There are few communities so tangibly ravaged by the American system as Lawrence, Mass. Sitting about 30 miles north of Boston, midway up the Merrimack River, the city is home to the highest level of poverty in the Commonwealth and was most recently devastated by the Columbia Gas explosions, the man-made crisis that killed an 18-year-old and left thousands displaced last September.
Twice in the past year, Lawrence has been the focus of national politics.
Attacking the city’s sanctuary status last March, President Donald Trump singled out Lawrence as “one of the primary sources of fentanyl” in several New Hampshire counties during a speech in the Granite State (70 percent of Lawrence’s population is Hispanic, according to the most recent census numbers available). The comment drew swift rebukes from Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera and Mass Gov. Charlie Baker.
Earlier this month, the mill town was once again in the national spotlight when it played host to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s first official campaign event in her bid for the presidency, with more than 3,000 people packed around the Everett Mills on a bright morning despite temperatures that dipped into the teens.
“It won’t be enough just to undo the terrible acts of this administration,” Warren said from the podium. “Our fight is for big, structural change. This is the fight of our lives. The fight to build an America where dreams are possible. An America that works for everyone. And that is why I stand here today to declare that I am a candidate for president of the United States of America.”
The size of the crowd paled in comparison to that for Sen. Kamala Harris, one of Warren’s 2020 rivals, who drew more than 20,000 to her campaign rollout in Oakland last month. But there was a palpable level of enthusiasm that has come to embody Warren’s base support. Not everybody loves the Bay State’s senior senator, but those who like her really like her.
“We’re so excited,” said Marissa Barrow, deputy press secretary of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. The PCCC went on to endorse Warren moments after her announcement.
While the perception of a polarizing political figure dominates the media narrative surrounding the candidate, Warren has shown that her positions and emphasis on popular issues can be a boon for her campaign.
“I came as a Republican, and I might be leaving a Democrat,” said Dave Stupack, who voted for Trump in 2016. Stupack said he was drawn to Warren’s vow not to take money from political action committees (PACs) or lobbyists.
“I could support her,” Stupack said. “She’s against the lobbyists and corporate influence.”
A slew of big-name Bay State pols, including Sen. Ed Markey, Congressman Joe Kennedy III, and Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu warmed up the crowd (figuratively) before the senator took to the stage.
“This morning we gather at the birthplace of the industrial revolution and the labor movement,” Mayor Rivera said. “The place where women, at the turn of the century, led the fight for fair wages and safer working conditions.”
As far as optics are concerned, Lawrence is the perfect place to launch a political campaign against Trump. Not just for its current state, but also its history. Warren may or may not be one of the most left-wing candidate in a busy field of Democrats already vying for the nomination, but that is nothing compared to the deep and underreported history of socialism and anarchism in this country, and one of that movement’s greatest achievements took place in Lawrence more than a hundred years ago.
The 1912 Lawrence textile strike, later known as Bread and Roses for the James Oppenheim poem, boiled over when it became clear that owners of the American Woolen Company would not compensate their workers for a new state law that reduced the work week of women and children from 56 to 54 hours per week. At that time, nearly half of those employed at the textile mills in Lawrence were women from 14 to 18 years old. Half the city was employed by the mills, and three-quarters of the population were “directly dependent upon earnings in these textile mills,” according to a federal report on the strike. Half of the city’s population, which had exploded since rapidly advancing technology opened up work for unskilled or uneducated people, was made up of immigrants from over a dozen different countries speaking 20 different languages.
While the skilled workers belonged to the more moderate United Textile Workers, the unskilled, majority-immigrant group representing a majority of the mills’ labor force turned to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Italian Socialist Federation. America was in the depths of the Gilded Age, but these immigrants were coming from European cultures with deep radical roots.
“There’s a working-class movement in Europe, too, and these people are in it,” Dr. Robert Forrant, professor of history at the UMass Lowell, told me in an interview for a story I wrote on the strike. “When they leave, they don’t suddenly across the Atlantic lose their politics.”
On the rare occurrences that the strike is depicted these days, it’s usually through the lens of a spontaneous, enough-is-enough powder keg explosion, which isn’t completely untrue. The moment that the women of Lawrence learned that their pay would be cut was certainly the final straw that lead to thousands of workers walking out. But what’s missed by that portrayal is the firm politics of solidarity among the working poor in Lawrence. Their cultural backgrounds differed as much in northern Massachusetts as anywhere in the country, but their deep connection through a politics of solidarity would lead to a city-wide labor strike of over 30,000 strong that lasted more than two months.
Shortly after the workers walked out, IWW organizer Joseph Ettor came to Lawrence from New York to help lead the effort and gave a speech to the strikers.
“Monday morning you have got to close the mills that you have caused to shut down, tighter than you have them now,” Ettor told the Lawrence textile workers. “You cannot win by fighting with your fists against men armed, or the militia, but you have a weapon they have not got. You have the weapon of labor, and with that, you can beat them down if you stick together.” He gave the same speech four times in four languages.
After 65 days, dozens of beatings, several arrests, and one striker killed by police gunfire, national attention forced the textile companies to meet most of the strikers’ demands, which included pay raises, increased pay for overtime work, and no punishment for labor strikes. Fearing a similar revolt, many companies around New England give their workers the same benefits.
“It was a demonstration of the importance of long-term organizing, of building solidarity across cultures and nationalities,” Forrant told me. “Of being sensitive to those issues and problems and being able to effectively build this coalition that, in the face of massive repression, never wavered. … What the strike demonstrated for labor is that more good can be done from figuring what’s common for us, what’s unifying us, instead of trumpeting our differences.”
The political theater of modern America, even when headed by progressives like Warren, is a far cry from the labor history of places like Lawrence. It even feels like a different world than the teachers’ strikes raging across the country, or the recent nurses’ strikes in Massachusetts.
But there’s something pleasantly surprising about hearing a number of politicians reference the Bread and Roses strike on such a big platform, which is nowhere to be found in most mainstream American histories, even if you get a little jaded about a centrist Dem like Rep. Joe Kennedy III delivering quotes from the strikers in his polished delivery.
“Like the women of Lawrence, we are here to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Warren said in front of the mill where the women walked out more than a century earlier. An echoing chant broke out from the crowd.
As this inevitably brutal and embarrassing presidential campaign ratchets up, there’s something new, or unfamiliar, about starting it from a place long forgotten in popular society.
Maybe it could represent the start of something new. A shift in how politics is done and perceived, moving slightly away from a system that at best is depressingly funny and horrifying at worst. I can’t recall high-profile, mainstream pols quoting socialists. Maybe it’s the start of a new chapter in this baffling saga.
Or maybe not.