Elizabeth Gurley Flynn celebrated May Day with Connecticut textile workers on May 1, 1912. This little-known speech was a special moment, uniting the radical idealism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) with the aspirations of an impoverished, powerless working class.
In New England, as the textile industry made a few men rich, women and foreign-born workers were pointedly ignored by a political system that blocked their right to vote and a labor movement that refused them entrance into the skilled trades unions.
In April, 1912, several thousand Willimantic employees of the Quidick-Windham mill and the American Thread Company struck for a living wage. The Willimantic workers won a 15% raise. They had been inspired by the success of the recent “Bread and Roses” strike victory by 25,000 mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Elizabeth Flynn played an important role in the Lawrence strike, helping to organize an exodus of strikers’ children to sympathetic families in nearby states. The desperately poor striking families could not afford to feed or clothe their children, and this gamble, although heartbreaking to parents and children alike, was a success in both practical and publicity terms.
Flynn was born to Irish parents in New Hampshire in 1890. Her very first organizing for the IWW began in 1907 in Bridgeport with the steelworkers strike at American Tube & Stamping Company. The chief of police complained that the IWW “shouldn’t be allowed to import young girls to speak in flowing languages and go out and kill some of our powerful men.” Flynn was sixteen at the time.
Now a veteran at 21 years of age, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was one of the IWW’s most potent agitators, crisscrossing the country to speak before crowds of miners and factory workers. She stopped in Willimantic with congratulations and a warning for the future:
“Fellow workers, your victorious strike has been a grand one. You are here this evening to organize. Your victory must be backed up. Unless you keep up your organization you will sooner or later fail.
“It was unity on your part that ended the difficulty. It was the quickest settlement I ever heard of. The stockholders of the American Thread Company…were forced to it by a just demand. They did not care to stop their mills because of the fear of losing big dividend and in this respect their pocketbooks would be touched.
“On this beautiful May Day you operatives of the American Thread Company have much to be thankful for. You have won a moral as well as a labor victory in your strike for better wages and conditions. May 1 is recognized all over industrial Europe as the real labor day. By your action you have added a new spirit of independence to your lives.
“There is a new era beginning for textile workers in this country. There is no reason why you should not share in the good things in life. It is a certainty that the mill owner makes as much from the labor of this class of operatives as the mine owner, the brewers and other lines of business who have raised wages and lessened working hours.
“The day is coming when there will be an eight-hour working day and a $3 daily wage for the textiles worker. Then the real cause of broken homes will be cured. Little children can attend the schools instead of stunting their lives in the mills…
“When the strike committee waited on Mr. Boss [the mill superintendent’s actual name] and when a settlement was reached he was asked if he or the company would hold any grievance against the leaders of the strike. He stated there would be none. There were men and women in this fight and at some time there may be an attempt to weed them out. You must defend those who fought the battle.”
Flynn knew well that employers would wait for the right moment to “weed out” the IWW and wipe out the gains workers had made. Six months after Flynn’s speech, the superintendent at American Thread fired an outspoken worker, and then twelve more of his supporters.
In response, workers at two of the mill’s departments went on strike, tying up the production of 6,000 others. They demanded reinstatement and an end to the machine speed up by the boss which had wiped out their wage hike. Within three days, before an IWW organizer from New Bedford, MA could arrive, the workers had won.