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Child factory workers in South Carolina, 1908

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Speaking Out for Workers’ Rights

In 1912, a courageous teen overcame a personal disaster to join a groundbreaking movement that helped change the lives of American workers

Camella Teoli’s life changed forever in a split second. It happened late in the afternoon on a July day in 1909. The 12-year-old factory worker had been on her feet for hours changing spools of thread on mechanical looms that spun wool into fabric.

All day, she’d had to keep her long hair pinned up around the machinery’s whirring belts, gears, and rollers. Finally, tired and uncomfortable, Camella let her hair down. She turned—and suddenly, a spinning roller yanked the end of her brown locks. Before she could even cry out, her hair was sucked into the enormous loom.

Like many of the other mill workers at the Washington Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Camella had risen before dawn to get to work by 6 a.m. Hour after hour, the noise of the factory machinery had assaulted her ears. The air in the building was thick with fibers from the fabric being spun there—and she would draw them in with each breath, irritating her lungs.

The work was exhausting and tedious. Sometimes Camella’s thoughts would drift longingly to her time in school. Earlier that year, she’d had to drop out of sixth grade so she could work. Her family was poor and depended on her small wages to survive. But Camella couldn’t daydream for more than a moment or two; she had to keep up with the machines, which never stopped. If she didn’t, she would be fired. Worse, the looms had no protective guardrails. Making a mistake around them could be dangerous.

Camella Teoli’s life changed forever in a split second. It happened late in the afternoon on a July day in 1909. The 12-year-old factory worker had been on her feet for hours. She had spent the time changing spools of thread on mechanical looms that spun wool into fabric.

All day, she’d had to keep her long hair pinned up around the machinery’s whirring belts, gears, and rollers. Finally, tired and uncomfortable, Camella let her hair down. She made a turn. Suddenly, a spinning roller yanked the end of her brown locks. Before she could even cry out, her hair was sucked into the loom.

Like many of the other mill workers at the Washington Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Camella had risen before dawn to get to work by 6 a.m. Hour after hour, the noise of the factory machinery had slammed against her ears. The air in the building was thick with fibers from the fabric being spun there. She would inhale the fibers with each breath, irritating her lungs.

The work was exhausting and boring. Sometimes Camella would start daydreaming about her time in school. Earlier that year, she’d had to drop out of sixth grade so she could work. Her family was poor and depended on her small wages to survive. But Camella couldn’t drift off for more than a moment or two; she had to keep up with the machines, which never stopped. If she didn’t, she would be fired. Worse, the looms had no protective guardrails. Making a mistake around them could be dangerous.

Courtesy of Lawrence History Center

Camella found that out the hard way. When the roller caught her hair, the searing pain was almost unbearable. In an instant, nearly 6 inches of her scalp was torn off. The girl was rushed to the hospital, where she remained for months. The hair would never grow back on that part of her head.

Although it was tragic, the incident would help bring about great change. In 1912, fed up with their low pay and the terrible conditions in the factories, workers in Lawrence, including Camella, went on strike. They refused to work until they won better pay. Their strike—which came to be known as the Bread and Roses Strike—helped put an end to most child labor in the U.S. and win important rights for American workers.

“People still celebrate it as one of these watershed moments in labor and immigrant history,” says historian Robert Forrant, co-author of Lawrence and the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike, “because they sort of unlocked the key about how [to] organize in this very elaborate, multinational immigrant coalition.”

Camella found that out the hard way. When the roller caught her hair, the pain was almost unbearable. In an instant, nearly 6 inches of her scalp was torn off. The girl was rushed to the hospital, where she remained for months. The hair would never grow back on that part of her head.

Although it was tragic, the incident would help bring about great change. In 1912,  workers in Lawrence were fed up with their low pay and the terrible conditions in the factories. A group of them, including Camella, went on strike. They refused to work until they won better pay. Their strike came to be known as the Bread and Roses Strike. It helped put an end to most child labor in the U.S. and win important rights for American workers.

“People still celebrate it as one of these watershed moments in labor and immigrant history,” says historian Robert Forrant, co-author of Lawrence and the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike, “because they sort of unlocked the key about how [to] organize in this very elaborate, multinational immigrant coalition.”

Fotosearch/Getty Images

On strike: Lawrence mill workers march for better pay, 1912.

Immigrants Without Choices

A century ago, Camella’s story wasn’t unique. In those days, American industry was booming thanks to the technology that spurred the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). But much of that growth was built on the backs of people who toiled for long hours in factories under horrendous conditions. The worst of those places—known as sweatshops—were like jails. Employers often locked workers in during the day to keep them from stealing goods or taking breaks. In the cramped, dirty factories, diseases such as measles spread like wildfire. Workers often didn’t live past age 40.

But they had few other options. Many of them were part of a wave of immigrants who began coming to the U.S. in the 1880s, fleeing poverty or violence in Eastern and Southern Europe. With little education, most of these immigrants had no choice but to take low-paying, dangerous jobs in their new country.

Many of those jobs were in New England, where Camella lived. The Northeastern region had become the center of U.S. textile manufacturing. Like the Teoli family, which had come from Italy, the workers in the mills there were mostly immigrants. In Lawrence alone, dozens of different languages could be heard on the streets.

