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Book Review

Taking the American Dream

By Steve Brewster '66

One evening just before Christmas 10 years ago, Aaron Feuerstein—at the time, the 70-year-old and third-generation owner of the Malden Mills textile factory near Lawrence, Mass.—made an announcement to his 3,200 employees. Just days after a raging fire had destroyed three of the mill’s historic buildings, he told them they would all receive their full salary and benefits during the mill’s reconstruction. A few weeks earlier, each worker had received a $275 holiday bonus. Feuerstein, who was highly praised for his generosity, simply said: “I haven’t really done anything. I don’t deserve credit. Corporate America has made it so that when you behave the way I did, it’s abnormal.”

From all accounts, this understated, principled response was typical of Feuerstein, but ironic as well since it was in Lawrence in 1912 that mill owners of quite a different stripe and some 28,000 of their workers confronted each other in what Bruce Watson ’75—in his book: Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream—calls “the most dramatic strike in American history.”

Lawrence, the most southerly of many mill towns along the 110-mile Merrimack River, was founded in 1845 by wealthy, pious Bostonian Abbott Lawrence and his fellow investors as a utopian alternative—“a planned metropolis graced by parks, open waterways and modest housing for contented workers”—to older, already overcrowded, decaying mill towns like Lowell, just “up river.” Yet from its beginning, Lawrence was also a magnet for immigrants. By 1911, 74,000 of its 86,000 inhabitants were either first- or second-generation Americans, with fully a third from southern and eastern Europe and eastern Mediterranean shores. Watson reminds us of Emma Lazarus’s famous Statue of Liberty inscription about these “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but then cites another sentiment of the time, these “off-scourings of Southern Europe [who] will not be assimilated [and] have no sympathy with our institutions.”

The attitude of Lawrence mill owners was no better; one referred to his workers as “a pack of fools.” Rather the owners’ concern was for growth and production, as Watson explains:

“In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, America drove itself from a largely rural country into the world’s leading industrial power. Lawrence hustled to keep up with the giddy, greedy era. Through boom and bust, its mills pumped out fabric to clothe an increasingly fashion-conscious nation. In the 1870s and 1880s, the Merrimack was left to power itself as first steam and then electricity drove power wheels twice as tall as a man. These in turn sped larger mills, enormous, inhuman beehives that awed arriving immigrants. In the frenzy of competition, new mill owners had no time for Abbott Lawrence’s concern for ‘temperance and virtue.’ In place of paternalism came neglect. Mill men in Lawrence shared the attitude of their peer in Fall River who claimed, ‘I regard my work people just as I regard my machinery. So long as they can do my work for what I choose to pay them, I keep them, getting out of them all I can. What they do or how they fare outside my walls, I don’t know, nor do I consider it my business to know.’”

Had Lawrence known, he may not have remained so indifferent. His initial plan of “one house per lot, one family per dwelling” had long been abandoned. Instead, “slums rose across the city’s center in a maze of four-story wooden traps with roofs as flat as the ground itself, as if God had stepped on these tenements to grind them deeper into the city’s soil. Like mice in some clinical experiment, children swarmed through the maze, fighting, playing, cursing each other in their native tongues. Garbage and raw sewage filled alleys and spilled into the canals.”

Conditions in the mills were no better:

“[Workers] ranged from tall twelve-year-olds whose forged work papers claimed they were fourteen to men and women approaching fifty. Some were slightly older, but not many lasted that long in the mills. Inhaling fibers that floated through the dank, humid mill rooms, a third died within a decade on the job. Malnourished, they succumbed to tuberculosis, pneumonia, or anthrax, known as ‘the woolsorters’ disease.’ They were crushed by machinery, mangled by looms and spinners. In a single five-year span, the Pacific Mill had a thousand accidents, two for every three days on the job. Those who avoided accident or disease just wore out like an old suit. Doctors and ministers in Lawrence lived an average of sixty-five years. Mill bosses could expect to live fifty-eight years. The typical mill worker died at thirty-nine.”

Against this backdrop, in the abnormally cold January of 1912, Lawrence’s polyglot workforce called a strike. It was sparked by a 32 cents-per-week pay cut (an amount then worth 10 loaves of bread). The mill owners said they were simply following the law—a new Massachusetts regulation reducing the workweek from 56 to 54 hours—yet, three years earlier, when a similar workweek reduction regulation was enacted, weekly pay had remained the same.

Within the first week a Strike Committee was formed by Joseph “Smiling Joe” Ettor (“the quintessence of free-thinking radicalism with his wild head of hair and perpetual smile”) of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or “Wobblies.” Invited to Lawrence by local Italian laborite Angelo Rocco, Ettor was the first of many IWW leaders and other “radicals and socialists” of the day who led or affiliated with the Lawrence Strike.

