On this day in 1912, 34-year-old immigrant mill-worker Anna LoPizzo was shot and killed by police whilst peacefully picketing in the Lawrence Textile Strike. Unlike the majority of heroines recalled here at On This Deity, Anna LoPizzo was in no way remarkable. In life, she wasn’t at the vanguard of reform or revolution. In death, she didn’t become a world-famous martyr. So anonymous was she that it’s not even certain “LoPizzo” was her real surname. Like millions of other Europeans, she’d sacrificed all to cross the Atlantic in search of the American Dream – only to encounter grueling hardships and a xenophobic caste system. But Anna’s forgotten story is central to one of the most significant strikes in labour history – and, just over 100 years later, a sobering reminder of the divide that remains between the ruling class and the rest of us.
In 1912, Lawrence, Massachusetts was a city of mostly poor immigrants who worked in the textile mills – many of them women and children as young as seven. Pay was piss poor, conditions were unimaginably brutal: six-day work weeks; toxic fibres and suffocating dust; dangerous machinery … one poor 13-year-old girl was entirely scalped when a loom snagged her hair. Little surprise that a third of Lawrence mill workers were doomed to die before they turned 25.
When a new Massachusetts law was passed reducing the working week for women and children from 56 to a maximum of 54 hours, mill owners deducted two hours of pay while demanding the same output. The 30-cent pay cut was the equivalent of three loaves of bread. For poor workers already struggling to feed their families, this was tantamount to starvation. Opening their payslips, Polish women shouted “short pay!” and walked out. Within a week, some 20,000 more mill workers – mainly women – joined the strike in bold defiance of the gender and ethnic disadvantages their bosses so cruelly exploited.
Leaders from the Industrial Workers of the World rushed to Lawrence to help organise the women in what would come to be known as the Bread and Roses Strike. Fair pay and dignity? For early twentieth-century working women, this was an alien concept. But the Bread and Roses Strike was the first American labour struggle to reject the age-old notion that women were lesser than men, as well as the arrogant assumption that ethnically divided groups could not be organised. “The women wanted to picket,” recalled Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – the infamous Rebel Girl of the IWW. “They were valiant fighters.”
The mill owners responded to the strike by calling in the police and state militia. Such was the gratuitous forcefulness that Harvard students were invited to take up arms against the protesters with the offer of course credits in return. Things inevitably turned ugly, with mass arrests and fire hoses turned on the picketers. Two weeks into the dispute, on 29th January, dozens witnessed police officer Oscar Benoit firing the shot that killed Anna LoPizzo. But in a cynical move so typical of class struggles, authorities charged IWW organisers Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti with inciting murder – even though both men were at a meeting three miles away at the time of the shooting.
After Anna’s death, martial law was enforced and all public meetings declared illegal. Undeterred, the women continued to strike in LoPizzo’s memory. A month later, in a milestone victory, they won their wage increases. But within a few years, most of the gains achieved by the workers were lost while Lawrence residents distanced themselves from the memory of the strike. With the outbreak of World War I, government agents rounded up, jailed, and deported IWW members for advocating supposedly unpatriotic ideologies such as peace and better wages. Fear of association with the IWW and being branded anti-American lingered long in Lawrence, even after the textile industry had vanished.
A century has passed since the Bread and Roses Strike, but how much has really changed? Low-waged migrant workers remain the most vulnerable and exploited, while economic growth remains powered and largely consumed by the wealthy few. And, with the shift in labour from industry to service, a new kind of “white collar” oppression has emerged. In the past two decades, management has re-asserted dictatorial powers while neo-liberalism has waged an all-out attack on unionisation. The result is that today in the US and UK, unions represent barely 10% of the workforce with inevitable consequences: “Draw one line on a graph charting the decline in union membership, then superimpose a second line charting the decline in [workers'] income share,” writes Timothy Noah – author of The Great Divergence, “and you will find that the two lines are nearly identical.”
As for Anna LoPizzo, for 88 years after her death, she languished in an unmarked pauper’s grave – her martyrdom systematically erased from collective memory – until in 2000 a Massachusetts businessman set about getting a headstone made. Men and women like Anna fought and died for humble workers’ rights only for their 21st-century descendants to live under corporate-driven, politically-dominant plutonomies hellbent on hoarding every last crumb. It’s high time for a reinvigorated labour movement to once and for all redress the social order.