Professor's Plea: Living Wage for 1912 Textile Strikers

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Third in a series commemorating Women's History Month by spotlighting a significant speech or testimony delivered by a woman in the U.S. on this date.

The “Bread and Roses Strike” had been in progress for two months in the harsh winter of 1912 when Vida Scudder arrived at Lawrence, Mass., invited by a progressive women’s group

More than 20,000 striking textile workers had marched through the snowy streets, capturing the attention of the nation with their songs and protests against a cutback in hours and wages. Scudder was a popular professor at Wellesley College and a leader in the settlement house movement. In her March 4, 1912 speech at the Colonial Theatre — modeled on the Sermon on the Mount — she argued that the mills should be run for the people who work there as well as the shareholders.

Afterward, more than 2,000 people poured into the street chanting and singing. Her speech was reprinted in newspapers across the country, while disapproving Wellesley parents and donors called for her dismissal. But she had won the support of her department chair, Katharine Lee Bates, most famous today for writing the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.”

On March 14, the strike ended with a 15% wage increase, a rise in overtime pay, and a promise from mill owners not to retaliate against the strikers.

The Woolen Industry Has Not a Present Right to Exist

By Vida Scudder

Colonial Theatre, Lawrence, Mass.

We, who do not live in Lawrence, must speak and feel with great caution in the midst of the trouble and excitement that now prevail here, yet I think certain great principles stand out clearly enough to justify this meeting.

Many hundred years ago a young Hebrew working man — later executed as a demagogue — said a strange thing: “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you.” Yesterday the words kept ringing in my ears.

The strikers at Lawrence have certainly been harshly spoken of, if not reviled. We hear that they are at the mercy of bad demagogues; that they prefer to live herded like cattle, thereby lowering the life standard and the wages of native born Americans; that they have at the same time large hoardings in the banks, which they send out of the country; that they show a tendency to turbulence and violence, so that militia and police are needed to restrain them.

Have they been persecuted, also? No one, looking at the situation from outside as I do, can be sure; and I have the conflicting testimony which I have heard. But if it be true that their leader has been illegally refused bail; if women are seeking the intimate right of parents to send their children away on visits have been roughly handled; if young girls who have offended only in speech have been dragged from their beds at midnight to the police court; if self-respecting people have been detained in the work house unnecessarily — then persecution of a fairly plain type has not been unknown at Lawrence.

Now, if this be the case, the people who should prevent any continuation or recurrence of it are the conservative and well-to-do citizens of the town. There is always a large body of the general disinterested public in a town at any such crisis; it is easy for them to remain passive; but they have a role and a duty -- the role, the duty of seeing that there is no invasion or overriding of the law, especially on the part of the constituted authorities. If they do not perform this duty, their responsibility is very grave; if they condone any violation or forcing of the law, under no matter how great a stress, they are exposing us all to peril.

A sweet woman in Lawrence said to me today, defending the possible disregard of the law on the part of the police: “They were preventing the exploitation of children, and it was more important for them to observe the moral law than a mere legality.” That is a dangerous position. A similar one on the other side would call out instant reprobation. Strict observance of law is our one safety in a time like this. In the hope of strengthening the sense of law, of asserting the necessity of firm, straight, even-handed justice, this meeting has been called.

Justice! It is a good word for Lawrence and for us all to ponder. How much has it prevailed here? Back of these unfortunate sporadic acts, for which the responsibility will probably never be fixed, acts which have broken out like an eruption in a diseased body, lies the whole situation in the textile industries. And the country is becoming aware that this situation is not one which Americans like to contemplate. How wise is Victor Berger, when he reminds Congress that Schedule K was passed on the plea of protecting American labor with a high tariff — and then bids them listen to the life stories of the Lawrence workers! Estimates given by our most trustworthy and untrammeled journals, by “The Survey,” “The Outlook,” “The Boston Common,” show that decent manhood and womanhood are impossible on the earnings of an appreciable portion of the mill people here. That is what lies back of this strike.