The Strike Committee, comprised of four representatives from each of the workers’ 14 nationality groups, demanded more than just two hours’ pay. They wanted a 15 percent across-the-board pay increase; double pay for overtime (not the standard rate then being paid); an immediate end to an onerous “bonus” scheme that pitted workers doing one type of work against those doing another; and no retaliation against workers when the strike ended and they returned to work.

These demands were not met until mid-March. Bound by mutual business interests, cultural affinities and social affiliations, as well as by their opposition to child labor laws, support of high tariffs protecting their textiles, and abhorrence of strikes, the mill owners staunchly opposed for most of the strike’s two-month duration the “group of radicals … who believed … unskilled rabble should own and run [the mills].”

Indeed, the chief target of the strike, giant American Woolen Mills owner William Wood, who refused the strikers’ demands during an early meeting with Ettor, simply “dropped out of sight, refusing to pontificate, threaten, or even posture.” By mid-February, with “the whole nation watching and Lawrence … in an armed, edgy stalemate,” the mill owners’ mute Wood, “suffering from tonsillitis and nagged by the press to break his silence, exploded. ‘Why make me the figurehead all the time?’ he shouted at a reporter. ‘It isn’t just my strike. I haven’t anything to say, and I don’t want to say anything. Talk to someone else for a change.’”

Against this “row of bricks,” as one of their own labeled the mill owners, was the solidarity and courage of the workers themselves. This was all the more remarkable given the thousands who were on strike; their ethnic diversity; mix of skilled and unskilled workers; and the tactics used against them by law enforcement, including state militiamen. Their persistent and basically peaceful actions day after day—rallies, marches, picket lines, soup kitchens and other mutual aid activities—were reported by the many English and non-English language newspapers of the day.

This resulted in widespread, but certainly not universal, sympathy and support for the strikers. That many women and children were involved in the strike only heightened these sentiments, especially when the strikers sent their children away from Lawrence to the houses of strangers so that they could be better clothed and fed by strike sympathizers.

The March 1912 congressional testimony of “the children of Lawrence” exposed the young workers as “not children at all, not even adolescents, but apprentice adults who had left childhood at the mill gates.”

Award-winning journalist Watson deftly details these and other aspects of the Lawrence Strike: how loathed and feared the Wobblies were for their radical anti-capitalism; the subterfuge of the mill owners, including William Wood himself and his involvement in seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the strike; the trumped-up murder charges against Ettor and Giovannitti who, after a five-month imprisonment, were finally acquitted in November in a Salem, Mass., courtroom; and the frequently brutal anti-striker tactics of various law enforcement officers, including militiamen and the courts.

Watson learned of the strike during his first job as a full-time elementary school substitute teacher in Lawrence, where he taught for eight years. The town’s many empty red-brick mill buildings (each four to six stories tall, with rooms in some cases literally several acres vast) sat silent—like eerie behemoths, monstrous relics of such different times, energy and anguish. Watson writes of walking through this labyrinth of mills with his two children, “Elena and Nate, who for nearly two years heard more than they cared to know about a long-ago strike … and have only begun to realize how much their future is woven with the past.”

These mills mutely mark this history, together with the Bread & Roses Festival that is still celebrated in Lawrence each Labor Day. Watson lives with his wife and two children just 87 miles west of Lawrence today. He urges a visit to the Lawrence Heritage Park, evoking as it does mill conditions and mill worker life, including an exhibit of power looms—short, squat machines that ranged row after row the entire length of a mill’s “nerve center,” the top floor weaving room—complete with what Watson writes was “the [RA-ta-ta, RA-ta-ta … clack-CLACK-clack-CLACK] cacophony of mill work,” that some “workers insisted they got used to … [while] others said it drove them mad.”

Published in the Smithsonian, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, San Francisco Examiner, Yankee Magazine and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003, Watson’s writing is vivid, novelistic and attention-sustaining. He credits the clear, colorful narrative to the vast amount of primary material available to him, especially the many news articles that covered the Lawrence Strike in such detail.

World War I soon overshadowed the Lawrence Strike and officials sought to downplay this dark chapter of their city’s history. Thanks to Watson’s work, the record is vivid once again—and aptly so, given nefarious forces operative in our own times. As one reviewer noted: “This book’s subtitle, and its contents, suggest that the ‘American Dream’ enjoyed by the nation’s middle class had to be taken by force by the working class and is by no means a permanent entitlement.”

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