On Thursday, September 13, at 7:00pm at the Medford Public Library, 111 High Street, storyteller Sharon Kennedy will present an hour-long performance that tells the tale of the “Bread and Roses” Mill Strike, a strike of predominantly female workers that changed the history of labor relations in the US. Ms. Kennedy tells the story of the strike through the perspective of the immigrant textile workers that stood up to the factory owners when their already meager pay was cut further.
The strike has been called “the Occupy movement of 1912,” and the centennial celebration is drawing attention to parallels with today’s economy and protests, according to Senator Pat Jehlen.
In 1912, workers faced dangerous working conditions and starvation wages, while mill owners enjoyed a concentration of wealth unrivaled until today. In January, 35,000 Lawrence mill workers — largely women, children, and immigrants — went on strike for two months, fighting bitter cold, hunger, violence and arrest. On March 12, workers won the first major labor victory in Massachusetts. Their strike led to better pay and working conditions for 300,000 New England textile workers and the first national child labor laws. It was also known as “the singing strike,” as music brought together immigrants who spoke 25 different languages.
During one segment of the story, Kennedy includes the actual testimonies of four real fourteen year old mill workers before the U. S. Senate in 1912. She becomes each of them as they answer the senators’ questions. Then she creates the fictional character, Margaret Kelly, who has been involved with the strike for the entire two months. Margaret is seventeen years old, has a wicked sense of humor, and a strong Irish accent. She “tells it like it is” and spares no details of the struggle. From Margaret the audience learns how the women used scissors and red hot pepper to defend themselves from policemen and U.S. militia armed with billy clubs and batons. She tells about the heroism of one Polish woman and the singing of one elderly Italian woman which lifted the spirits of two dozen women who had been arrested and thrown into a paddy wagon. She explains that because they won the strike, her family can now afford coal for heat and butter for their bread.
For more information, call Sen. Jehlen’s office at 617-722-1578 or visit www.sharonkennedy.com.
- Press release submitted by State Senator Pat Jehlen’s office. Photo courtesy breadandrosescentennial.org