On January 11, 1912, a group of Polish women working at the Everett Mill in Lawrence, Mass. stopped their looms and left the mill, shouting “Short pay! Short pay!” By the end of the day, nearly 10,000 mill workers in Lawrence had joined them, beginning a 10-week strike that would involve more than 20,000 workers and help redefine the relationship between labor and management in the United States.
One hundred years later, in the midst of Occupy Wall Street, political folksingers Charlie King and Karen Brandow have commemorated the strike with a multimedia historical performance piece titled “1912: Occupy Lawrence - The Great Textile Strike.” The performance, which comes to St. John's Church in Williamstown on Jan. 19, is a historical narrative, built around traditional labor songs of the period, photographs and other primary sources.
The events of 1912 became known as the Bread and Roses strike, in reference to a poem written by James Oppenheim in the year before the strike began and later set to music. The poem calls for fair wages and better living conditions, hence the bread and roses metaphor. The history of labor in New England offers a rich assortment of songs and poems that reflect the struggles and solidarity of the working class.
“One of the big discoveries of my adult life has been how much of that history happened right in the areas where I grew up,” said King, who was born in Brockton, Mass., and whose political songwriting career has spanned nearly five decades. “At that time my full-time livelihood was being a professional musician and singer, so I was especially fascinated by the ways songs have shaped the history of labor and of American political struggle generally.”
Over the last several years, King and Brandow (who began performing together in 1998) have produced seven historical performance pieces, with subjects ranging from the history of nonviolence in the United States to the story of Sacco and Vanzetti. Each piece presents a scripted historical narrative woven together with songs and images, inviting listeners to relive the historical moments that have shaped American culture.
The Bread and Roses strike was triggered by a reduction in workers' pay that accompanied a reduction in the maximum length of the workweek from 56 to 54 hours. The workers had other grievances as well, included generally low wages and oppressive work policies. Outside of the mills, living conditions were often miserable, with overcrowded tenements, inadequate food and clothing, and a city with the highest death rate in the country.
Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti, well-known union organizers, were called in to lead the strike, and quickly united the largely immigrant population by appointing two representative from each ethnic group to a committee whose meetings were translated into 25 different languages. Despite preexisting ethnic tensions, and the massive efforts of mill owners, newspapers and the city government to crush the strike, the workers, at least for a short time, achieved all of their demands.
The “1912: Occupy Lawrence” tour kicked off in October at the Everett Mill in Lawrence, Mass., where the strike began, and has reached as far as Tacoma, Wash., and Ashville, N.C. The performance “is mostly done in institutional settings - in schools, libraries, labor halls, senior centers, places that have some kind of educational or cultural identity,” King said. And the goal is to continue pursuing new audiences in the future.
The performance at St John's, wrapping up the “1912: Occupy Lawrence” tour, will also commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose advocacy for disadvantaged groups in America helped galvanize the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. Dr. King drew considerable inspiration from the American labor movement that took shape in the 1800s and whose nonviolent tactics were similar to those employed by civil rights leaders.
Like the groups Dr. King represented, the Lawrence strikers were “low-paid, under-represented workers who were very much outside the mainstream, who were considered to be not fully American citizens,” King said, noting the similar public attitude surrounding the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968, which Dr. King was helping to organize when he was killed.
But the clearest connection between the work of Dr. King and the efforts of the Lawrence strikers, King said, “is that the Industrial Workers of the World who helped to organize [the strike], and the people in Lawrence, who were on strike, realized pretty early that they could not gain justice by violent action - that they were outgunned, and that if they wanted to offer effective resistance, and if they wanted to build solidarity and sympathy with the people in the United States, they had to strictly adhere to nonviolence.”
The 1912 strike ended in victory for the workers, but as mill owners continued fighting the new changes and suppressing union activity, and as fluctuations in the textile industry left many without work, the gains were eventually lost. But the strike provided a model for future nonviolent action, and helped increase union recognition throughout the United States - a victory of the early labor strikes that Dr. King believed was something “for which all the pain and sacrifice was justified.”
“It seemed so miniscule a victory that people outside the labor movement scorned it as in fact just a defeat,” Dr. King said in a 1967 speech to a group of unionists. “But to those who understood, union recognition meant the employer's acknowledgement of that strength, and the two meant the opportunity to fight again for further gains with united and multiplied power. As contract followed contract, the pay envelope fattened and fringe benefits and job rights grew to the mature work standards of today. All of these started with winning first union recognition."
The history of labor and of civil rights would be incomplete without the thousands of songs and poems that reflect the dignity and solidarity of communities united against oppression. “1912: Occupy Lawrence” keeps that spirit alive, and reminds us of the long struggle for human rights that continues to demand our presence.
Charlie King and Karen Brandow will present “1912: Occupy Lawrence - The Great Textile Strike,” followed by a set of other music, on Jan. 19 at 7 p.m. in the Lower Room of St. John's Church in Williamstown. Info: charlieking.org, 413-458-8144.