An important labor milestone nearly slipped by me. A few days ago, January 27 was the anniversary of one of the most storied battles of the ruthless pre-World War I class war.
Just a year after cotton and woolen mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts launched their epic Bread and Roses struggle over assigning workers to tend more machines, workers in the specialized silk industry in Patterson, New Jersey found themselves faced with a similar problem. Local employers announced the impositions of the four loom system in January, 1913.
Previously the mostly women workers tended two looms with children helping by winding bobbins, sweeping scrap, and pushing heavy carts of finished materials. Men, mostly immigrants filled more skilled jobs maintaining and setting up the delicate machinery. The new system not only put people out of work, but those who kept their jobs got no additional compensation for essentially double the work. And hours were lengthened to make up for lost time as machines were fouled and shut down as exhausted workers could not keep up. Those additional hours came at not raise to daily pay.
As in Lawrence, there were skeleton organizations of AFL craftsmen and a small IWW branch engaged mostly in education and general agitation but workers had no effective recognition. Weavers at the Doherty Silk Mill got together and elected a four man grievance committee to lay out the hardships to the bosses. When they presented themselves at the mill office, committee members were peremptorily fired. The next day, January 27 800 workers at the mill went out on strike.
By the end of the week the strike had spread to 300 mills large and small in Patterson and its immediate vicinity. Recognizing the need for experienced leadership, the strikers call on the Industrial Workers of the World.
Many of the same figures who energized the Lawrence Strike came to do the same in Patterson including IWW General Secretary-Treasurer William D. “Big Bill” Heywood, the Italian IWW leader and anarchist Carlo Tresca, the fiery young speaker Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. They joined the seasoned German IWW organizer Adolf Lessing who was already on the ground.
The Wobbly leadership empowered the strike committee and helped it organize mass pickets at the mill gates as well as provide logistical support for the strikers. Flynn organized special meetings of women, both strikers and the wives of strikers. As in Lawrence, the strikers were met with mass attacks by police and assaults, even gunfire, from armed thugs employed as guards by the larger mills. Over the course of the strike three workers would be killed by the gun thugs, and two more later died of their wounds..
The IWW leaders recognized that they had to make the strike broader. Another 1000 mills and dye houses in the area were still working. And new silk centers in Pennsylvania with more modern equipment, many owned by the same companies that controlled the Paterson mills, could continue to meet the commercial needs. They called a general strike of the industry for the end of February. It was successful in the Patterson area where virtually all shops downed tools and joined the strike. Eventually more than 20,000 were out.
Authorities responded with mass arrests, Heywood, Tresca, and Flynn were all nabbed as were hundreds of rank and file members. Over the course of the strike over 3,000 were arrested and most sentenced to ten day jail terms. The IWW’s General Defense Committee went into overdrive trying to raise money for lawyers and to support the families of jailed strikers.
The spreading strike naturally attracted the attention of the press. While mainstream newspapers and magazines were almost universal in providing scare headlines and condemning the strikers, left wing journalists came to tell the other side, including Jack Reed, the renegade socialite and future patron of the avante guarde Mabel Dodge, and a young Walter Lippmann. Reed was swept up in the street arrests and sentenced to jail. He wrote columns on the inhumane conditions in the hellishly crowded jails which were smuggled out and printed in leading New York newspapers. Exasperated authorities released him early.
Returning to New York Reed and Dodge, who were having an affair, hatched a plan to bring the stirring story of the Patterson Strike to the stage to raise popular support for the struggle and money for the strike fund. They did not think small. They rented Madison Square Garden. Dodge provided seed money and prevailed on her circle of artistic friends to help. Reed, one of the founding members of the Provincetown Players, put together the program and wrote most of the script. His close friend Eugene
For a few electric moments there was a terrible unity between all of these people. They were one: the workers who had come to show their comrades what was happening across the river and the workers who had come to see it. I have never felt such a pulsing vibration in any gathering before or since.
Unfortunately the Pageant was not a financial success. In fact it was a disaster. There were not enough limousine liberals to fill the expensive seats in the enormous building. Seats in the $1 and $2 range meant to be affordable to better paid workers had to be largely filled at the last minute by less well off working people who paid a dime or were even let in free. The program lost money for the Strike Fund.
Reed and Dodge did not stick around to try and clean up the mess. The day after the show closed, they boarded an ocean liner for a trip to Europe.
The IWW had exhausted virtually its entire treasury on the strike. Socialist Party locals had also raised money, but by midsummer they were tapped out as well. Without the support of a strike fund to keep food on the table, workers began to drift back to work. The bulk of them returned in July. The IWW Textile Workers Industrial Union, which had never been able to spread the strike into an industry wide action that it knew was key to winning, officially called an end to the strike and sent the last stragglers back to work in September.
None of the strikers economic demands were met. More over the larger companies used the prolonged strike to force smaller, “less efficient” mills into bankruptcy. There were fewer jobs to go back to. On top of that, the country was sliding into another one of its periodic financial panics.
There were plenty of recriminations to go around. The AFL accused the IWW of “using” the Patterson workers to advance their revolutionary cause. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn defended the strike in her memoirs:
What is a labor victory? I maintain that it is a twofold thing. Workers must gain economic advantage, but they must also gain revolutionary spirit, in order to achieve a complete victory. For workers to gain a few cents more a day, a few minutes less a day, and go back to work with the same psychology, the same attitude toward society is to achieve a temporary gain and not a lasting victory. For workers to go back with a class-conscious spirit, with an organized and determined attitude toward society means that even if they have made no economic gain they have the possibility of gaining in the future.
The strike was a virtual last hurrah for the Textile Workers IU. There were a few other scattered actions during the balance of 1913 then the financial panic made calling strikes an exceptionally risky business. By 1916 the IWW General Administration suspended the charter of the Industrial Union for lack of membership. Active local branches continued with a direct affiliation to the GA. There would be precious little further activity in what had been a key IWW industry.
Instead the union turned its attention more and more to the extractive industries of the west—the wheat and grain harvests, California agriculture, Pacific Northwest fruit, copper and other hard rock mining, coal mining, large scale construction projects, and the lumber industry. With the exception of the mining industries, most of the workers in these industries were single transient men moving from job to job, even from industry to industry. These were tough, militant men, but the absence of home guard workers with families and large numbers of women dramatically changed the legendary fighting union.