. Taken four months before a massive strike swept the city.

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The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

—from the Preamble to the Constitution for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), 1905

On a bitterly cold morning in January, 1912, mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts opened their paychecks to find them 32 cents short.

"Like a spark of electricity," as one witness described it, dissatisfaction turned into open rebellion as workers broke down doors and began running through the immense mills, shouting "Short pay! All out! All out!" Some slashed the belts that ran the machinery, which ground to a halt. Other workers ripped off the bobbins holding the spools of thread and hurled them.

For the rest of that winter, the city that had been designed and built to be a worker's paradise was transformed into a battleground between unionized workers—many of them recent immigrants from over 40 different nations—and the owners of the textile mills, represented by armed battalions from the state militia. As weeks turned into months, the nation watched, wondering if this was the first step toward the "final struggle"—the global workers' revolution that radicals sang about in their anthem "The Internationale." When would the powder keg of class conflict explode into bloody warfare?

Incredibly, though, despite numerous shootings, beatings and bayoneting (most of which were inflicted upon the workers), the highly rancorous standoff saw few deaths. Years before Gandhi more famously employed the tactics in India, American union organizers masterfully fought for their cause and won with nonviolent strategies that sought to induce sympathy and support, rather than bloodshed and vengeance.

Also, in contrast to many of the other 20th-century conflicts the United States has fought, instead of being waged largely by men protecting their families, the Lawrence strike was won with working women and even the city's working children playing key roles.

Despite the landmark circumstances and high drama of the events that led to the workers' victory, the conflict in Lawrence—known today as the Bread and Roses strike—is a piece of this nation's history that has been largely overlooked if not willfully ignored and mischaracterized.

While some of the youths involved would grow up to tell their stories to their children, many preferred to put the events behind them. A small parade held the year after the strike was the last celebration of the event Lawrence would see for two generations.

"In the years afterwards, Catholic leadership and city officials often depicted the strikers as a bunch of godless communists," said Robert Forrant, professor of history at UMass Lowell and chair of the Bread and Roses Centennial Committee. "For the 50th anniversary of the strike in 1962, for instance, the city held a 'God and Country' parade instead. If anything, the message was decidedly anti-strike."

Interest in what really happened began to reignite in the 1970s, but it took until 2005 for Bruce Watson's Bread and Roses, the first comprehensive history of the strike, to be published.

Forrant has devoted much of the last two years to researching the strike and preparing a suitable centennial—one that both celebrates its accomplishments and underscores its relevance today. As part of the year-long festival, Forrant asked colleague and Valley resident Joe Manning to help bring the stories of some of the youngest strikers to life. Using his unique research approach, Manning was able to reunite contemporary families with their ancestors, revealing to them a far more colorful and courageous past than many had imagined. Many still living in Lawrence and across New England are the sons and daughters of working-class heroes.

*

Lewis Hine was a sociologist, teacher and photographer who devoted much of his life and work to documenting American laborers at their jobs.

Throughout the first four decades of the 20th century, Hine traveled across the country recording both the achievements of industry—such as the construction of the Empire State Building—and the deplorable conditions workers endured. Early in his career, he took a special interest in child laborers, and his stark images contributed significantly to changing child labor laws. Thousands of such portraits are available today on the Library of Congress' website, complete with the notes he took during his travels.

Joe Manning, a Northampton-based historian, author and photographer, first heard of Hine's work through his friend, children's book author Elizabeth Winthrop. Taking inspiration from a photo in Hine's collection of a 12-year old Vermont girl named Addie Card standing with dirty bare feet in front of a huge industrial loom, Winthrop wrote a work of fiction about what the girl's life might have been like. Upon finishing the book, Counting on Grace, she asked Manning if he could find out more about the real girl in the picture and what had happened to her.

"I'd never heard of Lewis Hine," Manning admitted in a recent interview with the Advocate, "and when I did, I was kind of ashamed I didn't know about his work—we share a lot of common interests." But seeing the wealth of images available, he got interested and accepted Winthrop's challenge. "I didn't have a clue where to start, but I couldn't wait to get going," he said. "I mean, what a wonderful quest! I found one of Addie Card's granddaughters in 11 days."

Several years ago, after taking a genealogy course at Greenfield Community College, Manning had discovered much about his own family's history, but finding the descendants of the people in Hine's photos required a completely different approach.

"This was reverse genealogy: you're starting back in time and moving forward, starting out without any connection to living people at all," he said.

