Threads of History Weave Campus Together

Bread & Roses Strike Close to Home

One of the 70 student-created posters displayed for the Bread & Roses Centennial celebration.

One of the 70 student-created posters displayed for the Bread & Roses Centennial celebration.

11/08/2012
By Sandra Seitz

Julie Nash had a confession to make. 

“We are lucky to live and work in such a historically significant place, but we take it for granted,” she said in opening remarks to the Bread & Roses Strike Centennial event, held on campus in October. “I have to admit I traveled all the way to Manchester, England, to look at the mills and study labor conditions there, before I ever set foot in the Boott Mills here in Lowell.”

Nash, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, said that visiting the Boott “hooked me on the history and role of the Merrimack Valley in the drive for fairness, justice and better working conditions.”

Several hundred students across campus have learned more about the great 1912 strike that began in Lawrence and spread to Lowell, with repercussions felt around the nation. Students in the Work, Labor and Society classes toured the mills and created their own dramatic strike posters. Freshmen in Honors seminars read and discussed a new book by Ardis Cameron, “Radicals of the Worst Sort: Laboring Women in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1860-1912”. Seniors in a research seminar dug into original source documents, developing theses about contributing causes, living conditions and the roles of various ethnic groups.

“UMass Lowell is unique in our ability to engage with the issues of the Bread and Roses strike in a way that brings great value to students,” says Sociology Assoc. Prof. Mignon Duffy, director of the Work, Labor and Society program. “Our work on the strike has crossed disciplines and built collaborations, while we can draw on great resources in industrial history and labor studies.” 

History Prof. Robert Forrant chaired the Bread & Roses Centennial Committee that planned a year’s worth of observances. These included a museum display in the mill where the strike began, an interactive online site, lectures, an international symposium, dramatic performances and the on-campus event that featured student posters, singers Charlie King and Karen Brandow, speakers and a meal of bread and soup. 

“So much of history leaves out the important people, the day-to-day people,” said Forrant in introducing keynote speaker Ardis Cameron. “The role of women was key in building cooperation across ethnic divides and sustaining the strike.”

The great strike began in January, in the depths of winter cold. It wasn’t the first such demonstration, but a new law restricting women and children’s working hours, followed by “short pay” from mill owners, meant families would go hungry.

“The strike is one of the most inspiring stories in the annals of history,” said Cameron. “But, in the beginning, it was only individuals acting in uncertainty.” Living conditions for workers were dire. Posters in four languages warned that the milk was unreliable and not to drink the water. For every 100 workers, 36 died before age 25. Children were malnourished. Meanwhile, the American Woolen Company had consolidated mills across New England and now employed half the population of the city over age 18.

“I was surprised at (learning about) the living conditions,” says senior Yahaira (“Ja-Hyra”) Campusano, who majors in psychology and sociology. “The buildings are still crowded, people still live in triple-deckers and immigrants work for minimum wage. I was born and grew up in Lawrence and I just knew these huge abandoned buildings were mills, but now I see them as a vital part of our history and economy.”

Campusano, herself the child of immigrants, says, “Understanding Bread and Roses would help connect the new immigrants to the old immigrants” with a sense of shared history. 

Freshman biology major David Larsen gained a new perspective on the region because, he says, “I’m from western Massachusetts and touring the Boott Mills was fascinating. We live in the middle of an industrial complex here. So much of history learning is the actions of leaders and political groups. It should be about how history is made, how we live it.” 

As everyday people making history, “it’s surprising how influential the women were, especially because of their daily interaction across ethnic groups,” says David Chea, a senior psychology major who plans to do graduate work in industrial organizational psychology. “The mill owners divided worker groups by ethnicities and pitted them against each other with differential wages.” The neighborhoods, by contrast, were mixed and women shared cooking, information and support regardless of native language.

“The strike also shows the importance of unions to help organize,” says Chea, who thinks there will be a need for influential unions “as the big corporations go back to old ways. We must not forget what workers went through under egregious working and living conditions. They fought so hard and now we have social security to help us – we should not take it for granted.”