The Lawrence Mill Strike and Other Famous Mill Strikes

The most famous mill strikes of the early 20th century were the Lawrence Mill Strike in 1912 and the Marion and Gastonia Strikes of 1929. The Lawrence Mill Strike, also known as the “The Bread and Roses Strike,” occurred in January—March 1912 in the Massachusetts mill town of Lawrence. Approximately 25,000—30,000 mill workers walked off the job in protest of a pay reduction and “speed up” imposed by the owners. The owners were reacting to the fact that the state legislature had passed reform legislation limiting children under the age of 18 to a 54-hour work week. The owners reasoned that if the wages remained the same, the child workers would have effectively obtained a raise, which was unacceptable to management. (Carry It On, p. 92-93.)

Most of the workers were foreign born; about 45 different languages were spoken in the mill. Half of the workers were women and children. The owners, exploiting anti-immigrant biases and the radical bogeyman, called the strike “un-American” and said it was caused by “foreign influences.” (Haikim, p. 222.) The mayor of Lawrence said, “We will either break this strike or break the strikers’ heads.” (Id.) The owners brought in troops and private militia, Pinkerton Detectives, to battle the strikers. It was a highly charged atmosphere.

Ray Stannard Baker, a progressive journalist in the early decades of the 20th century, who reported on the Lawrence strike, described the situation this way: “The movement in Lawrence was strongly a singing movement. It is the first strike I ever saw which sang! I shall not soon forget the curious lift, the strange sudden fire of the mingled nationalities, at the strike meetings when they broke out in the universal language of song. And not only at the meeting did they sing but at the soup houses and in the streets.” (Reuss, p. 27.)

The workers were supported by the IWW—the Wobblies. They stayed out of work for ten weeks, finally winning concessions from the company. The mill owners agreed to raise wages, pay overtime and rehire the workers. The song “Bread and Roses, written by James Oppenheim and Caroline Kolsaat (1912) is sung here by Kate Vikstrom This song was sung by striking workers; it was inspired by a banner carried by marching strikers that read “We want Bread, and Roses, too!” (Fowke & Glazer, p. 71.)

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for—but we fight for roses, too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler—ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

Marion and Gastonia, North Carolina were two significant mill towns in the South. They are within 80 miles of each other. Marion had three large mills that were owned by out-of-town manufacturers. Gastonia had the Loray Mill, which was the largest mill in the South, plus 50 smaller mills. The Loray Mill was also owned by out-of-towners. (Roscigno and Danaher, p. 79-80.)

The conditions in Marion were some of the worst in the country. (Roscigno and Danaher, p. 90.) In July 1929, the workers at the Marion Manufacturing Company mill presented a petition to the president of the mill seeking to have him recognize the United Textile Workers Union as their bargaining representative and asking for a reduction in daily work hours from 12 to 10. When the mill president refused, the workers went out on strike. (Green, p. 129-31.) The owners retaliated by arranging for the governor to send in the National Guard. (Roscigno and Danaher, p. 93.)

The striking workers gained some minor concessions from the mill management and returned to work. However, management reneged on the agreements and permanently fired and blacklisted the strikers, who according to the agreement, were to be rehired. Anticipating trouble from the workers, the owners arranged for the local sheriff to deputize some local toughs. The Deputies opened fire on the workers that protested the violation of the agreement, wounding 25 and killing six. (Roscigno and Danaher, p. 94.) Woody Guthrie’s song, “The Marion Massacre, sung by Welling and McGhee ( describes what occurred.

A story now I’ll tell you,
Of a fearful massacre,
Which happened down in Dixie
On the borders of the sea.

There’ll be no sorrow there,
There’ll be no sorrow there,
In heaven above
Where all is love,
There’ll be no sorrow there.

‎‎’Twas in Marion, North Carolina
In a little mountain town,
Six workers of the textile mills
In cold blood were shot down.

‎’Tis ever the same old story
With the laborers of our land.
They’re ruled by mighty powers,
And riches they command.

It started over money,
The world’s most vain desire,
Yet we realize the laborer
Is worthy of his hire.

These men were only asking
Their rights and nothing more,
That their families would not suffer
With a wolf at every door.‎

Why is it over money,
These men from their friends must part,
Leaving home and loved ones
With a bleeding, broken heart?

But some day they’ll meet them
On that bright shore so fair,
And live in peace forever,
There’ll be no sorrow there

There’ll be no sorrow there
There’ll be no sorrow there,
There’ll be no sorrow there,
In heaven above,
Where all is love,
There’ll be no sorrow there.

