April 2012 Issue
March 19, 2012

100 years later, a new fight for better wages

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: A crowd of mill workers, mostly children, on the streets of Lawrence, Mass., during the Bread and Roses strike. Library of Congress, Prints and Photography Division, [REPRODUCTION NUMBER, E.G., LC-B2-1234]

The spirit and stamina of impoverished mill workers in Lawrence, Mass., who, a century ago, went on strike for better wages during an "ugly, cold, snowy winter," inspired the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition to hold its annual fast with attention to problems in today's working environments.

Followers from the faith and labor communities joined the demand for a raise in minimum wage from $7.25 to $10 an hour and to close $1 billion in corporate tax loopholes. Since 1990, the coalition reports, the median hourly wage increased by less than 1 percent while pay on Wall Street grew by 112 percent. In fact, the typical CEO earns 369 times as much as the average worker, up from 36 times as recently as 1976.

"Income inequality is greater in New York than any other state and New York City is the most disparate among the 25 largest cities in the U.S," the coalition reports.

The parallels between the mill workers of 1912 and New York's struggling workforce of 2012 are many, a classic and tragic tale of the haves — or, as the coalition puts it, "the Gilded Age fat cats and the corporate executives and hedge fund managers of today" — versus the have-nots.

Thousands of Massachusetts workers, many of them immigrants who lived in poverty, became fed up when their wages were cut.

The mill owners, who the coalition calls yesterday's "1 percent," lived lavishly, owning yachts, mansions and private islands, while immigrant mill workers often slept four to a bed and did not have enough to eat. Many young children died within the first several years of work, and 36 of every 100 adult mill workers died before they were 25, historians report. Malnutrition, overwork and inhalation of fiber dust caused many early deaths. Workers wanted wages that would not only buy food for their families, but provide for dignity in their lives. Hence, the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike earned the motto "Bread and Roses" from the poem by James Oppenheim.

The strike lasted 10 weeks, led largely by women and Industrial Workers of the World leaders.

"This strike was really the first Occupy movement," said Robert Forrant, University of Massachusetts at Lowell history department chair. During that cold winter, strikers forged unity even though they spoke 12 different languages, he said. Translaters gave updates to each group, which issued the statement that "... As useful members of society and wealth makers ... we ought to have homes, not shacks ... and clothing suitable for the weather..." They were too poor to wear the wool they worked with each day, said Forrant, who is chair of the Bread and Roses Strike Centennial Committee. The group is raising funds to erect a memorial statue in Lawrence.

While the fast kicked off in Albany, other groups around the state held events to break the fast, including rallies, or viewings of the film "Bread and Roses" in Utica, Binghamton, Buffalo, New York City and elsewhere.

NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta pledged the union's persistence in pushing for a minimum wage increase and the closure of corporate tax loopholes.

"My faith and my work in labor has driven me all my life," Pallotta said. When he was a child, his parents brought him to a spot in Brooklyn and showed him where the landlords had put his grandparents' furniture on the street when they could not pay their rent during the Great Depression. Government, he said, has a responsibility to help.

Participants in Albany ended their fast in solidarity with Immigrants' Day of Action and Education Day, and rallied for economic justice with New York Immigration Coalition and Alliance for Quality Education. The rally was followed by visits to legislators.

The 40-hour fast is a symbolic gesture as a means to grow spiritually and connect with those who suffer.

For more information go to www.labor-religion.org.