Bread and Roses

Review: Connolly on Watson

Bruce Watson. Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. 337 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $16.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-14-303735-4.

Reviewed for H-NewEngland by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, Department of Social Sciences, Purdue University North CentralPublished by [mailto][/mailto] (April, 2008)

A New Look at Bread and Roses
In Bread and Roses, Bruce Watson argues that events of the Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1912 mill strike have long been "relegated to history's ghettos" (p. 3). Watson asserts that in the decades following the strike, fear of mill bosses prevented workers from revisiting the events of the winter of 1912. With the passing of time and the death of first-hand witnesses, the details faded. Watson seeks to rectify this and bring closer attention to the events in Lawrence. Even the name "Bread and Roses," according to the author, is incorrectly identified as a slogan of this labor struggle (p. 3). Watson tells an engaging story of this strike that captured national attention from January to May 1912. The book moves from the beginning of the strike to its conclusion, concentrating on the actions and events of the laborers and their families, as well as the union leadership, specifically the International Workers of the World (IWW) and the American Federation of Labor. The author also includes examinations of mill owners, particularly William Wood of the American Woolen Company. Watson, however, is intent on unearthing the obscured details of the strike and union activity to provide the perspective of the workers and their families as they struggled to make a living.

Bread and Roses is a history of working-class immigrants who came to Lawrence in hopes of obtaining a better life. Watson ties this experience into the larger concept of the American dream, as his subtitle suggests. The workers at the Lawrence mills struck because of a cut in pay. The Massachusetts legislature had mandated a reduction in work hours as of January 1, 1912. The mills, however, continued to pay the same hourly wage to their workers, resulting in a smaller pay envelope. The workers, while happy with the reduction in hours, desired the same weekly pay they received prior to the reduction. By 1912, most male textile workers did not make enough to support their families and required the labor of others within the family to make ends meet. This struggle to make a living and to support families in the United States is at the heart of Bread and Roses, and it informs each dramatic example provided by the author as he carries the reader from the combative beginning of the walkout through the desperately cold weeks as tension rose in Lawrence, and to the last negotiation that ended the strike five months later. As Watson moves through the major events of the strike, he dots his narrative with stories of individual workers and their families.

One of the strengths of this work is the manner in which Watson presents the facts of the strike. [...]