Two months after identifying one of Addie Card's descendants, Manning and Winthrop found themselves in Vermont interviewing the family and learning of Addie's long (she was 95 when she died), difficult life. Manning told Winthrop, "This was such an incredible experience, I don't want it to stop."

Soon thereafter, he went back to the Hine collection and began sifting through the more than 5,000 portraits there. Finding a picture of two young girls in North Carolina that caught his attention, he began his quest again. And again, in a relatively short time, he located their present-day family, surprising and delighting them with the news that their ancestor's picture was part of such an important collection of American photography.

Six and a half years after starting what he's dubbed "The Lewis Hine Project," Manning has "tracked down the stories of more than 300 kids" and reconnected them with their present-day families. He continues to find the work immensely rewarding and has no plans to stop.

"I'd say 99 percent of the families I meet, it's the same scenario," Manning said. "They have no idea that the photo existed, and the implications of that are enormous in terms of changing their lives. Many of them haven't ever seen pictures of their parents or grandparents as children before, and didn't even know they'd worked in the factories back then.

"One typical response was from this guy in Washington, D.C. I showed him a picture of his dad selling gum on the streets of the Capitol, and he said, 'My father always said he'd sold newspapers and gum on the street, but I never thought I'd actually see a picture of him doing it.' Seeing these photos has inspired families to learn more about their history and organize family reunions." In some cases, he said, his work has helped to reunite estranged family members.

Last year Forrant asked Manning to work his generation-spanning magic on some of the photos Hine had taken of Lawrence children four months before the strike began.

*

The Bread and Roses strike was not the first, last or longest strike to sweep through Lawrence's textile mills. Even though the workers were victorious, many of the changes it brought about did not have a lasting effect.

Still, many labor historians, like Forrant, point to the strike as pivotal in American labor history. Its organizers, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), introduced several tactics which are still used today, attracted global attention and support, and offered a microcosm of the power dynamics at work between workers, union leaders, employers, the public, police and government officials that would play itself out again and again over the last century.

Long before workers took to the streets in Lawrence, immigrants from France and Belgium had begun working with area farmers and businesses to create a support network to relieve hunger in the tenements. With many workers earning less than $10 a week and existing on diets consisting chiefly of bread and molasses, there's little likelihood the strike could have lasted more than a few days without this advance networking. The unofficial motto of the soup kitchen that opened on January 23 at the Franco-Belgian Hall was "Give them all they want," and its importance to sustaining the strike cannot be understated. Similar operations were at work as recently as last winter, during the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Another first of the Bread and Roses strike was the introduction of roving picket lines.

"These happened more out of necessity than planning," Forrant said. "Early on in the strike, the city had declared martial law, prohibiting the workers from congregating on the streets." In response, the strikers began marching in a long circuit in front of the mills and the militia, singing protest songs and intimidating scabs who did not support their strike.

Perhaps the most effective tool the IWW employed, though, was the decision to send many of the city's children away to host families in cities in New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania for the duration of the strike. While parents were facing hunger, cold and the constant threat of violence, their offspring found themselves enjoying many privileges they'd only dreamed of: three meals a day, school, new clothing and not having to share a bed with the others in their families.

Though this had been done previously in European labor conflicts, it was the first time it had happened in America, and the children's exodus captured national attention and sympathy. In the face of blistering editorials condemning conditions in the mill town, Lawrence police and city officials felt the need to act.

"A key moment in the strike came in February," Forrant said, "when a group of families arrived at the train station to send their kids to Philadelphia. The police met them there and forbade anyone to board. When parents tried to resist, the police began striking them with their clubs. Women and children were beaten, arrested, thrown in a truck and taken to prison. One pregnant woman had a miscarriage as a result of the violence."

Outrage over the incident led to a congressional review where both sides in the strike gave testimony. President Taft's wife attended the hearings, and as a result (perhaps after hearing how one 12-year-old was scalped when her hair got caught in a loom), she wrote a check for $5,000 to support the strikers.

*

Lewis Hine's first pictures of child laborers were often taken while they were at work, standing at the machinery in the mills or out in a farmer's fields. By the time he got to Lawrence, though, as Forrant said, "his reputation preceded him." Not allowed in the mills, Hine took pictures of the textile workers while they were going to or coming from work (many started at 6 a.m. and returned 6 p.m.) or during their brief lunch breaks.

Consequently, even though his youthful subjects in Lawrence were spending almost every waking moment at work six days a week, the children in many of the pictures appear almost lighthearted. It's as if the photos were taken on the school ground, or while the kids were just hanging out on the street curb—not fresh from a job where they were continually asked to work harder and faster, risking their lives for pennies an hour. Certainly there's no indication that they anticipated the turmoil that was about to erupt all around them and their families four months after the pictures were taken.

