by Bruce Watson
Among the many slick sound bites of this election year, one is rhetorical dynamite. With Occupy Wall Street squaring off against a “corporations are people” GOP, hardly a newscast or speech will fail to mention “class warfare.” Yet March 14 marks the 100th anniversary of victory in the most dramatic class war in American history, a Dickensian struggle featuring sinister plots, a tapestry of immigrants, and a heart-wrenching exodus of hungry children.Most Americans know only the battle’s folkloric name – “Bread and Roses.” This suggests that “class warfare” has become politics by other means.
Here’s what a real class war looks like:on January 12, 1912 — 30,000 workers stormed out of the massive textile mills lining the Merrimack River in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The reason – a weekly pay cut of 32 cents. The press expected the strike to fizzle, but in a powderkeg city of tenements and mansions, it became a pitched battle between the 1 percent — mill owners and their stockholders — and the 99 percent — immigrants from 50 countries struggling for their piece of the American dream.
The temperature that Friday morning was in the single digits but strikers were drenched with fire hoses and hammered by club-wielding cops. Then the radical Industrial Workers of the World came to Lawrence. Their lead man quickly set up a multi-lingual strike committee and rallied his troops – “Monday morning you have got to close the mills!” The fight was on. Throughout one of the iciest winters on record, Americans rich and poor focused on Lawrence. Strikes were common in 1912 but there was something different about this one.
The difference began when 10,000 singing strikers marched behind American flags. The difference deepened when mill owners, hoping to discredit the I.W.W., had dynamite planted in the tenements. Then in mid-February, after a month without wages, hundreds of women took threadbare children to the train station and bid tearful goodbyes. The “Children of Lawrence” were sent to Manhattan where they were paraded up Fifth Avenue, then fed and housed by sympathetic strangers. And still the strike dragged on.
Why haven’t you heard this story? Why isn’t it a movie or at least a PBS documentary? Why is the so-called “Bread and Roses Strike” almost never found in high school history texts? And why do the strikes those texts mention – Homestead, Pullman, the Ludlow Massacre — tell of Labor’s crushing defeat? The answer: “class warfare.”
The accusation has become as inevitable as death, more inevitable than taxes. At the slightest hint of tax hikes, conservatives lob the charge. Google “class warfare” and you’ll get 1.4 million hits. Beyond Wikipedia, the sources veer to the right. “Republicans Accuse Obama of Waging Class Warfare” (FOXNews). “How Class Warfare Weakens America – Paul Ryan” (nypost.com). “When Obama’s Music Stops, Class Warfare Starts” (Bloomberg.com).
The ubiquityof the phrase begs a comparison between current inequality and that of 1912. Today, the 1 percent owns 40 percent of all wealth, but a century ago, in the wake of the Gilded Age, this top tier possessed half the American pie. Meanwhile, children toiled in mines and mills while parents worked 56-hour weeks, with no minimum wage, workers compensation, or collective bargaining rights. Yet even as the Lawrence strike continued into March, not a single politician, pundit, or newspaper called it “class warfare.” That’s because class warfare was not an accusation in 1912 – it was, as it is becoming again, a fact of life.
As we move deeper into this election year, expect to hear “class warfare” chanted like a mantra. But don’t expect to hear much about the “Bread and Roses strike.” You’ve never heard of it because it doesn’t fit the mold of mainstream American history. That mold, defined more by a “melting pot” than by picket lines, hides an inconvenient truth — that America did not always have a strong, stable middle class. And as today’s middle class shrinks, history like that made in Lawrence a century ago becomes as dangerous as dynamite. Only when people don’t know their own tumultuous history, when its collective struggles have been neglected or erased, can “class warfare” be called un-American.
But here’s the good news from 1912. After two months and two days on the picket lines, on March 14, 1912, the strike ended in victory! Strikers in Lawrence got all they demanded and more. Mill owners across New England, terrified that their own tenement towns might explode, boosted pay for 275,000 workers who had not even asked for raises. And despite conservatives’ fears, “the Lawrence uprising” did not lead to socialism, communism or the end of the American dream. A decent wage, a safe workplace, the right to bargain collectively – these were the seeds of that dream, planted by immigrants from 50 nations chanting “Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.” It’s time more Americans knew.
Bruce Watson, in the last decade, has written three outstanding social histories. Bread and Roses was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of “25 Books to Remember in 2005.” Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, The Murders, and The Judgment of Mankind was a Book of the Month Club Selection and was nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for an Edgar Award. Freedom Summer is his most recent book. Howard Zinn said of it: “The best account I have seen of Freedom Summer.” Visit his website and follow him on twitter.