Another violent labor confrontation occurred at the Loray Mill in Gastonia in 1929. Gastonia was the most important textile center in the South. The area had nearly ten million spindles operating in over 570 mills. Working conditions were deplorable: a 66 hour work week, two 10 percent wage cuts in a year, speed-up and stretch-out demands, etc. (Reuss, p. 83-84.) “The story of the strike itself is so usual that it does not need retelling: a mill community, exploited, oppressed, discouraged, and sullen in its discouragement, is aroused to action by Northern organizers—in this case Communists.” (Greenway, American Folksongs of Protest, p.133.) Mirroring events during other strikes, the striking workers had been turned out of their company-owned residences and had set up a “tent town” a mile or so away from the mill. The workers organized a march from the tent town to the mill, but they were driven back by a band of deputy sheriffs. The deputies, without warrants, began searching the tents. When the workers resisted, a fight ensued leading to the killing of the police chief. Sixteen strikers and leaders workers were indicted, even though some of them were not present when the shooting took place. (Greenway, pp 133-34; Roscigno and Danaher, p. 88.)

While waiting for the trial of the workers, the local newspapers incited the locals against the workers by using red-scare rhetoric. The Charlotte News said:

The leaders of the National Textile Workers’ [sic] Union are communists and are a menace to all that we hold most sacred. They believe in violence, arson, murder. They want to destroy our institutions. They are undermining all morality, all religion. But, nevertheless they must be given a fair trial, although everyone knows that they deserve to be shot at sunrise.

(Greenway, p.134.)

The Gastonia Gazette followed suit contending that the strike was not about local working conditions, but was the result of outside manipulation by communist agitators. (Roscigno and Danaher, p. 84-85.) The charges against nine of the indicted people were eventually dropped, but seven others were convicted and sentenced to five to twenty years of hard labor. (Id. at p. 88.)

Ella May Wiggins was a 29-year-old single mother of five children and a worker at the Loray Mill. She was paid nine dollars a week. She was member of the union and participated in the strike. (Reuss, pp. 85-86; “Ella May Wiggins and The Mill Mother’s Song” by Patrick Huber, Old Hat Records, Ella Mae also was a union singer-songwriter; she was called the “most famous cotton mill composer.” In her speeches, Wiggins told crowds, “I never made no more than nine dollars a week, and you can’t do for a family on such money….That’s why I come out for the union, and why we all got to stand for the union, so’s we can do better for our children, and they won’t have lives like we got.” (Id.) Wiggins was shot in the back and killed by owner’s thugs on her way to a union rally during the Gastonia Strike. (Cohen, Work and Sing: A History of Occupational and Labor Union Songs in the United States, p.72.) Ella May Wiggins’ most famous union song was “The Mill Mother’s Lament, sung by Pete Seeger. (

We leave our homes in the morning,
We kiss our children good-bye,
While we slave for the bosses,
Our children scream and cry.

And when we draw our money,
Our grocery bills to pay,
Not a cent to spend for clothing,
Not a cent to lay away.

And on that very evening
Our little son will say:
“I need some shoes, Mother,
And so does sister May.”

How it grieves the heart of a mother,
You everyone must know.
But we can’t buy for our children,
Our wages are too low.

It is for our little children,
That seems to us so dear,
But for us nor them, dear workers,
The bosses do not care.

But understand, all workers,
Our union they do fear.
Let’s stand together, workers,
And have a union here.

In late 1935, the Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO) promoted sit-down strikes as a union tool. The very nature of a sit-down strike—workers occupying space for an extended period of time—encouraged the development of songs. “[W]riting and singing songs were effective ways of maintaining morale and passing the time.” (Cohen, p.78, quoting Timothy Lynch.) The United Auto Workers (UAW) initiated a sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Michigan in 1935. This prompted Maurice Sugar to write “Sit Down, sung by The Manhattan Chorus at, about which he said: “I wrote the song ‘Sit Down’ [sic] during the avalanche of sit-down strikes, which occurred in the early months of 1937….’Sit-Down’ was sung by the strikers in their meeting halls, and in the plant while the strike was in progress. In the plants, singing was part of the organized recreation of the workers, and they frequently improvised musical bands, featuring accordions, mandolins, guitars, mouth organs, and now and then saxophone [sic]…” (Id. at 80; see also Jennings and Brewster, p. 195.)

Chorus (repeat after each verse):

Sit down, just keep your seat
Sit down and rest your feet
Sit down, you got ’em beat
Sit down, sit down!

When they tie the hands of the union man—sit down, sit down
When they give ’em a pact they’ll take them back—sit down, sit down

When they tie a can to the union man—sit down, sit down
When they give them the pact that will take them back—sit down, sit down

When they smile and say, “No raise in pay!”—sit down, sit down
When you want the boss to come across—sit down, sit down

When your feet are numb just twiddle your thumb—sit down, sit down
When you want ’em to know they’d better go slow—sit down, sit down

When the boss won’t talk go and take a walk—sit down, sit down
When the boss see that he’ll want a little chat—sit down, sit down