Textile workers seek only a living wage, but their walkout is met with violence at the hands of the police and a jingoistic citizenry.
It is futile to view Lawrence under a microscope. The strike of the textile workers has most of the familiar characteristics of other strikes, but its significance does not lie on the surface. The apparent facts of the case are more bewildering than illuminating. In the slack season of the industry, when large numbers were unemployed, several thousand workers struck for a reduction in hours without reduction in pay; they were receiving considerably less than the standard living wage set by the National War Labor Board; the leadership of the strike gravitated to three clergymen of advanced social views; the community condemned the strike as anti-American and uneconomic, and the picketers were persecuted by the police with relentless brutality. The manufacturers had conceded the reduction in hours but insisted on a corresponding lowering of wages, and staunchly maintained their refusal to arbitrate. Probably three-fourths of the employees are at work. Yet the remaining fourth, eight or nine thousand, have continued their fight for weeks at the price of impoverishment and great suffering.
The fact that the strikers are foreigners divided among thirty-one nationalities, that few of them speak English or are citizens, and that some are boasting that in a short time the workers will own the mills, has been used as an argument that this is an attempt on the part of Eastern Europeans to impose upon America the fallacious economics of a misguided Russia. And in the light of this argument the hostility of the community, the shocking conduct of the police, and the obstinacy of the manufacturers are being justified. But the motives of the strike are not to be so precisely named or so conveniently dismissed. Had these foreigners swarmed to America imbued with the revolutionary spirit, and intrenched themselves in an industrial city to launch an attack, this strike would be truly a breach of hospitality. But they are here because American business demanded cheap labor, and many of them were even solicited by textile agents.
For years the textile manufacturers have carried on a policy of gathering in the peasants of Eastern and Southeastern Europe to operate the looms of New England. These immigrants were distributed so that no more than fifteen per cent. of any one race were employed in a single mill, and the apportionment was dispassionately determined so that men and women racially hostile to one another worked side by side. This was to render organization impossible, and thus keep wages low.
This policy of importation was so valuable that one concern, engaged in textile manufacturing, when charged with violating the Contract Labor Law, was willing to compromise with the Government by paying $50,000, in view of which action the records were sealed and the public was kept in ignorance of the transgression. Though this company does not operate a mill in Lawrence the instance shows how eager one corporation was not to jeopardize a practice of vital importance to the trade. The American Woolen Company, which owns four of the eight Lawrence mills, posted lithographs throughout the Balkans depicting one of their factories as a magnificent edifice, a veritable palace of Midas, through one portal of which an army of ragged peasants marched, only to emerge from a neighboring doorway splendidly arrayed and bearing trophies—an unparalleled vision of instantaneous American alchemy. Unfortunately, actualities and visions are not allied. In red brick factories, one prodigious tier of glazed windows upon another, the European peasant has tended the looms and the spindles, and has received at the end of the week less than a living wage. The Lawrence manufacturer has not so much as justified the first unwritten premise of his posters; he has done nothing comprehensive to make Americans of these disillusioned immigrants.