PETER FROST crosses the pond and finds momentous inspiration in the New England rebel town of Lawrence
On holiday in and around Boston, New England, I visited the spot where the famous Tea Party took place. It was the first skirmish of what would become the American revolution.
Sadly it was the same day that the lunatics of the US right in the Republican party – who have taken the Tea Party name – had once again voted down funding for Obama Care.
Their petty and vindictive action had the result in shutting down the entire federal government structure.
The news was pretty depressing so my wife Ann and I decided to cheer ourselves up with a visit to a place that, just 101 years ago, saw one of the most inspiring episodes in US labour history.
The town of Lawrence is only an hour from Boston. It was a drive that took us through pretty woodlands with the many trees already turning to their flame-like fall colours.
Lawrence wasn’t so pretty – huge red-brick textile mills dominate the town. Today most of the mills are derelict. Just a few have found other industrial uses or have been split up into smaller units.
I was going to write about dark satanic mills, but this is US and they have socialist poets every bit as good as our William Blake. How about “a thousand mill lofts gray” from James Oppenheim.
One or two mills have been gentrified, a conference centre, a block of up-market lofts.
The one we were seeking has become a fine museum, commemorating the famous 1912 Bread and Roses strike.
The Lawrence textile strike was a strike of mostly unskilled immigrant workers – 20,000 of them – from every mill in Lawrence. The majority were women or children.
The strike united workers from over 50 different nationalities and lasted more than two months.
It was known as the “Singing Strike.” The strikers had more than two dozen different languages but they could all communicate and protest through strike ballads.
The International Workers of the World (IWW) – the famous Wobblies – supported the strike and one of their organisers, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn masterminded a brilliant strategy.
The strikers sent their hungry children to stay with sympathetic union families in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.
The move drew widespread public sympathy, especially after police stopped a further exodus, by beating and arresting children and mothers at the station.
The resulting outcry prompted Congressional hearings that publicised the shocking conditions in the Lawrence mills.
After two month’s of strike action the mill owners decided to settle giving workers in Lawrence and throughout New England raises of up to 20 percent.
The Lawrence strike is often referred to as the Bread and Roses strike, the slogan taken from an Oppenheim poem written a year or so before, became a theme, featuring on banners and in speeches and strike songs:
“As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.”
Gurley Flynn was a remarkable woman. Later in her life she became national chair of the Communist Party of the USA.
Born in 1890. Her parents had a long tradition of Irish republicanism and socialism. By the time she was 22 she was an IWW organiser and was sent to Lawrence.
Joe Hill, a socialist troubadour and another IWW organiser, wrote a song about her. He called it Rebel Girl.
Hill would become a martyr for the cause when copper bosses in Salt Lake City framed him on a murder charge. He was shot and his famous last words still echo down to us today, “Don’t mourn, organise!”
Gurley Flynn took him at his word, she organised and the workers of Lawrence still remember and celebrate her and the Bread and Roses strike more than a century later.
Frosty was on holiday touring New England by motor caravan. His holiday was organised by The Camping and Caravanning Clubwww.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk/travelabroad
This article was first published in the Morning Star, October 2013