A century ago, Camella’s story wasn’t unique. In those days, American industry was booming. The technology that ushered in the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) fueled the boom. But much of that growth was built on the backs of people who worked for long hours in factories under horrible conditions. The worst of those places were known as sweatshops. These facilities were like jails. Employers often locked workers in during the day to keep them from stealing goods or taking breaks. In the cramped, dirty factories, diseases such as measles spread like wildfire. Workers often didn’t live past age 40.

But they had few other options. Many of them were part of a wave of immigrants who began coming to the U.S. in the 1880s. They immigrated to flee poverty or violence in Eastern and Southern Europe. With little education, most of these immigrants had no choice but to take low-paying, dangerous jobs in their new country.

Many of those jobs were in New England, where Camella lived. The Northeastern region had become the center of U.S. textile manufacturing. Like the Teoli family, which had come from Italy, the workers in the mills there were mostly immigrants. In Lawrence alone, dozens of different languages could be heard on the streets.

Workers often didn’t live past 40.

Work in the mills was incredibly hard and paid poorly. For men in Lawrence, the average wage for a 56-hour workweek was $8.50—the equivalent of about $200 today. Women earned less, and children might make as little as 11 cents per hour. Yet families were so poor that half of the kids in the city had to work. Desperate for extra income, Camella’s parents purchased false papers stating that she was not 12 but 14, the legal working age in Massachusetts.

“The children’s wages were the difference between rent, food, heat, maybe medicine,” Forrant says. “So people were willing to oftentimes falsify how old their kids were.”

Work in the mills was incredibly hard and paid poorly. For men in Lawrence, the average wage for a 56-hour workweek was $8.50. That’s about $200 today. Women earned less, and children might make as little as 11 cents per hour. Yet families were so poor that half of the kids in the city had to work. Desperate for extra income, Camella’s parents bought false papers stating that she was not 12 but 14. At the time, that was the legal working age in Massachusetts.

“The children’s wages were the difference between rent, food, heat, maybe medicine,” Forrant says. “So people were willing to oftentimes falsify how old their kids were.”

A Revolt at the Mill

Then came the accident, which hit the Teoli family hard. Camella spent nearly four months in the hospital, all that time without pay. Soon after she was released, in late October 1909, she had to get another job.

At the time, Massachusetts officials were growing concerned about conditions in the mills. In late 1911, the legislature passed a law reducing the hours that women and children could work in a week from 56 to 54, still many more hours than today’s standard 40-hour work week. In response, mill owners sped up the machines, putting the workers under even more pressure.

Then, on January 11, 1912, a group of women in one of the Lawrence mills opened their paychecks to find that the bosses had cut their pay for those two hours they couldn’t work. That money would have bought four loaves of bread. Enraged, the women left their looms and walked off the floor. “Short pay! Short pay!” they chanted.

Then came the accident, which hit the Teoli family hard. Camella spent nearly four months in the hospital, all that time without pay. Soon after she was released, in late October 1909, she had to get another job.

At the time, Massachusetts officials were growing concerned about conditions in the mills. In late 1911, the legislature passed a law reducing the hours that women and children could work in a week from 56 to 54. That was still a lot longer than today’s standard 40-hour work week. In response, mill owners sped up the machines. That put the workers under even more pressure.

Then, on January 11, 1912, a group of women in one of the Lawrence mills opened their paychecks to find that the bosses had cut their pay for those two hours they couldn’t work. That money would have bought four loaves of bread. Enraged, the women left their looms and walked off the floor. “Short pay! Short pay!” they chanted.

‘The machine pulled the scalp off.’

Their action sent a shock wave through the town. Within two days, about 25,000 people from the Lawrence mills had gone on strike. Lawrence quickly turned into a battleground. Workers set up picket lines in front of factories and marched through town. At the request of the mayor, a force equivalent to today’s Massachusetts National Guard was deployed, and local militia from nearby cities also arrived on the scene. They clashed with the protesters, and two strikers were killed during the confrontations.

A prominent labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World, took up the strikers’ cause, translating strike leaflets and rally speeches into 25 different languages. This was crucial in uniting workers from many cultures, historians say.

“They recognized that unless they could figure out a way to bridge all the different languages in the city, the strike would fall apart,” Forrant says. “And so the commitment was made. Everything was translated, even outdoor meetings.” He adds, “It was like a United Nations before the headsets.”

Within weeks, news of the strike had won sympathy for the Lawrence workers around the country. It also caught the attention of officials in Washington, D.C. In February, Congress announced that it would hold hearings to learn about conditions in the mills, and the people of Lawrence were invited to speak.

Their action sent a shock wave through the town. Within two days, about 25,000 people from the Lawrence mills had gone on strike. Lawrence quickly turned into a battleground. Workers set up picket lines in front of factories and marched through town. At the request of the mayor, a force equivalent to today’s Massachusetts National Guard was deployed. Local militia from nearby cities also arrived on the scene. They clashed with the protesters, and two strikers were killed during the confrontations.

