Monday, September 01, 2008

Labor Day 2008

This Labor Day, the Boston Globe has an article about Lawrence, Massachusetts honoring one of the victims of the "Bread and Roses" strike in that city in 1912. Erik Moskowitz writes:

Under other circumstances, John Ramey could have been remembered as a martyr, an immigrant mill worker speared by a militiaman's bayonet. He was killed in a strike that started over a wage cut of a few pennies a week to laborers who toiled in unsafe conditions and earned barely enough to survive.

But Ramey is hardly remembered at all. No memorial marks the site where the young man was struck down; little is known about him, and even his age is a question mark. For half a century, Lawrence buried the story of Ramey and the textile strike of 1912, one of the most significant in the country's history. Those old enough to have participated spoke little about it, the fear of being branded anti-American lingering even after the textile industry had vanished.

"They stopped talking, and history was being covered over," said Jonas Stundzia, a 54-year-old Lawrence native and local historian who has led a movement to recognize and revive the city's industrial-labor heritage and the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912.
The recovery of the history and memories of the immigrants' story in the Bread and Roses strike is a fitting effort for Labor Day. I worked in St. Louis with labor law Prof. Susan (Toni) Fitzgibbon, who once remarked to me that she thought the efforts of unions to rebalance power in the U.S. possibly saved the country from socialism. I was startled by the remark, but on reflection thought it was very interesting and probably true. In my own family, my paternal grandfather worked in automobile factories in Indianapolis at around the same time as the Bread and Roses strike. My father recalls him calling for unions. But, like the families of strikers in Lawrence, there seemed to be a backlash against the union efforts in my own family. I have been interested to learn more about the early years when underpaid workers in dangerous mines and factories struggled to establish a collective voice to push back against owners' greed. Unions have been vilified in many ways, but I thought Toni had a very interesting point -- the stability of the capitalist society in the U.S. may owe a great deal to the unions' efforts. Here is a link to a site that has both more details about the Bread and Roses strike and the lyrics to the song, "Bread and Roses," originally a poem by James Oppenheim. the poem begins
As we come 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!"
The strike was largely (but not entirely) women textile workers, mostly immigrants. According to this website Big Bill Haley of the IWW (International Workers of the World stated that this strike was run as a democracy. That's an amazing thing to consider.

The image is an album cover by the Byrds, courtesy of


marfita said...

You might be interested (if you haven't read it already) in the book Triangle: the fire that changed America by David von Drehle about a fire in NYC's garment district. It's good for lawyer-bashing as well as greedy factory-owner-bashing.

Betsy McKenzie said...

Is this the shirtwaist factory fire? thanks for the note!