Sept 20, 2020 – The Boston Police Strike of 1919 – Arsenal For Democracy Ep. 325

Description: In September 1919, a poorly-planned strike by the newly formed union representing Boston Police collapsed immediately and ended organizing of police for decades. But did they belong in the labor movement at all?

Links and notes for Ep. 325 (PDF):

Theme music by Stunt Bird.

Should we have a Bread and Roses holiday?

I think it would be nice to have a state holiday in March since we don’t have one; my suggestion is one honoring the Lawrence Massachusetts textile strike victory from March 1912 because it was a strike of Italian, French-Canadian (and simply French), various Slav, Hungarian, Portuguese, & Arab (Syrian/Lebanese) workers together in solidarity.

This strike is also known as the Bread and Roses strike. We talked about it on our podcast episode from August 2019 about the history of anarcho-syndicalism in the United States. I summarized the history of that strike using the book The Wobblies: The Story of Syndicalism in the United States​ (1967, Patrick Renshaw) and I am repeating that summary here with some additions…

In 1912, the Industrial Workers of the World’s focus began to shift with the Lawrence Massachusetts textile mill strike. This nine-week strike coincided with a wave of strike action across the entire English-speaking world of the British Empire, some of which the IWW was actually advising on.

Lawrence had 86,000 residents, 60,000 depending directly on mill wages, and 30,000 men and women working themselves in the mills. Overwhelmingly, the town was either immigrant or first-generation American, representing 25 or more nationalities. A pay cut in the second week of January 1912 also happened as the pioneering Massachusetts minimum wage and maximum hours law for women and children was rolling out. 10 or 15,000 workers walked out immediately, triggering a citywide general strike, although many immigrant groups did not join until later, and the small IWW local wired for emergency help from the national leadership, who arrived quickly on the scene.

A couple of those national advisers/organizers would later be arrested and held without trial for months. One – Italian immigrant, union organizer, poet, and orator Arturo Giovannitti, age 29 – became globally famed for his role in the strike and this imprisonment on false charges by Massachusetts authorities for being too inspiring (allegedly inciting murder through his speeches). His closing arguments in his successful defense on false charges of inciting murder, one of his first public speeches in English, were so passionate – imploring he be allowed to live because he loved being alive – that the trial audience was said to have been reduced to tears. Another famous line: “this mighty army of the working class of the world…which out of the shadows and the darkness of the past is striving towards the destined goal which is the emancipation of human kind, which is the establishment of love & brotherhood & justice for every man and every woman in this earth.” Both of Giovannitti’s co-defendants were also Italian, including the key IWW figure Joseph James Ettor, the multi-lingual first-generation Italian-American, who had helped usher in a new era of IWW focus around Eastern US industrial immigrant workers, including Italian, Polish, and Russian workers among others.

But before Giovannitti’s and Ettor’s arrests in late January, the situation had escalated without much help from radical left rhetoric alone. The Massachusetts militia fired water hoses into the strikers on January 15, a few days in, and the workers became so enraged that they committed to following through on the general strike in progress.

French and Belgian syndicalists were very active in the strike (including their bakery keeping people fed), while the city’s Irish and English communities tended to undermine the strike, especially since the Irish were now in control of city government (some of whom even purchased and planted dynamite to frame IWW leaders unsuccessfully). The Italians were divided with many serving as the core of the strikers but also quite a few siding with management and the city.

An aside: It is critical to remember that Italian unification was only completed by the northern monarchy in 1871 and Italy remained heavily regionally fragmented, with different dialects, politics, and rural vs urban industrial backgrounds. 1880-1900 Italian immigration in particular tended to be from the impoverished former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in Southern Italy as opposed to industrial northern Italian cities. Not all politically active Italians who came to the US shared the views of the anarchist or communist Italian immigrants. Moreover, as early as the 1890s, large numbers of Italian-Americans had already moved into the public sector roles in places like New York City and Chicago with which they are now “stereotypically” associated. Also many rural Italian immigrants opted to remain in American cities in more transient manual labor jobs and avoided settling down to continue to farm. They were overwhelmingly male and usually did not bring the rest of their families with them during this period (although of course the women working during the prior year’s (1911) Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire were Italian or Jewish women or girls active in the trade-union movement inside the factory.)

The Massachusetts militia that hosed down and otherwise harassed the picketers consisted largely of anti-immigrant nativists, multi-generation Americans, and young professionals/college students – drawn heavily from Harvard. Supposed anarchists from Boston, possibly actually agents working for management, brought signs with atheist slogans that alienated many workers.

The IWW had to evacuate thousands of starving children to supporter homes across the northeast as the privations grew, but this emergency dispersal of children proved to be such an effective propaganda tool to demonstrate more widely the abusive siege against the workers going without wages that the militias and police began trying to stop the evacuations and arresting mothers on neglect charges. The US Solicitor General condemned the intervention, saying it was any parent’s right to send their child to a home where they would be safer and better fed, and at this point American middle class opinion turned in favor of the strikers despite misgivings about the revolutionary rhetoric and descriptions of syndicalist tactics of sabotage and so on.

Soon there were newspaper editorials across the country raising questions not only about the millowners in Lawrence but about the entire US textile industry which was heavily benefiting from a federal tariff regime.

To avoid a much more serious review of US policy on their industry that could cost them far more money, the American Woolen Company decided to raise wages in 33 cities, then bumped pay for 125,000 millworkers in six states, and soon after a number of other textile companies announced pay rises, overtime pay, and worker protections. The strike ended and a wave of smaller textile strikes across New England quickly ended with similar surrender to worker demands.

