LAWRENCE, MA — While many celebrated Labor Day weekend with beach trips and barbeques, the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts did something unusual: it actually commemorated the U.S. labor movement.
The “Bread and Roses Heritage Festival” is an annual gathering in Lawrence honoring the pivotal “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912. That year, more than 20,000 men, women, and children walked out of the city’s textile mill sweatshops in protest after a wage cut. The largely unskilled, immigrant laborers showed remarkable determination over nine weeks in the dead of winter. With the help of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), the strikers built solidarity across the linguistic and cultural differences of their fifteen ethnic backgrounds. And they won.
This year’s celebration held a special significance, as 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the textile workers’ strike. When festival-goers arrived at Campagnone Common early in the day, they were greeted by a 15-ton granite boulder under wraps and an empty podium waiting nearby. A new monument honoring the strikers would soon be unveiled.
As the festival got underway, a crowd of several hundred arrived as part of the March for Economic Justice, organized by local unions. Many wore t-shirts provided by UNITE-HERE, reading “Textile workers, still here! Still strong!”
the dedication concluded with what is perhaps a rare event in today’s civic life: a rendition of the “The Internationale.” Organizers chose to sing the South African version of the song in a gesture of solidarity with the striking miners of that country.
Attendance at the public commons exceeded organizers’ expectations. People conversed in both Spanish and English while waiting in line for barbecue, tacos, and fried dough. Children had their faces painted, played catch, and learned from interactive historical games. Young ballerinas from the Methuen Center for Performing Arts swished their colorful skirts. Dozens of organizations shared information with passersby, including Occupy Boston Radio, Occupy Middlesex, the I.W.W., Merrimack Valley People for Peace, and the Lawrence Center for Mindful Living.
A little past one in the afternoon, a crowd gathered by the new monument and listened as local leaders spoke about the 1912 strike. “It started a revolution in the labor movement that spread throughout New England and the rest of the world,” said Paul Georges, president of the Merrimack Valley Central Labor Council. Lawrence’s mayor, William Lantigua, helped lift a blue cloth from the memorial, revealing a bronze plaque designed by Gloucester sculptor Daniel Altshuler. It depicts hundreds of textile workers outside the mills and in the streets, led by a figure carrying the American flag. According to the Monument Committee, the strikers of 1912 “routinely carried flags to emphasize their allegiance to their newly adopted homeland and their belief in improving both living and working conditions in this land of the free.”
After the monument was unveiled, the American flag was solemnly raised. Then the dedication concluded with what is perhaps a rare event in today’s civic life: a rendition of the “The Internationale.” Organizers chose to sing the South African version of the song in a gesture of solidarity with the striking miners of that country. Audience members joined in as the Lawrence High School Girls Choir Ensemble sang: “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye toilers of the earth…”
Later in the day, Bread & Puppet Theater presented: “Possibilitarian: Complete Everything Everywhere Circus.” The act’s creative and often satirical artistry interwove environmental and social justice motifs, bringing smiles to many faces –– especially the children’s. As actress Catherine Nook explained after taking a bow, “Art is as important to the soul as bread is to the stomach!” In keeping with director Peter Schumann’s long held custom, cast members nourished the audience with both, slicing bread and serving it with dip that one child deemed, “Delicious!”
Following Bread & Puppet’s show, the Yiddish Community Chorus of the Boston Workmen’s Circle performed a musical and oral history of the 1912 strike. Toward the conclusion of its moving narrative, Occupy Boston activist Bil Lewis yelled “Mic Check!” from amidst the crowd. Listeners echoed his words as he spoke them aloud: “In 1912, the richest 1% owned 45% of all the wealth. Over the last 30 years, we have witnessed the greatest transfer of wealth to the top 1% in the history of modern society. In 2012, the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90%.”
Bread & Puppet’s Dixieland brass band joined in with chorus, who encouraged the audience to sing along with I.W.W. favorites, such as “Solidarity Forever”–– “It was we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade; Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid…” –– and “Down by the Riverside.”
The strike of 1912 takes its name from women who, according to legend, demanded “bread, and roses too!” They not only sought subsistence (“bread”) but for dignity and beauty (“roses”) as well. As the festival continued on into the early evening, with hundreds of people talking, laughing, and listening to music, the possibility of that good life seemed both very close and very much worth fighting for.