Tonight we’re staging Scenes 16-17a, the blurred boundaries between Tateh at the textile mill/union square rally/goldman speech/the Lawrence, MA strike/Tateh’s escape from factory labor. In these scenes, time and place are fluid; historical characters give authenticity to events that are both real and fictional.
On the scene breakdown I made (the yellow handout) I mentioned Emma Goldman’s more famous speeches in Union Square happened in 1893 (only 7 years after she arrived in America) and 1916. Union Square has been a mainstay “public gathering” place since the mid 1800s. You can find a short piece on its early history in Time Magazine‘s Feb. 2011 top 10 “Famous Protest Plazas” story, which includes a survey taken in the early days of the Tahrir Square protests in Cairo.
One version of the text she spoke in 1893 reads as follows:
Fifth Avenue is laid in gold, every mansion a citadel of money and power. Yet here you stand, a giant, starved, and fettered… You too, will have to learn that you have a right to share your neighbors’ bread. Your neighbors — they have not only stolen your bread,but they are sapping your blood. They will go on robbing you, your children, and your children’s children, unless you wake up, unless you become daring enough to demand your rights. Well, then, demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread. It is your sacred right.
Goldman gave a similar speech in Philadelphia the very next night and was promptly arrested for inciting a riot. Neither Doctorow or Ragtime cribs material from any of Goldman’s actual speeches, but the spirit of this 1893 speech is certainly at the heart of the number “The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square.”
Above is a famous image of Goldman rallying workers in Union Square in 1916. By that time in her career, she balanced public speeches on workers and immigrant rights with those on the right to birth control and women’s suffrage. In 1914 she appeared in Union Square with Upton Sinclair to protest continued income disparity. (Sound familiar? A recent Occupied Media article explores similarities between these 1914 protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011.)
The Lawrence, MA textile mill conditions and eventual strike (also known as the Bread and Roses strike) to which Ragtime‘s Emma Goldman refers are real circumstances and events; however, I cannot find evidence of Goldman’s direct involvement in that action. (Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Goldman’s contemporary and another woman who was intricately involved in the labor movements of this time, did speak and organize in Lawrence, MA.)
The Industrial Workers of the World (or I.W.W.), a group with which Goldman had strong ties, was instrumental in the Lawrence strike. It was a multi-lingual, multi-skill level labor organization that helped immigrants break down ethnic/linguistic and skill speciality boundaries by providing translators and welcoming membership from all workers (skilled and unskilled). Most immigrant workers were illiterate and most employers kept immigrant groups segregated to thwart cross-cultural communication and organizing.
The Lawrence strike was provoked by a Jan. 1912 law in Massachusetts that required (for workers “benefit”) the reduction of the work week from 56 hours to 54 hours for women and children. Out of 30,000 workers at the Lawrence textile mill, 45% of workers were women and 12% were children under 18. Lawrence produced nearly 25% of all the woolen cloth in the U.S and 52% of the city’s wages came from the textile mills. Workers averaged between $7.28 and 8.52 salary per week.
In response to the legislated change in hours, the mill owners reduced all workers pay and sped up the factory machines, already grossly unsafe to the workers who operated them. The first time these new paychecks were issued, workers walked out off the job en masse.
I.W.W. advised strikers to engage in non-violent protest no matter the provocation and for the most part there were few incidents in the early days. The multi-lingual efforts paid off as workers began to assist each other with food and support. According to the Bread and Roses Centennial Exhibit site:
Working families developed multi-ethnic community support networks. Soup kitchens, such as the one at the Franco-Belgian Hall, were operated by and catered to Italian, Russian, Jewish, Irish, Syrian, Greek, German, Polish, and Franco-Belgian women and children. Families also shared what coal they had to ward off the winter’s chill in their roughly furnished tenement apartments.
Child workers were at the forefront of the protests in Lawrence. Striking workers also sent their children to labor sympathizers in other cities (to save money and gain publicity for the strike). I.W.W. helped organize marches in New York City that would feature these worker children.
A crowd of a thousand people met the first group of strikers’ children at Grand Central Station and led a solidarity parade through the streets of the city. FYI, Margaret Sanger, sex educator and birth control activist, was one of the nurses who tended the children who arrived in New York and wrote about their physical condition and the circumstances of women and child workers in Lawrence.
Mill owners controlled much of the media coverage of the strike in Lawrence and pressured the legislature and other city officials to crack down on the strike. One local resident tried to frame the strike leaders by planting explosives around the town. An interesting detail about local college participation in the events, according to the Centennial Exhibit,
The president of Harvard [himself a shareholder in the mill] gave students the permission to serve in their local militia companies on strike duty in Lawrence during final exams. Harvard students who were absent for a final exam due to their service with the militia were automatically awarded a C in their school marks.
The children’s appearances in New York City proved very effective in turning the national media’s attention on Lawrence. In response, officials declared that no more children could leave the city. On February 24 police tried to prevent the most recent exodus of children by clubbing a group of women and children at the Lawrence railroad station. Witnesses would later testify to the brutality of this scene:
When the time came to depart, the children, arranged in a long line, two by two in an orderly procession with the parents near at hand, were about to make their way to the train when the police . . . closed in on us with their clubs, beating right and left with no thought of the children who then were in desperate danger of being trampled to death. The mothers and the children were thus hurled in a mass and bodily dragged to a military truck and even then clubbed, irrespective of the cries of the panic-stricken mothers and children. We can scarcely find words with which to describe this display of brutality.
The violence at the train station proved the tipping point. Congress convened hearings to investigate working conditions in Lawrence. Some of the most compelling testimony was provided by children. Mill owners reacted quickly to prevent the loss of their tariff protections and negative publicity. In March 1912 the strike was over as wages were raised and conditions improved. It would take much longer and many more strikes, however, before humane and ethical working conditions became standard practice in American factories.
Connections to Our Time
In researching the Bread and Roses strike I found this amazing article that links the power of women and children as protesters and the ability of protestors/strikers to network and stay one step ahead of authorities in Lawrence, MA 1912 and Tahrir Square, Cairo 2011
In fall 2011, Vivian Gornick published a new biography, Emma Goldman: Revolution As a Way of Life, and was interviewed by Boston Review about what Goldman might think of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Also, if you enjoy the great benefits of computer and tablet technology (esp. the iPad2s we’re using in this course) might check out recent coverage (by theater artist Mike Daisey and now more mainstream news organization) of worker protests and labor conditions in technology focused factories in China.
This February, the Bread & Roses Centennial Exhibit made a short video to accompany their “Short Pay! All Out!” program to mark the centennial of the strike.