Unfortunately, as elsewhere, the IWW was unable to capitalize on a major victory by putting down roots and building infrastructure, and the hard-won gains fizzled away quickly.

Armistice 100

US forces had >3,500 casualties on the day of the Armistice, many of them in offensive actions launched that morning though commanders knew an end to fighting had already been set for 11 am. One was the 92nd Division: black soldiers led by white officers.

“I think in those last days of the war it was much like a child who has been given a toy that he is very much interested in and that he knows within a day or two is going to be taken away from him and he wants to use that toy up to the handle while he has it.” – US Gen. Sherburne of Brookline MA during Congressional testimony on the 11/11/1918 offensives

Sherburne…was active in civil rights causes after the war. He spoke at…the first national conference on lynching in New York in 1919 and at meetings of the NAACP…resigned his membership in…the American Legion over a clause in its constitution that barred black veterans


[General] Sherburne had been the [white] commander of the 167th Field Artillery, a part of the 92nd Division and the first African-American artillery brigade in U.S. Army history.

Sept 11, 2018 – Arsenal For Democracy Ep. 241 Extended


Topic: Lessons from the recent Massachusetts and Delaware primary elections. People: Bill, Jonathan Cohn, Paul Blest. Recorded: Sept 9th and 10th, 2018.

Episode 241 (34 min):
AFD 241

This version includes a longer discussion of Massachusetts than what we aired in Delaware.


RSS Feed: Arsenal for Democracy Feedburner
iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”
Stitcher Link: Arsenal for Democracy on Stitcher

Music by friend of the show Stunt Bird.

March 15, 2017 – Arsenal For Democracy Ep. 173

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.


Topics: Republicans de-funding infectious disease prevention, why Democrats are very bad at taking credit for achievements, and Bill’s experience signing up for health insurance on the individual exchange in Massachusetts. People: Bill, Rachel, and Jonathan. Produced: March 13th, 2017.

Episode 173 (49 min):
AFD 173


RSS Feed: Arsenal for Democracy Feedburner
iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

Music by friend of the show @StuntBirdArmy.

Not Seeing the Cleared Forest for the Largest Felled Tree: Democrats & the States

Most of the ink spilled about the election earlier this month has focused on the presidential race. With the amount of money spent on it and media attention it gained (especially with one candidate being a bigoted, reactionary carnival barker), that makes sense. There have been many post-mortems, and there will be more. And there is comfort in knowing that over two million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump, regardless of the Electoral College results.

But focusing on the top of the ticket alone obscures what was happening–and has been happening–down ballot.

Democrats hit a new low in state legislative seats. In 2017, Republicans will control 4,170 state legislative seats, with Democrats controlling only 3,129 in the 98 partisan legislative chambers. According to the AP as of last week, Republicans had a net gain of 46 seats, and Democrats a net loss of 46 seats. Some races in California and Washington, however, have yet to be called, but that will not change the overall picture.

Indeed, the losses since 2008 have been stunning. Some of this can be explained by the extreme gerrymandering of state legislatures by Republicans after the 2010 Census, but that cannot explain all of it.


Fortunately, Massachusetts was largely immune to this trend in 2016. Republicans succeeded at picking up only one open Democratic-held seat: Brian Mannal’s Second Barnstable District in the House. Republicans will now have 35 seats in the MA House, to Democrats’ 125. (The Senate will remain 34-6).

Elections in Massachusetts are rarely competitive affairs, however. This year, in 77% of seats, one major party fielded no candidates, and 88.8% of incumbents ran unopposed in their primaries.

We haven’t been so lucky in the gubernatorial realm, though. Massachusetts is one of two states with Republican governors but Democratic legislative supermajorities (the other being Maryland). Democrats will start 2017 with two fewer gubernatorial offices than they held in 2016, having lost the offices in Missouri, New Hampshire, and Vermont–and—provided NC Governor Pat McCrory (R) doesn’t succeed in stealing the election away from AG Roy Cooper (D) with trumped-up voter fraud charges—gained an office in North Carolina. This leads to a total of only 16 gubernatorial offices. It’s quite jarring to think that the majority of New England states now have Republican governors.

During the next four years of the Trump presidency (let’s pray–and organize to make sure–it’s not eight), states and cities will take on extra importance in advancing a progressive agenda. That means passing bold, progressive legislation that advances equity, inclusion, and sustainability in the state and offers a model for other states and the nation as a whole (down the road), and organizing to take back gubernatorial seats and legislatures.

Here in Massachusetts, we need to do both. With legislative supermajorities, Democrats need to be pushing for a $15 minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, criminal justice reform, free tuition at public colleges, single payer health care, automatic voter registration, and the protection and expansion of the rights of women, people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. And we also need to be working to take back the gubernatorial office in 2018 so that we have a governor who wants to play a part, or even lead, in advancing that agenda.

Oct 19, 2016 – Arsenal For Democracy Ep. 156

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.


Topics: The Harvard strike and other campus organizing news. Plus, Bill goes viral. People: Bill, Persephone, Jonathan, and Greg. Produced: Oct 17th, 2016.

Episode 156 (56 min):
AFD 156

Discussion Points:

– Why are Harvard dining hall staff’s union on strike?
– What constitutes a living wage?
– What else is going on in campus organizing right now?


RSS Feed: Arsenal for Democracy Feedburner
iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”