Employee Relations

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Employee Relations

Bread and Roses


The earliest trade unions organized highly skilled workers, and some historians have argued that early trade unions were shaped by the ideological perspectives of the failing guilds or corporations. Both organisations sought to regulate trade, and early trade unions often provided death benefits and sometimes pension plans reminiscent of the services that guilds provided for their members.

“Bread and Roses” is possibly the most legendary strike occurred in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, when the American Woolen Company cut wages in response to a state law limiting the workweek to 54 hours for women and children. Leaders from the radical Industrial Workers of the World successfully organized the diverse and divided workforce, which struck fear in the hearts of Lawrence city officials and played into the hands of southern boosters who advertised a complacent, docile, native supply of labour. Although the strike resulted in a short-term victory for workers, their unity across ethnic lines could not be sustained. The strike also revealed long-standing divisions between skilled and unskilled textile workers. Skilled workers, like highly prized loom fixers, tended to be native-born, male, and committed to less radical craft unions. In times of conflict, they were often at odds with the masses of production workers. A similar dynamic took place in the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913, resulting in a defeat for strikers there. This paper discusses how strike action enables to shaping of the employment relationship and the roles taken on by workers and management using “Bread and Roses” or “Lawrence Strike” as an example. 


The slogan “bread and roses” captured the goals and dreams of the impoverished, mostly immigrant workers in the dramatic Lawrence textile strike of 1912 led by the Industrial Workers of the World. More than half of the strikers in the prosperous American Woolen Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, were women; more than half, young girls between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. For nine weeks during the winter of 1912, more than 15,000 Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile workers, most of them Southern and Eastern European immigrants, waged a spirited strike marked by creative mass tactics, cooperation among a dozen or more ethnic groups, determined activism by women militants, and assistance from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Several thousand more stayed off the job but avoided strike activities. Often called the "Bread and Roses" strike, the walkout was the high point of the IWW's efforts among eastern factory workers and led to pay increases for workers throughout the New England textile industry. (Watson, 2005)

The strike was sparked by a state law cutting the workweek for women and minors from 56 to 54 hours effective January 1. Because of the integration of men's and women's jobs, nearly every worker was placed on the 54-hour schedule. The owners' refusal to adjust pay rates to maintain take-home pay triggered the walkout, which was fueled by underlying discontent over working conditions. IWW Local 20, a tiny 300-member organisation, was the key reason Lawrence was the only Massachusetts mill town where a major strike erupted ...
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