Document 9: Mary K. O'Sullivan, "The Labor War at Lawrence," Survey (6 April 1912): 72-74.

Document 9: Mary K. O'Sullivan, "The Labor War at Lawrence," Survey (6 April 1912): 72-74.


       Women's participation in social movements has often been driven by their allegiance to multiple social identities. Racial or ethnic identities, class and national affiliations, as well as female identity can all spur women to push for social change within a social movement. Women's activism during the 1912 Lawrence strike is an example of a protest movement in which women participated, not only as women, but as workers and family members of strikers. This article by labor activist Mary O'Sullivan pointed out that women and men struck in Lawrence in order to achieve a better standard of living. Men and women worked together during the strike, as did many different immigrant groups. The movement illustrates the multiple identities and affiliations that prompt women to take part in social activist movements. (See also the document project in which this article appears,"Women and the Lawrence Textile Strike, 1912.")

The Labor War at Lawrence

Mary K. O'Sullivan

       [Mrs. O'Sullivan is the first of the old line labor leaders in America to challenge the organizations which have built up the trade union movement of the United States, to adjust their policies and spirit to the industrial changes which have been going forward in the last twenty years and to voice the needs of the whole of the labor force rather than merely the ranks of the skilled workers. Mrs. O'Sullivan organized the Women's Bookbinder's Union, No.1 in Chicago and Boston in 1884, became in 1892 the first woman organizer of the American Federation of Labor and was the first woman to preside at its annual conventions. With William English Walling, Mrs. O'Sullivan organized the Women's Trade Union League of America in 1903. She at present carries a card of the News Writers' Union of Boston.

       Throughout the Lawrence strike, Mrs. O'Sullivan was in touch with the Strikers' Committee, with the representatives of the state, and with the employers, and performed important services at different junctures. It is, therefore, as a life-long friend of an old organization falling on new days, and of a keen observer watching the work of a new organization, that she writes this, her first interpretation of the meaning of the Lawrence strike to organized labor.]

       "We were drowning men ready to grasp at a straw when the Industrial Workers of the World appeared to save us," said more than one striker in Lawrence.

       First of all, it must be understood that the Lawrence strike was not caused either by the Industrial Workers of the World or by the reduction of the working week from fifty-six to fifty-four hours with the ensuing loss of pay. The reduction was only the last straw in a situation that the workers could not endure any longer. The many injustices of the section boss with his personal discrimination against men and women who refuse to submit to his standards helped to bring on a rebellion. The rise in cost of living during the last two years, including increased rents, had reduced the mill hands to an extremity where the loss of a few cents weekly in their wages became a calamity in hundreds of homes. At the turn of the year, then, the strike began spontaneously without recognized leadership.

       Up to the present time, the Textile Workers of the American Federation of Labor have failed to organize the unskilled and underpaid workers. Blocked by the mill interests, they have been defeated in their larger efforts for the skilled workers, and they have neglected the interests of the unskilled. They have ignored their capacity for strength and failed to win them to their cause or to better their condition.

       In the past the foreigners have been the element through which strikes in the textile industry have been lost. This is the first time in the history of our labor struggles that the foreigners have stood to the man to better their conditions as underpaid workers. The Textile Workers had only one permanent organization at Lawrence at the beginning of the strike (the Mule Spinners Union), while the Industrial Workers of the World had not any direct organization within the industry. Many of the unskilled workers, however, had independent unions not affiliated with any national organization. John Golden, the official head of the Textile Workers of America, instead of remaining in Lawrence and fighting for the interests of the workers, went to Boston and was reported to have denounced the strike as being led by a band of revolutionists, thus leaving them to be organized by any persons who might choose to use or help them. This was the first time in the history of the American Federation movement that a leader failed the people in his industry.

       Members of the Industrial Workers of the World sent for Joe Ettor and in four days he organized a fighting unit such as never existed in New England before. At the head of it was a strikers' committee representing eighteen nationalities and composed of fifty-six members, each with an alternate trained to act in case of the disablement of his principal. This committee was organized, not to represent the Industrial Workers of the World, but to win the strike; and when it first met not a half dozen of its members were inside the ranks of that organization. Even at the close of the strike only a minority of the committee belonged to the Industrial Workers of the World. In this connection it is worth noting that the riots, to which such exception has been taken, occurred before Ettor's organization was effected, when the strikers gathered about the mills as an organized mob and mill bosses turned streams of water upon them in zero weather. After the "blood-stained Anarchists" arrived on the scene, a policy of non-resistance to the aggressions of the police and the militia prevailed. It is worth remembering, also, that thousands of striking operatives never attended a meeting of any sort. They sat in their homes, trusting their leaders, and determined to stay out until these leaders gave the word to go back to the mills.