A prominent labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World, took up the strikers’ cause. The union translated strike leaflets and rally speeches into 25 different languages. This was crucial in uniting workers from many cultures, historians say.

“They recognized that unless they could figure out a way to bridge all the different languages in the city, the strike would fall apart,” Forrant says. “And so the commitment was made. Everything was translated, even outdoor meetings.” He adds, “It was like a United Nations before the headsets.”

Within weeks, news of the strike had won sympathy for the Lawrence workers around the country. It also caught the attention of officials in Washington, D.C. In February, Congress announced that it would hold hearings to learn about conditions in the mills. The people of Lawrence were invited to speak.

Real Change Comes

On March 2, 1912, 5 adults and 13 children—including Camella—testified before Congress in Washington, D.C. The next day, the House of Representatives Committee on Rules opened its hearings. As one Lawrence worker after another told their stories, the congressmen couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Were there really people in America who worked under such alarming conditions?

When Camella, by then 14, spoke, she was so shy that the people in the room had to strain to hear her. Yet her testimony was riveting. Why did she join the strike? she was asked. “Because I didn’t get enough to eat at home,” she replied.

Camella related the terrifying story of how her hair had been sucked into the loom. “The machine pulled the scalp off,” she said, stunning the congressmen.

The hearings won additional public support for the workers, and President William Howard Taft met with the young people in the White House. Finally, on March 12, the mill owners agreed to raise their workers’ pay. Not only that, but across New England, other textile mills improved wages as well—hoping to avoid a strike like the one in Lawrence.

The Lawrence mill workers’ strike was a milestone in American labor history. Their victory shone a light on the poor conditions in many factories and made the U.S. government ask what it should do to protect workers.

But it didn’t change American factories overnight. Life there continued to be miserable—and dangerous—for many people. Eventually, the strike and other incidents before and after, such as the deadly 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City (see timeline slideshow below), convinced Americans how desperate the situation was.

Real progress finally was made in 1938, when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. That landmark law capped the workweek at 40 hours—and limited how children could be employed (see “Child Labor Laws You Should Know”).

Camella didn’t benefit from those advances. Even after the Lawrence mill owners raised wages and Camella’s father was bringing in higher pay, the family still couldn’t afford for her not to work. So she returned to the factory.

Still, say experts, it was Camella’s actions and those of countless people like her that helped win standards of safety, pay, and dignity in the workplace that many Americans take for granted today.

“In a period when workers tended to be overwhelmingly defeated, the workers in Lawrence won their strike,” says Stephen Brier, an expert on the labor movement. “That was extremely unusual.”

On March 2, 1912, 5 adults and 13 children—including Camella—testified before Congress in Washington, D.C. The next day, the House of Representatives Committee on Rules opened its hearings. One after another, the Lawrence workers told their stories. As the congressmen listened, they couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Were there really people in America who worked under such alarming conditions?

When Camella, by then 14, spoke, she was so shy that the people in the room had to strain to hear her. Yet her testimony was captivating. Why did she join the strike? she was asked. “Because I didn’t get enough to eat at home,” she replied.

Camella related the terrifying story of how her hair had been sucked into the loom. “The machine pulled the scalp off,” she said, stunning the congressmen.

The hearings won more public support for the workers. President William Howard Taft even met with the young people in the White House. Finally, on March 12, the mill owners agreed to raise their workers’ pay. And other textile mills across New England improved wages as well. They did so, hoping to avoid a strike like the one in Lawrence.

The Lawrence mill workers’ strike was a milestone in American labor history. Their victory highlighted the poor conditions in many factories. The revelation made the U.S. government ask what it should do to protect workers.

But it didn’t change American factories overnight. Factories continued to be miserable and dangerous for many people. Eventually, the strike and other incidents convinced Americans how desperate the situation was. The deadly 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City (see timeline slideshow below), was one of these events.

Real progress finally was made in 1938, when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. That landmark law capped the workweek at 40 hours. It also limited how children could be employed (see “Child Labor Laws You Should Know”).

Camella didn’t benefit from those advances. After the Lawrence mill owners raised wages, Camella’s father was bringing in higher pay. Her family still struggled financially, so she returned to work at the factory.

Still, experts say that Camella’s actions and those of countless people like her led to change. Their efforts helped win standards of safety, pay, and dignity in the workplace that many Americans take for granted today.

“In a period when workers tended to be overwhelmingly defeated, the workers in Lawrence won their strike,” says Stephen Brier, an expert on the labor movement. “That was extremely unusual.”

Jeff Singer/Redux

Picking strawberries in Watsonville, California

Child Labor Laws You Should Know

Today, most young people in the U.S. don’t have to work. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits people under 14 from working most jobs. It also restricts anyone under 16 to eight hours of work per day and requires that they receive at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour after the first 90 days on the job.

But the FLSA does make exceptions. Children as young as 12 are allowed to work on farms for unlimited hours outside the school days. Nationwide, an estimated 524,000 youth work long hours in the fields. Many young people—especially the children of undocumented immigrants—also work off the books, earning money to help their families survive.

Many other countries around the world—especially developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia—are less strict than the U.S. about children working. Globally, about 152 million kids ages 5 to 17 are child laborers.