Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Book Review: Bruce Watson's Bread & Roses

Back in late December, I caught writer Bruce Watson, on C-Span's Book TV, discussing his book, Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants and the American Dream. The book chronicles the 1912 textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

As a writer, one of the best things you can do to keep your writing fresh and energized, is to keep yourself supplied with good reading material, preferably the kind the pushes you to make your craft better. Bruce Watson's book certainly falls into that category.

After reading the book, I pitched this review to a couple of left-leaning publications. I haven't heard back, so I'm guessing they are going to take a pass on it.

I'm posting it here because I hope others read Watson's book, an excellent work that captures a period of America's labor history that tends to gets ignored by most.

Book Review--
Bread & Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream by Bruce Watson

Reviewed by Jim Baumer

There's an old adage says that we are doomed to repeat history due to not learning the lessons that it teaches. One wonders if our lack of understanding—even among so-called progressives—and proper reverence for the pioneers who came before us is leading us back down the dark path of wage inequality and a surrender of the ground won by labor’s vanguard. It's important for those of us who care about labor to remember that many of these pioneers spilled their blood during brutal battles with owners and thugs, all for some crumbs from the tables of their masters.

In Bread & Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream (Viking Adult), Massachusetts author, Bruce Watson, recreates the world of early 20th Century New England, particularly the lives of immigrants and others who streamed to urban landscapes teeming with workers in search of a better life, drawn by the lure of wages and opportunities for a better life for their families.

Watson is someone who knows his labor history and doesn’t shy away from the lessons inherent in the bygone battles pitched on the icy streets of Lawrence, Massachusetts during the winter of 1912. What makes Bread & Roses so powerful is that Watson weaves the story of these immigrant textile workers in a manner that is devoid of ideological axe grinding. Carefully and meticulously, Watson crafts the story, now nearly 100 years old, so that it reads like a modern-day thriller.

Drawing on the facts and accounts from newspapers of the day, including The Boston Globe, the New York Times and newspapers from Lawrence, including the The Tribune and Daily American, Watson gathered a mountain of information on Lawrence, the key participants, and the events of the strike over its two-month duration. What makes it all inherently readable and hard to put down is Watson’s ability in piecing all of it together. As a result, readers are transported into the kitchens of crowded tenements, to the picket lines along the Merrimack River in sub-freezing temperatures, and thrown into battles between the police and state militias, as they slugged it out with textile workers bent on gathering a few crumbs from mill owner’s tables.

Rather than preaching or cajoling readers, Watson presents the facts in a straightforward and entertaining manner. While it would be difficult not to sympathize for the desperate conditions faced by most mill workers and their families, his honest and even-handed approach commends the book to anyone, regardless of their views on labor or political persuasion. He presents the facts and leaves it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions. What he ends up with is a airtight indictment of a labor system obviously stacked against the working people of Lawrence.

The Bread & Roses strike drew the attention of some of labor’s most radical organizers, including the International Workers of the World (also known as “the Wobblies”). The scene was set and the atmosphere ripe for organizing unlike any New England had seen up to this point.

Local 20, of the I.W.W., summoned a young, charismatic organizer to lead their campaign in Lawrence. Joseph Ettor, known as “Smiling Joe,” was an organizer who had run strikes from lumber camps in Oregon to the steel mills of Pennsylvania. Ettor, an Italian and fluent in several tongues, would lend his considerable skills and organizing abilities to the strike until authorities locked him up on trumped up charges. Not to be deterred, the I.W.W. had gained a foothold with Ettor and later, sent in the “big guns,” national labor luminaries such as the notorious, William “Big Bill” Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the 21-year-old firebrand, already famous for her role in other strikes nationwide.

Bread & Roses is meticulously researched and cited. The author spent countless hours tucked away in libraries in Lawrence, Boston, as well as Yale, and the University of Massachusetts. In addition, he found an abundance of firsthand accounts at the Lawrence History Center and Immigrant City Archives.

Watson’s book should be read, not only to understand the history of its time and the labor strife that characterized that age, but also because in many ways, it parallels issues rearing their heads again in our own day—owners and CEO’s making excessive profits, laborers lacking bargaining clout, and society’s desire to push poverty off into a corner, out of the public’s eye. While research alone doesn’t make an interesting read, combined with Watson’s readable writing style and an ability to bring news accounts and other stories to life, this a labor book worth reading for anyone who cares about the struggles of America’s working classes. This is a book that will reward anyone who wants to know more about labor history and the power that human beings can wield when united behind a viable cause.

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