       The strike developed leadership among the workers of the most surprising caliber and personality,--women such as Mrs. Wessenback, the highest paid worker and expert mender in the mill, who stood out for the despised foreigner; the underpaid skilled workers such as Riley and Adamson of the committee, who with others developed into remarkable leaders in the struggle; Yates, a textile worker up till the time of the strike who had been a mill hand since he was ten years of age, and who showed unexampled executive ability. He will be heard from now on. These men represent to me as an old trade unionist, the old religion and the spirit of the trade union movement when men worked for the cause regardless of consideration.

       In the long run, from the organizer's standpoint this new insurgent movement may be the best possible thing that could happen to the labor unions of America. On the one hand the success of this struggle is a warning to employers who are on the job that they can no longer afford to beat down and block conservative organizations that stand for contracts and trade agreements which give the management a guarantee and surety in making estimates in business. On the other hand, the trade union with a vision will also profit by this note of warning.

       There were many seeming injustices done the strikers, such as the arrest of Mrs. Wessenback and her two sisters. The evidence brought out in their trial for alleged intimidation fell flat; it was clearly a pretense to make an example of well-known workers who had thrown their lot in with the strike. Yet these girls were arrested in the middle of the night, made to dress and taken from their lodgings to the lock-up. More consideration than that was shown the murderer of Avis Linnell at Boston. One of these girls was so young that she had to go to the juvenile court to be tried. Her, they fined $5; her sisters, $20 each. A Syrian father who was buying milk for his child in the morning, was told to go back in the house by a militiaman and because he did not obey or understand, whichever the case might be, the militiaman as he passed him by struck him across the face and broke his cheek bone. The killing of the young Syrian boy who was told to move, by running a bayonet through him, all these injustices, created in the hearts of the people a distrust for those seeming to oppose them.

       Nothing was so conducive to organization by the Industrial Workers of the World as the methods used by the three branches of the American Federation of Labor. These were the Lawrence Central Labor Union, the Boston Women's Trade Union League, and the Textile Workers of America. Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and unbelievers--men and women of many races and languages,--were working together as human beings with a common cause. The American Federation of Labor alone refused to cooperate. As a consequence, the strikers came to look upon the federation as a force almost as dangerous to their success as the force of the employers themselves, and I violate no confidence in saying that the operatives represented in the strike committee have more respect for the mill owners than for the leaders of this antagonistic element within their own ranks. A striker who went to the federation for relief was looked upon as recreant to his cause and before the strike ended the American Federation of Labor organizations, by openly refusing to give help to anyone who refused to return to work, came to be looked upon as a trap designed in the interests of the mills to catch any workers who could be induced to desert their cause.

       This opposition gathered all the recruits possible from the ranks of the strikers; they offered the mill owners a scale of demands in the hope that the employers would make the necessary concessions and that enough workers would then return to the mills to break the strike and leave the opposition in the command of the field. The mill owners refused to deal with an organization whose recruits were so few in numbers and therefore could not settle the strike. The crusade against the exportation of children, which resulted in the deplorable incident at the railway station where women were clubbed by the police, was one of the direct results of their agitation. The heckling continued until the end of the strike when the courts were called into use to handicap the strike by demanding an accounting of the funds. This injunction was sought by Rev. Herbert S. Johnson, Robert A. Woods, a social worker, Judge Leverony of the Juvenile Court, and Mr. Pendergast, an attorney.

       In 1894 I helped to raise $75,000 for the Fall River strikes, and John Golden was in charge of the fund. The courts were not then asked for an accounting and to expose their war chest to the inspection of their enemies. Why this discrimination?

       It will be hard to find any fair minded person who went to Lawrence during the strike and examined the conditions there who is not fully in accord with the object of the strikers. Everyone who knows the situation admits that their cause is just. Yet there is in Boston a group of social workers who have not gone to Lawrence, who are believed to have been guided by the president of the Textile Workers of America, and who have fought the strikers from the beginning. Among them are some who have asserted that it would be better for the strike to be lost than to obtain a settlement through the general strike committee. These social workers know or should know that under the old regime, children, thousands of them, suffered from under-feeding, and that other children as old as nine years have never seen the inside of a schoolhouse because they have no clothes.

       The acts championed by these obstructionists must, of course, be attributed either to the American Federation of Labor as an organization or to the leader of its New England forces as an individual. The influence of Mr. Golden with the power and prestige of the American Federation of Labor in the background, has proved astounding. Yet, judging by the relief funds that have continued to pour in to the general strike committee from unions in the American Federation, the organization as a whole could not have approved his acts. The newspapers appear to have relied upon him and upon the Lawrence police for information. It is this fact that accounts for the wide difference of opinion between those persons, social workers and public spirited citizens, who have gone to Lawrence and studied conditions at first hand and those others who have been guided by Mr. Golden and the newspapers.

       I want to add an expression of personal opinion, based on twenty-six years' active experience in the labor movement. The sub-committee of Lawrence strikers which conducted the negotiations that ended in a victory for all the textile workers of New England, is the most unselfish strike committee I have ever known. With two exceptions its members are skilled workers in the Lawrence mills. It was at the suggestion of these skilled workers that the lowest paid, unskilled workers of Lawrence received the largest advance in wages and the highest skilled workers received the smallest.

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