frontline 19.

Bread and Roses

In his continuing series looking at radical song, Bill Scott focuses on Bread and Roses, a song celebrating the struggle of working class women.

Bread and Roses Words by James Oppenheim Music: Caroline Kohlsaat

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing, bread and roses, bread and roses.

As we come marching, marching, we battle too, for men,
For they are in the struggle and together we shall win.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too.

As we go marching, marching, we’re standing proud and tall.
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.

Most people probably know “Bread and Roses” as the title of one of Ken Loach’s more recent films. But where did this labour movement (and feminist) song & slogan come from?

In 1912, in the wool town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, 20,000 workers walked out in protest against a cut in their pay. A new state law, fought for by the unions, made 54 hours the maximum for women and children but the mill companies reduced all hours to 54 and refused to raise wages to make up for the loss in pay. Half of the mill workers were girls aged between 14 and 18. A Lawrence doctor wrote that - “. .36 out of every 100 ...die by the time they are 25 years of age”.

Under the leadership of Joe Ettor of the Wobblies (IWW/Industrial Workers of the World) the strike became front-page news. The strikers had a committee of 56, representing 27 different languages. The workers’ called for a 15% increase in wages, double time for overtime, and no victimisation of striking workers. Mass picketing and arrests started in the first week. When workers demonstrated in front of the mills, they were drenched by water from fire hoses. The strikers retaliated by throwing chunks of ice. Thirty-six were arrested and sentenced to a year in prison. The governor ordered out the state militia and police.

Arturo Giovannitti, an Italian poet and socialist, came from New York to take charge of strike relief. Relief committees and a network of food distribution stations were set up. Volunteer doctors gave medical care. Families received from money each week from the funds raised throughout the country in response to the strike committee’s appeal.

On Jan 29th Joe Ettor addressed a mass meeting and then led the strikers on a peaceful march. That evening Anna LoPizzo, a woman striker, was shot by a police officer when they tried to break a picket line. Ettor and Giovannitti, who were 3 miles away at the time, were arrested as “accessories to the murder”. They were imprisoned for 8 months without trial. Martial law was now enforced, all public meetings were declared illegal and 22 more militia companies were called out. In another clash with strikers a 15 year old Syrian boy was bayoneted to death.

The leaders’ arrests were aimed at sabotaging the strike. However, the I.W.W. sent Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn to Lawrence. 25,000 strikers met Haywood at the railroad station and carried him to Lawrence Common. Group by group, they then sang the “Internationale” to him in their respective native tongues.

During one of the many marches conducted by the strikers some young girls carried a banner with the slogan: “We want Bread and Roses too.” This inspired James Oppenheim to write his poem, “Bread and Roses,” which was later set to music by Caroline Kohlsaat. The song crystallises the needs of workers not just for a living wage but for the beauty that should be the birthright of every human being. It also celebrates the militancy of these young women workers.

The most dramatic episode of the strike saw strikers’ children sent to stay with sympathisers in other cities. About 120 children left Lawrence and were met in New York City by 5000 members of the Italian Socialist Federation and the Socialist Party singing the “Internationale” and “The Marseillaise.” A few weeks later, 92 more children arrived and paraded with banners down Fifth Avenue. Alarmed at the publicity being generated the Lawrence authorities ordered that no more children should leave. On Feb. 24th when a group of 150 more children made ready to leave for Philadelphia, police and militia surrounded the railroad station. They tore children from their mothers’ arms, beat the women and children with clubs and threw them into a waiting patrol wagon, detaining 30 of them.

This clash was the turning point. Protests flooded in to the US Congress. A Congressional Committee heard evidence of appalling working conditions from a group of young, female Lawrence strikers. The national outrage was so great that President Taft had to order a national investigation into industrial conditions.

Concerned over the public reaction the American Woolen Company and other owners then acceded to all the strikers’ demands. After ten weeks the strikers had won, not only for themselves, but also for 250,000 other textile workers throughout New England.

The case of Giovannitti and Ettor was now taken up. “Open the jail gates or we’ll close the mill gates,” threatened Haywood. Protest parades, demonstrations, and mass meetings throughout the country raised $60,000 for their legal defence. Agitation mounted. Fifteen thousand Lawrence workers walked out in a 24-hour solidarity strike. Textile workers in neighbouring cities threatened similar action. Their trial lasted two months. The defendants were kept in metal cages while the court was in session. Crowds of workers cheered them as they entered and left the courthouse. In Sweden and France workers called a boycott of American woollen goods. Italian sympathizers demonstrated outside the American consulate in Rome, and Giovannitti was nominated for the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Despite trumped up evidence from police and strike breakers the men were acquitted and finally released from jail in November.

In the year following the strike the IWW saw its Lawrence membership swell to 10,000. A group of predominantly young women workers had fought the bosses and the state and won.