The Real Bread and Roses Strike Story Missing from Textbooks

Article. By Robert Forrant. 2013.
The author challenges the common myth that the Bread and Roses Strike was spontaneous.

The 1912 Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Mass., was one of the most significant struggles in U.S. labor history due to its level of organization and collaboration across ethnic and gender lines. Thousands of largely female workers engaged in a lengthy, well-organized, and successful walkout, standing firm against an entrenched group of mill owners and their hundreds of militia and police. Workers maintained soup kitchens and nurseries for children. Meetings were simultaneously translated into nearly 30 languages. Representatives from every nationality formed a 50-person strike leadership group.

Despite this incredible organization, the pivotal 1912 Bread and Roses Strike is not mentioned at all in 10 out of 12 major U.S. history textbooks in a 2011 survey conducted by the Zinn Education Project. The two books that reference the strike describe it as “erupting . . . in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts” (A People and a Nation, Houghton Mifflin) and “Workers spontaneously went on strike” (Give Me Liberty!, Norton).  The image of workers spontaneously saying “enough is enough” is inspiring. But it is not true. Workers weren’t passive until the minute they could take no more. A deeper understanding of events leading up to the strike in Lawrence challenges this facile history.


The trust and solidarity required to mount a successful strike was not magically born on January 11 and 12, 1912, when workers walked off the job due to a reduction in their pay. Some 20 active foreign-language chapters of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were present in the city for at least five years. IWW organizer James P. Thompson stated in the October 1912 issue of Solidarity: “It is absolutely foolish to say the strike ‘happened without any apparent cause’; ‘that it was lightning out of a clear sky,’ etc. As a matter of fact, it was a harvest, it was a result of seeds sown before. . . ”

Along with the IWW, the Italian Socialist Federation (ISF) played a significant role in the strike. ISF members, among the first workers out of the mills, provided local leadership and strategies to the larger strike force. They had strong ties to radical labor organizations throughout Italy and other European countries.

Organization also grew out of the experiences immigrant workers brought with them to Lawrence. Franco-Belgians established a cooperative modeled after institutions in France and Belgium, in 1905. The cooperative operated its own bakery as well as its own grocery store and meeting hall. As Franco-Belgian immigrant August Detollenaere noted, “The union is the place of combat; the cooperative must be . . . a financial and moral support.” He and many other Lawrence workers carried their labor histories with them into the city’s mills and drew on their experiences to build vital worker organizations across the city….

During the strike, The Franco-Belgian soup kitchen fed over 23,000 workers and their dependents, this from a population of 1,200 Franco-Belgians in the city at the time of the strike. Image from Digital Public Library of America. (Click image to see more.)
During the strike, the Franco-Belgian soup kitchen fed workers’ children. Image: Digital Public Library of America. (Click image to see more.)

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