What is the way out? That is not for me to tell. One obvious way is that for which able and wise men and women, quite outside the ranks of labor, are fighting this season: The establishment by law of a minimum wage for the state of Massachusetts. The workers — the I.W.W. and the A.F. of L. — are not the only people in Massachusetts bitterly distressed over the wage conditions that at some points obtain here. If such a bill should pass it would be the first step in a reform which would render impossible just what has caused this strike. What we of the general public would like to see would be a board of government experts who should determine just what wages the woolen trades could carry consistently with reasonable profits to the stockholders and to the manufacturers. 

And I speak for the New England of our fathers when I say that if such wages are (even for the least skilled of the workers) below the standard necessary to maintain men and women in decency and health, then the woolen industry has not a present right to exist in Massachusetts. For the first point in any industry is that it shall be competent to support its workers in honor. So my master, Ruskin, said long ago. So we are gradually learning.
I speak for thousands beside myself when I say that I would rather never again wear a thread of woolen than know that my garments had been woven at the cost of such misery as I have seen and known, past the shadow of a doubt, to have existed in this town. We have strayed from the quotation with which I began: “Blessed,” it said, “are those persecuted.” Blessed? It is a strange saying.

But wait! The quotation is not ended yet. “Blessed,” it runs, “are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Another and perhaps better translation runs: “For justice’s sake.”

Is it for justice’s sake that the strikers of Lawrence suffer? I do not know. I am here as a stranger who feels the necessity of bearing witness to great principles; not as one who has been known from within the complex situation in your city.

But this I can say: I went home yesterday giving thanks that at least certain ends of justice are being served here. For in the meeting of the strike committee which I attended yesterday morning I saw two such great ends achieved; ends for which we social workers and reformers spend our lives, too often in vain. The first was the end of fraternity. Men of different tongues and alien traditions were bound into one dogged unity of purpose; and vibrations of brotherhood ran through that great assembly, so strong, so full of life and love, that I believe they augur a future when, in America, those of differing races shall, indeed, be of one heart, one mind, one soul. And the other end is that of vision: for on every man and woman there had flashed the vision of a just society, based on fair reward to labor and on fraternal peace.

At many points I might differ and did differ from the policy endorsed at that meeting. I am no member of the I.W.W. Yet I give thanks that those two great and noble ends are being achieved through this union of the workers: Fraternity and hope.

And the sufferings that the strike has brought, from whatever source, from whichever side or cause, may they, too, inherit the blessing? Yes! If they help to arouse the American nation, till it shall tolerate them no longer. Then, indeed, shall every pang, whether of hunger or of outraged feeling, play its part in that struggle for justice in which life itself is well spent.

Only, my friends, let us see to it that all our suffering be indeed for justice, for righteousness’ sake. Riot, even under severest provocation, does not make for justice. See to it, you citizens, that you keep an impartial mind, quick to compassion, free from prejudice, divorced from all apathy and irresponsibility, for a great trust is yours. See to it, you women of Lawrence, that in this stress and anguish you devote yourselves through the wisest channels — as you are nobly doing, I am sure — to the sacred task of relieving distress. See to it, you employer — if any of you are here — that you know your primary and fundamental duty to safeguard the welfare, physical and mental, of those in your employ to be a higher privilege by far than to roll up dividends.

And see to it, you strikers — you who struggle on with the thought of the vast army of all tongues and nationals in whose name and for whose sake you are banded together — see to it that you hold your task too sacred to be defended by low, dishonorable or violent means.

You are in a democracy. The political power is in your hands. A little more patience, a little more solidarity, a little longer self-control; and through means that shall hold the sympathy of all right-minded and disinterested people in the whole country, you may achieve your holy aim of economic freedom.

The struggle is long, but already on the horizon there dawns the light of the coming day, where man to man shall be brothers the world over. Let us all unite — workers, citizens, thinkers — in working for that day of deliverance, for which every true American heart must long!

Dana Rubin is a speaker and consultant focused on women’s voice and speech. She’s the founder of Speaking While Female, the first-ever online collection of contemporary and historical speeches by women from across time and around the world. Dana recently gave a TEDx Talk on “Unlocking the Secret History of Women’s Speech,” and she’s working on an anthology of women’s speech. For more on how she helps organizations attract, retain and develop their women leaders, visit SpeakingWhileFemale.biz.



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