Manning said that Hine intentionally photographed them this way.

"The conditions were far worse than they appear in his photos," he said. "An independent government agency did a report in 1911 assessing the conditions in Lawrence. At least in the urban north, what they found there was one of the worst situations in the country in terms of the rates of disease, child mortality rates, and the densely populated conditions—in some cases, 13 or 14 people living per apartment in the tenements. Basically, they condemned the city's situation and attributed it—though the report was supposed to be apolitical—to the oligarchy that was ruling there.

"Hine deliberately didn't try to show the children as poverty-stricken and pitiful, though. For one thing, he didn't think children were pitiful. He saw them as wonderful creations of God. But more importantly, he felt there would be more sympathy for their plight if people looking at the photos thought there was still some hope for the people in them. In Hine's day, only men could vote, so he couldn't go for the mothers' sympathy. He was basically looking to sway a middle-to-upper-class, white male voting population.

"So he had to paint a pretty compelling photograph of a child. Compelling enough so that when someone looked at it, they said this shouldn't be happening. But also that this shouldn't be happening to this particular child—not just the viewer's own children."

*

When Forrant initially asked Manning to try and discover some of the stories of the children in Hine's Lawrence photographs, he had hoped they might uncover some untold tales of the strike. Even before he started, though, Manning cautioned that this would be unlikely.

"Characteristically, parents don't talk to children in great detail about their own childhoods," Manning said, "and often kids just aren't that interested. Also, many in Lawrence were ashamed of what had happened. They wanted to get on with their lives and put those struggles behind them. So I didn't expect any kind of big revelations, and we didn't have any.

"What was interesting, though, was seeing just how diverse the population in Lawrence was. In a lot of ways, it was more of a melting pot there than in other cities. Because the city was so completely dominated by those huge factories, all of the immigrant groups were essentially doing the same thing. You had the Portuguese, the Polish, the Italians, the French-Canadians, the Lebanese, the Syrians, the Jews—the whole gamut—and because the mills were all in one place along the river, all these communities were clustered around them and people had to crisscross through each other's neighborhoods every day."

Instead of dramatic new revelations about the strike and the lives of the participants, Manning discovered that the 10 children from Lawrence he was able to identify went on to have lives that didn't turn out much differently from one another, regardless of their disparate origins.

On his website (morningsonmaplestreet.com), along with Hine's photos, Manning includes more recent images of the same children as adults, along with interviews he conducted with their descendants. Instead of black and white Horatio Alger ragamuffins, these are ordinary folks, photographed in Kodachrome color. Some images are of elderly men with thinning hair, dressed in their polyester suits and standing next to their Chevrolet sedans. Others are of women with beehive hairdos, a glass of wine or a cigarette in one hand, sharing a laugh with a neighbor. They're hardly the godless communist radicals a century of historians have led us to believe—rather, they're us.

For Joe Manning, this is precisely what is thrilling about his work.

"We always learn in school that history is about events," he said. "But it's not. It's about people. That's what the Lewis Hine Project is all about, and it's what we're trying to achieve with the Bread and Roses centennial. It's not so much about celebrating these people, but just offering recognition. Putting a face to history."

According to Forrant, there are also more practical reasons why it's important to remember what happened a hundred years ago in the Massachusetts mill town.

"Lawrence is still very much a city made up of immigrants facing challenging economic times," he said. Many have tried to portray the strike as a spontaneous eruption over a single pay issue, but as his research has shown, planning for such an event had been going on a long time prior to the walkout, both by the IWW and local union organizers.

"The coordination and capacity for organizing was astonishing," Forrant said. "All meetings during the strike were conducted in several languages, and pamphlets and posters were translated so everyone could read them.

"The multi-lingual unity and cooperation forged by these people is one of the essential messages for the residents of Lawrence today."

*

On Labor Day (Monday, September 3) in Lawrence, there will be numerous activities and events to celebrate the strike's centennial. In the morning, a march for economic and social justice will be held, followed by an afternoon of walking tours, food and entertainment. At 1:30 p.m. on the Campagnone Memorial Common, a monument recognizing the courage and tenacity of the strikers will be unveiled and dedicated. More on the festival celebrating the strike can be found at breadandrosesheritage.org. To connect with others who will attend, contact Western Mass. Jobs With Justice (413-827-0301).

To learn more about Joe Manning's Lewis Hine Project, visit morningsonmaplestreet.com. For stories of the Lawrence workers, visit sevensteeples.com/lawrencestories.html.

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