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The Bread and Roses Strike - Laurence, Massachusetts - January 12, 1912

How the 99 Percent Beat the 1 Percent
(And Why You Won’t Hear Much About It)

Among the many slick sound bites of this election year, one is rhetorical dynamite. With Occupy Wall Street squaring off against a “corporations are people” GOP, hardly a newscast or speech will fail to mention “class warfare.” Yet January 12 marks the 100th anniversary of the most dramatic class war in American history, a Dickensian struggle featuring sinister plots, a tapestry of immigrants, and a heart-wrenching exodus of hungry children. Most Americans know only the battle’s folkloric name – “Bread and Roses.” This suggests that “class warfare” has become politics by other means.

Here’s what a real class war looks like:on January 12, 1912 — 30,000 workers stormed out of the massive textile mills lining the Merrimack River in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The reason – a weekly pay cut of 32 cents. The press expected the strike to fizzle, but in a powderkeg city of tenements and mansions, it became a pitched battle between the 1 percent — mill owners and their stockholders — and the 99 percent — immigrants from 50 countries struggling for their piece of the American dream.

The temperature that Friday morning was in the single digits but strikers were drenched with fire hoses and hammered by club-wielding cops. Then the radical Industrial Workers of the World came to Lawrence. Their lead man quickly set up a multi-lingual strike committee and rallied his troops – “Monday morning you have got to close the mills!” The fight was on. Throughout one of the iciest winters on record, Americans rich and poor focused on Lawrence. Strikes were common in 1912 but there was something different about this one.

The difference began when 10,000 singing strikers marched behind American flags. The difference deepened when mill owners, hoping to discredit the I.W.W., had dynamite planted in the tenements. Then in mid-February, after a month without wages, hundreds of women took threadbare children to the train station and bid tearful goodbyes. The “Children of Lawrence” were sent to Manhattan where they were paraded up Fifth Avenue, then fed and housed by sympathetic strangers. And still the strike dragged on.

Why haven’t you heard this story? Why isn’t it a movie or at least a PBS documentary? Why is the so-called “Bread and Roses Strike” almost never found in high school history texts? And why do the strikes those texts mention – Homestead, Pullman, the Ludlow Massacre — tell of Labor’s crushing defeat? The answer: “class warfare.”

The accusation has become as inevitable as death, more inevitable than taxes. At the slightest hint of tax hikes, conservatives lob the charge. Google “class warfare” and you’ll get 1.4 million hits. Beyond Wikipedia, the sources veer to the right. “Republicans Accuse Obama of Waging Class Warfare” (FOXNews). “How Class Warfare Weakens America – Paul Ryan” ( “When Obama’s Music Stops, Class Warfare Starts” (

The ubiquityof the phrase begs a comparison between current inequality and that of 1912. Today, the 1 percent owns 40 percent of all wealth, but a century ago, in the wake of the Gilded Age, this top tier possessed half the American pie. Meanwhile, children toiled in mines and mills while parents worked 56-hour weeks, with no minimum wage, workers compensation, or collective bargaining rights. Yet even as the Lawrence strike continued into March, not a single politician, pundit, or newspaper called it “class warfare.” That’s because class warfare was not an accusation in 1912 – it was, as it is becoming again, a fact of life.

As we move deeper into this election year, expect to hear “class warfare” chanted like a mantra. But don’t expect to hear much about the “Bread and Roses strike.” You’ve never heard of it because it doesn’t fit the mold of mainstream American history. That mold, defined more by a “melting pot” than by picket lines, hides an inconvenient truth — that America did not always have a strong, stable middle class. Andas today’s middle class shrinks, history like that made in Lawrence a century ago becomes as dangerous as dynamite. Only when people don’t know their own tumultuous history, when its collective struggles have been neglected or erased, can “class warfare” be called un-American.

But here’s the good news from 1912. After two months on the picket lines, strikers in Lawrence got all they demanded and more. Mill owners across New England, terrified that their own tenement towns might explode, boosted pay for 275,000 workers who had not even asked for raises. And despite conservatives’ fears, “the Lawrence uprising” did not lead to socialism, communism or the end of the American dream. A decent wage, a safe workplace, the right to bargain collectively – these were the seeds of that dream, planted by immigrants from 50 nations chanting “Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.” It’s time more Americans knew.

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Reviews of Bread and Roses:

“A fast-paced, well researched narrative. . . Bread and Roses is packed with facts, but Watson. . . makes it an exciting read.”

  • New York Times – (Editor’s Choice)

“Watson dramatically and effectively brings back to life the 1912 Lawrence strike. . . Bread and Roses is a story well-told.”

  • Chicago Tribune

“A spirited account. . . As events tumble upon one another — marches, protests, arrests, soup kitchens, negotiations – Watson. . . keeps firm control of the story.”

Boston Globe

Bruce Watson's "Freedom Summer"Book Summary
First Chapter
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Summer 1964 — 700 Americans head for Mississippi. Their jobs — to register voters, teach in Freedom Schools, and end a century of Jim Crow. They call it “Freedom Summer” and on its first day, three young men vanish without a trace. As the summer unfolds, the FBI searches swamps, the Klan rises, and dozens of volunteers are beaten or jailed. Still they soldier on. . . And by summer’s end, nothing — not Mississippi, not the volunteers, and not America itself — will ever be the same.

“The best account I have seen of Freedom Summer.” — Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States

  • “engrossing” – The Economist
  • “remarkable. . . a well-researched, vivid retelling.”  – David Levering Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle
  • “an amazing account of one pivotal summer in Civil Rights history. . . .with a thriller’s pacing.” – Minneapolis Star-Tribune
  • “mesmerizing history” – Publishers’ Weekly (starred review)
  • “a fascinating look at ordinary people at their best and worst.” – Richmond Times-Dispatch

And Don’t Forget. . .

First Chapter

Praise for Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, The Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind

“Bruce Watson’s spirited history of the affair does a great service in rescuing fact from the haze of legend…”
New York Times

“… the most thorough and readable plumbing yet of the Case Record. . .”
The Nation

Wall Street Journal

“. . . presents a lucid, evenhanded, and at times gripping look at a complex political mystery.”
American Heritage

“. . . a well-researched page-turner. . .”
Library Journal

“Bruce Watson does a terrific job of reviewing the historical record of the trial, drawing compelling portraits of the principals, their families, and partisans on both sides of the bitter controversy.”
Seattle Times

“The literature of this case is vast, but surprisingly little of it provides as balanced and unemotional a survey as this volume does.”
Washington Post

“Likely to become, for a new generation of readers, the definitive account.”

“an unusually even-handed look at a case more often politicized than understood. . .”
New Yorker

The riveting true story of one of the nation’s most infamous trials and executions
When the state of Massachusetts electrocuted Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti on August 23, 1927, it marked one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American legal history. Or did it? In eight decades since, debate has raged about the fate of the Italian immigrants said to have been railroaded for the murder of two payroll clerks. Were they innocent? Guilty? Was one guilty and the other innocent? Was justice done or was justice “crucified”?In the first full-length narrative of the case in thirty years, Bruce Watson unwinds a gripping tale that opens with anarchist bombings throughout the Eastern Seaboard and concludes with worldwide outrage over the execution of the “good shoemaker” and the “poor fish peddler.” Sacco and Vanzetti mines deep archives and new sources, unveiling fresh details and fleshing out the two men as naïve dreamers and militant revolutionaries. This is the most complete and authoritative history of a case that still haunts the American imagination. Sacco and Vanzetti will capture fans of true crime and trial books, fans of John Grisham’s The Innocent Man, and all readers who enjoy American history that reads like a novel.