Lawrence Mill Workers strike against wage cuts, 1919

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Timing
Time Period:  
3 February
1919
to
23 May
1919
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Lawrence, MA
Goals: 
Lower the work week from 54 hours to 48 hours without taking a pay cut. The common slogan was "54-48!"
 

In 1919, the United Textile Workers and Central Labor Union, in
a rush of union activity, managed to shorten the work week from 54 hours to 48
hours. The unions negotiated this reform by making a concession of an overall
cut in wages, which were already below the cost of living. Immigrant workers at
textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts welcomed the change in hours, but
could not afford a decrease in wages. Aware of a successful strike involving
immigrant workers in Lawrence back in 1912, the mill workers decided to use the
same tactic to combat the wage decrease.

On 3 February 1919, 17,000 and 30,000 immigrant workers walked
out of mills throughout Lawrence and began the ‘54-48’ strike. The strikers
organized themselves among twenty different ethnic groups, with one leader per
group. In addition, the strikers invited three pastors, known collectively as
the Boston Comradeship (Anthony J. Muste, Cedric Long, and Harold Rotzel) as
spokespeople. Ethnic store and businesses supported the strikers by accepting
coupons in place of cash. Meanwhile, the strikers boycotted stores that did not
support the strike.

The city administration of Lawrence enacted an aggressive
approach against the strikers. Mayor John Hurley immediately began inviting in
police from other towns. In less than a week, the city banned mass gatherings,
restricted news coverage of the strikers, regulated inter-city travel, and kept
the mills under constant police surveillance. After several cases of police
beating strikers at the picket line and pro-mill infiltrators encouraging the
strikers to react violently, the Boston Comradeship decided to join the picket
line. At first, the presence of the clergymen deterred violent police action,
but soon the police grew more intense. In one instance, several policemen cut
off Muste and Long from the picket line, trapped them in an alley, beat them
both, and arrested them for inciting a riot. A judge acquitted them a week
later.

On 18 February, a coalition of women strikers sent an appeal to
Governor Calvin Coolidge to investigate excessive police brutality. Coolidge
refused to meet with the coalition and sent a letter written by his secretary
in defense of the local authorities’ actions. On 21 February, when a group of
about 3000 strikers met in an open area near a garbage dump, two squads of police
beat and then arrested strikers and injured several unaffiliated bystanders.
The district court judge sided with the police and placed heavy fines on those
arrested. After a lull in police violence, hostilities escalated again when the
city received a machine gun from an unnamed source on 5 May to use against
strikers. The machine gun was never used, but prominently displayed in front of
the picket lines for intimidation. The next day, a group of men kidnapped two
immigrant strike leaders, Anthony Capraro and Nathan Kleinman and left them
beaten and disheveled in another city. A police investigation could not
identify the attackers and some dismissed the kidnapping as a hoax.

A large portion of strikers, as well as Muste, held Socialist
ideals, attracting the sympathy of Boston’s radical circles. Socialist
societies, such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and prominent
individuals in Boston donated thousands of dollars to the strike fund, keeping
it stable for several weeks. A wealthy Bostonian social reformer, Elizabeth
Glendower Evans, visited Lawrence, gave a generous amount to the relief fund,
led a silent march, and boosted the strikers’ morale. However, the press did
not treat the Socialist leanings of the strikers favorably. Several newspapers
declared the strike an attempt to start a Bolshevist revolution in America, and
the city administration used the threat of Communism as an excuse to place
spies in strike meetings and in Lawrence’s immigrant community.

By mid-March, the city was running into financial problems from
supporting such a large police force and the boycott significantly depressed
store profits. Mayor Hurley created a Business and Professional Men's
Committee, which included former strike committee treasurer Angelo Rocco and
other immigrant professionals. The committee tried to arrange a meeting between
the mill owners and the strikers, but the mill owners refused to meet with the
strike organizers. In early April, Governor Coolidge forced state arbitration
between the strikers and the mill owners. The hearings held by the State Board
of Arbitration and Conciliation lasted for nearly a month, but they did not
lead to a compromise. However, these hearings marked the first time since the
strike began that both sides directly communicated with each other.

Seeing an opportunity to share credit for the resolution of the
strike, the United Textile Workers (UTW) reappeared in mid-May and negotiated
with mill owners without the knowledge of those involved in the strike. The
union secured a 48-hour work week as well as a 15% wage increase, more than the
12.5% increase the strike demanded. The mill owners accepted the terms since
they were in need of workers and did not wish to negotiate with the strikers.
Meanwhile, the strike had run out of funding. After weeks without monetary
relief for strikers, organizers were ready to announce the strike as a failure.
On 19 May, just as Muste prepared to announce the end of the strike, the mill
owners called him to the conference with the UTW and explained the new
agreement. Muste and the other organizers added a non-discrimination clause
allowing the strikers to claim their former jobs. The mill owners accepted the
conditions, and on 20 May 1919 the strike ended.

Research Notes
Influences: 

1912 Lawrence textile mill strike

Sources: 
Snow, Ethan J.. University of Massachusetts Lowell, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2012. 1517690.

Fitch, John. "Lawrence: A Strike for Wages of for Bolshevism?" The Survey. 5 April 1919.

Foner, Philip. "Post-War Struggles, 1918-1920." History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 8. International Publishers Co, 1988.

Robinson, Jo Ann. Abraham Went Out: A Biography of A.J. Muste. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981. 27-31. Print.

Hentoff, Nat. Peace Agitator: The Story of A.J. Muste. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1963. 47-55. Print.

McMahon, Joseph Gerald. The Religious Roots of Non-Violence in Twentieth Century America. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1981. 46-53. Print.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Kerry Robinson 16/02/2014