“Occupy Lawrence” lecture reaches UM, talks historical significance

By Ardee Napolitano

University of Massachusetts Lowell Professor Robert Forrant presented a lecture titled “Occupy Lawrence 1912: Why the Bread and Roses Strike Still Matters” in the Campus Center Tuesday afternoon.

The event was part of a series of about 25 lectures sponsored in part by the town of Lawrence to celebrate the centennial of the historic 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike.

In January 1912, workers from Everett Cotton Mills in Lawrence, Mass. learned that their employers were cutting their salaries by 32 cents. The cut was a result of new labor regulations in the state. In response, women, along with children who faked their ages to get into the workforce, walked out of the factory furiously shouting “short pay, short pay,” Forrant explained during his lecture.

Other mill workers who felt abused joined them the next day. In less than a week, almost 20,000 workers, mostly women, children and immigrants, went on strike according to Forrant.

Forrant said that the Bread and Roses Strike is still significant because of its apparent similarity with the recent Occupy Wall Street movements.

“What this strike did then that Occupy does now is expose inequality,” he said. “It makes it impossible for people to ignore the inequality.”

The main difference between the two movements is the role of social media, Forrant said. He found it “fascinating” that the protest became almost as huge as the Occupy movement despite not having the technological advantage that we have today.

“There are many strikes in labor history, but this always pops out there,” he said.

Income inequality was a major problem in the town at the time, Forrant said. While the mills, back then, were worth $10 million dollars, workers were paid a mere 18 cents per hour. Today’s equivalent of the factories’ value amount up to $237 million, while workers’ salaries equal $4.26 an hour, he said.

In addition, Forrant said that Lawrence experienced extreme poverty and had the eighth highest death rate in the country in 1912, which Forrant said is very different from today’s Lawrence.

These problems, Forrant said, fueled the walkout, which is more popularly known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.”

To stop the intensifying local uprising, the militia was forced to intervene, and since the strike was more overwhelming than what many upper-class people expected, the militia was deemed short of manpower, according to Forrant.

To patch this problem up, professors from Harvard University offered students exemptions from an exam if they agreed to join the militia, Forrant said.

The Bread and Roses Strike eventually reached national recognition, and obtained support especially from groups in Oregon, he said. Also, women’s colleges in Massachusetts, such as Smith, Wellesley and Mount Holyoke, backed the strike actively.

Because of the resulting violent environment in Lawrence, adults planned to send their children out of state, Forrant said. On Feb. 24, adults planned to send about 50 children to Philadelphia in the so-called “Children’s Exodus.”

The militia thought that this event would give the strike more publicity, and according to Forrent, they beat and arrested women and children. According to Forrant, this caught the government’s eye and marked the end of the strike.

Ultimately, Forrant said that the Bread and Roses Strike is a historical event that greatly affected people’s views about the extent of power laborers have, and that the Occupy movement can learn something from it.

“The great Lawrence Textile Strike defied popular assumptions that immigrant, largely female, and linguistically and ethnically divided workers could not be organized,” he said.

Forrant will head to Albany on Monday to continue his series of lectures.

Ardee Napolitano can be reached at [email protected]