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Dan Speers

Citizen Poet
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Remembering the Working Women Who Fought for Unions
When I was a young boy, my father, a union organizer and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, AFL-CIO, would take us to Labor Day picnics organized, sponsored and enthusiastically financed by the union. As I grew older, I learned about the unions, about how men like my father fought for the working men and women, how they struggled for safety, for equal pay, for a fair shake and a fair share of the American dream.
 
One hundred years ago, a group of women in Lawrence, Massachusetts, women who were underpaid, overworked and forced to labor in unsafe conditions acerbated by working conditions in factories close to freezing in the winter and brutally hot in the summer were suddenly told by the owners that they had to work longer, produce more and take lower pay. It was a revolting situation. And they did.
 
It happened like this. Factory owners lured men and women in Eastern Europe and the Middle East with promises of good wages and jobs in the mills of Lawrence. They brought in workers—most women and children--from many different countries speaking as many as twenty-five different languages. And they kept them separated, strategically thinking that if all these different cultures and heritages spoke different languages, they would not be able to talk with each other, discuss grievances and possibly unite against the owners over some of the most deplorable working conditions ever seen in any industrialized country. Tenement housing, deplorable sanitation, and unsafe working conditions with dangerous machinery. Half of the children died by their sixth birthday. One third of all workers contracted tuberculosis, and when they became unable to work, they were turned out.
 
In 1912, the working week was 56 hours. The pay was $6 a week. The workers were billed exorbitant rates for their housing. They were overcharged for their food. Despite the promises made by the industrialists, these men, women and children were living in squalor.
 
That was the year that the State of Massachusetts attempted to ease the plight of the workers by reducing the work week by two hours. The owners, who had opposed the law, were furious and immediately adopted draconian measures to get around the law. Not only did they cut the worker’s pay by two hours, they speeded up the machines to compensate for the lost time and product.
 
And that’s when the women workers of Lawrence decided that they had had enough. Despite the fact that previous attempts at unionization had been met with violence ranging from beatings to maiming to firing and even death, thousands of women walked off the jobs, out of the factories and rallied behind the cry: “We want bread, and roses, too!” City officials, bowing to the industrialist, called in the National Guard and state militia. In freezing winter weather, sprayed the women with fire hoses. It only made the women more adamant. Some wrapped themselves in the American flag and dared soldiers to shoot them. One woman, Anna LoPizzo, was shot to death.
 
The strike was overwhelming. More than 30,000 workers speaking twenty-five different language. Help arrived from all over the world, The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the socialist group know as the Wobblies who believed in worker solidarity regardless of gender, nationality or ethnicity sent powerful organizers and advocates. The women demanded a fifteen percent increase in wages, double pay for overtime, adherence to the state law for a 54-hour week, and rehiring of all striking workers. The owners refused.
 
The women carried on. They formed picked lines. They marched. They set up soup kitchens. They shared food, clothing and medicine. Strangers from other cities who were known as “Striker’s Firend”  sent money and food, provided homes for the children. A train from New York was organized to take many children from Lawrence to temporary homes in New York City,m but the owners, city officials and police made a tactical error—they attacked the women and children waiting at the Lawrence station for the train. Many were beaten and dragged away. One pregnant woman was beaten miscarried. The newspaper reports were devastating.
 
In Washington, the federal government took notice. Congress demanded hearings. Public opinion shifted to the plight of the workers and at long last, the owner capitulated. The workers got their wage increase—25% for the lowest paid—time and a quarter for overtime, and blanket rehiring. But it wasn’t just in Lawrence. The change rippled throughout the industrialized northeast, with factory and mill owners now fearful that their own workers would rebel, raised pay, improved safety and created far better working conditions.
 
A few years ago, I went to the Labor Day celebration in Lawrence. Of course, the mills are no longer mills. The factories have grown silent. The buildings are being converted into housing and stores and restaurants. Unions are not what they used to be. The Wobblies are disparaged as socialists. And with the economy in its current shape, so many are out of work. But what bothered me most was how poorly the Labor Day festivities were attended. There were so few of us there.
 
So few. And that is how I came to write the following poem:
 

We Never Thought We’d Have to Ask Them

 

We all came down to Lawrence town,
Phantoms and ghosts, shadows and wraiths,
To see the faithful come round
And celebrate this Labor Day.
It was September, two-thousand-and-five.
We stood on the Common for the national anthem
And all day we waited for the crowds to arrive.
We never thought we’d have to ask them.

 

It started here in Lawrence town.
With the Merrimack-powered mills
And cheap labor easy found,
Owners spun profits from textiles.
And though it’s labeled sheer speculation
It’s said that owners thwarted unionization
By hiring workers from such different nations
And thus forestall communication.

 

It was a noble goal some say,
When state law shortened the work week.
But mills cut both hours and pay,
Saying profit was theirs to keep.
It was January, nineteen-hundred-and-twelve,
When workers hit the streets, led by strike-bound women.
Perplexed owners shook their heads and said to themselves
We never thought we’d have to ask them.

 

“Mob Runs Riot In Mills At Lawrence,”
Newspaper headlines screamed in rage.
It’s Italians and Syrians
Claimed the story on every page.
Came the army and police, this riot to quench.
Only to discover twenty-five thousand souls.
Women, children and men. Canadian and French.
Lithuanians, Irish and Poles.

 

In the midst of an Artic storm,
For bread, and roses, too, they hiked,
Songs and marches to keep warm,
Chanting the slogan, “Short pay! Strike!”
For a hundred days the strike went on, and on,
Soup kitchens and relief stations giving support.
Big Apple sympathizers took children on loan
With a brass band parade in New York.

 

‘Twas indignation in Lawrence.
Two dead. Beatings. Despicable.
An angry Congress took a stance,
Exposing the unspeakable.
The appalling plight of the textile workers
Was a story a shocked public could understand.
Why these strikers, My God! They’re workers not shirkers.
The owners met the strikers’ demands.

 

We all came down to Lawrence town,
Phantoms and ghosts, shadows and wraiths,
Among the few to come around,
To remember this Labor Day.
Once were more of us, with victories clear.
Wages and weekends and safety won by union.
So we waited for our successors to appear.
We never thought we’d have to ask them.