Tony Vagneur: The struggle was also real in 1912
History repeats itself, so the saying goes, especially when people are unaware of what has happened previously. We watch television for news updates, hearing of unrest in the land and of new organizations with incredible zeal and catchy names, thinking it’s all new, but really, the past rings loudly in our ears.
In 1905, a group calling itself the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed in Chicago. As with most groups, its intentions were good, but also filled with rhetoric anathema to many Americans. Part of their mission statement says: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.”
“Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.
“It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially, we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”
Who could foresee in 1905 that such rhetoric would be paraphrased in 2020 American politics? That sounds a bit like talking about the 1% versus the rest of us. The IWW not only had individual members, but also counted other unions among its membership, so it’s hard to say how many members the IWW actually had at any one time.
The IWW was all about equality, and they courted every ethnicity for membership: Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians and a number of white organizations. One of its branches, a longshoreman’s union, had a majority of African-Americans among its 5,000 members.
East Coast garment workers were eager to join a strong union. In 1911, the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics had concluded that the full-time earnings of a worker were inadequate to support a family. To alleviate the short ends, most everyone in the family over the legally imposed minority of 14 were put to work in the garment mills.
A tragic life, indeed, as the mills were for the large part filthy, poorly ventilated and harbored many diseases, including tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments. The teenagers, forced into labor by circumstances, usually died after two or three years of mill work, and almost 40% of men and women workers died around the age of 25.
The Massachusetts “Bread and Roses Strike” of 1912 was perhaps the most decisive victory ever won by organized labor in the U.S. One of the victims of the strike, Anna LoPizzo, became the catalyst for continuing the strike for 63 days. She was killed when policemen, trying to maintain order over strikers who were fighting the cops, were ordered to fire on the strikers. Anna LoPizzo was inadvertently killed.
You might think a strike is mostly conducted by men, but women in the Lawrence community were a powerful force to be reckoned with. One unlucky cop, caught alone on an icy bridge by a group of women, was stripped of his trousers and held over the side of the bridge, relaying the message that women, as well as men, needed to be placated before the walkout would end.
At a protest over LoPizzo’s death, a group of soldiers were ordered to draw their guns and point them toward the unruly crowd. A 22-year-old Syrian immigrant woman went to the front, wrapped herself in an American flag and dared the soldiers to desecrate the flag with their bullets. She won. A remarkable twist on today’s defilement of the flag by some protesters.
With 30,000 mill workers on strike, the national media picked up the “Bread and Roses” story rather quickly, and as the tide turned from mill owners’ concerns to workers’ troubles, raises were granted, working conditions improved; the rival American Federation of Labor union was invited by several large companies to discuss unionization. Things began to change.
That was the last big hurrah for the IWW, although the union has remained active over the years, and as the summer of discontent begins to draw longer shadows, the IWW is busy recruiting members over the COVID-19 pandemic.
As drastic as today’s protests and riots may seem, it is wise to reflect upon past entanglements in our history, if nothing else, to remind ourselves that it is maybe not the worst, or that we aren’t facing the end of everything.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.