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The Lawrence mill strike of 1919 -- Part II

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Father Waters observes that "the lack of sympathy for the strikers on the part of the general body of citizens is very notable. Almost unanimous also is the condemnation of the strike as a Bolshevist movement."


The previous installment of this column discussed a report by Father Patrick J. Waters on the 1919 labor dispute between textile mill workers and owners in Lawrence, MA. It outlined the context of the strike, and the positions of the strikers, mill owners, public and Catholic churches in the city.

Below it continues with Father Waters' observations about the mill workers' living conditions, his conclusions, the result of the strike and a brief analysis.

Living conditions of the strikers

The report Father Waters submitted looked beyond the immediate cause of the strike -- a reduction in wages -- to see what other factors contributed to the workers' discontent.

As previously noted, the majority of the strikers were Italian, and upon investigation, he discovered that the neighborhood in which they lived had been studied by the Massachusetts Board of Health, found to be in deplorable condition, and it was recommended that the entire district be demolished.

Geography is partly to blame, Father Waters claimed. Lawrence is surrounded by hills, the basin in the middle was congested and offered limited room for growth. While workers could live further away, the high cost of fares made commuting by train prohibitive.

Shockingly, he states that "these conditions in a great number of cases exist because the people themselves desire them." Continuing, they are satisfied "with poor quarters procured for little rent," and that boarders are crowded into these spaces, "a situation which makes for disease and immorality."

These conditions were undoubtedly perpetuated by an unlivable wage, rather than a desire to live such a crowded existence. Father Waters does conclude with an admission that "something should be done to improve the living conditions of the people."

Father Waters' conclusions

Father Waters observes that "the lack of sympathy for the strikers on the part of the general body of citizens is very notable. Almost unanimous also is the condemnation of the strike as a Bolshevist movement."

This lurking shadow, he states, has distracted from the objective of the strikers, and cites the violent methods and incendiary speeches of the strike leaders. He believes the public would like to see the workers' quality of life improve, but not under the current influences.

Father Waters personally believes that if the reduction of hours, and subsequently pay, was the desire of the mill owners, then the workers would be just in their complaints. However, the reduction in hours was the desire of the workers, or at least the United Textile Workers of America, and was granted, so they have no right to protest. "Most of the workers would rather have the hours as they were or any number of hours," Father Waters writes, "so long as they were paid for the time put in."

Regarding wages, he believes the workers should get more of the mills' profits, but they are decently paid. He made inquiries at several schools and found that the children of millworkers are well dressed and nourished. Businessmen confessed that the mill workers frequently patronize their shops without accruing debt. And bank officials remarked upon significant deposits made by the mill workers.

He writes that "the general opinion of the men around the city was that the strikers could not justly claim that they were getting insufficient pay" but, at the same time, admits that the non-English speaking workers were given the lowest paying jobs. In some instances, whole families worked in the mills, and in those cases the male provider should be given an increase so "that there would be no need for the mother and the children to be in the mill."

While overtime during the war years resulted in extra income for many workers, that would not continue, and with expected regular periods of unemployment, workers were probably not making adequate wages. The mill owners commended themselves for voluntarily raising wages during the war, which leads him to believe they must have known wages were too low. "There is some justice, then, on the side of the workers, which the condemnation of the strike leaders has thrown into the background," he concludes.

Even if a settlement is reached, workers will continue to demand higher wages and Lawrence "will never be very far from a strike," Father Waters laments. "There are certain forces that underly the whole situation and so long as those forces are at work little hope for industrial peace can be entertained."vThe mill owners' view needs to be corrected; they need to stop looking at their workers as "wage slaves." The workers are human beings with rights, and the owners need to realize "the toil of the worker is just as important in the industries as are the money and the brains which they themselves contribute. They should consider one another as partners in production."

He advocates for mill owners becoming more involved in the welfare of their workers, making them literate and helping them become citizens, so they are not so easily deceived by bad leaders.

The strike ends

The strike, which had begun on Feb. 3, 1919, officially came to an end on May 21. The mill workers were promised the agreed upon 48-hour work week and a 15 percent increase in wages, effective June 2.

The following day, mill workers surged back to the mills, so many, reported The Boston Daily Globe, that many could not be immediately accommodated with work and were to be reintegrated over the following seven to 10 days. The reports also shared that mills around New England were voluntarily giving their workers matching hours and a raise in pay to avoid repeating the events of Lawrence.


There are numerous references in Father Waters' report to English-speaking workers, who continued to work, and foreign-speaking mill workers who went on strike. While Father Waters comments that the two groups rarely had sympathy for each other, his observation that the latter often held lower-paying jobs in the mills, which led to a lower quality of life overall, is most telling in this instance.

In the preceding decade, immigration to Lawrence had slowed, and tensions between communities were beginning to ease. This is particularly true during WWI when people from all backgrounds volunteered for the armed forces, worked extra hours to increase production, and contributed time, skill, and money to relief causes. In the words of one historian, "the immigrants had proven that they were Americans by spending their money and their lives for their country." Sadly, the strike of 1919 is acknowledged as a setback against these gains, once again bringing into question the allegiance of immigrants living within the city.

Father Waters also expresses concern about the influence of radical groups such as socialists or anarchists. Like McCarthyism decades later, a fear of socialism had taken root in early 20th-century America, and these radicals were blamed for labor unrest, trying to de-Americanize immigrants and fomenting other social problems. Local, state and federal governments combatted these forces with local police, the National Guard and leaders often faced legal reprisals.

For further reading, please see: "Immigrant City: Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1845-1921" by Donald B. Cole and "Lawrence and the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike" by Dr. Robert Forrant and Susan Grabski.

- Father Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Boston.

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