Saturday, January 12, 2008

Silk Strike, Paterson New Jersey 1913

Striking America

By Richard E. Noble

It began on February 13 at the Henry Doherty Company in Paterson, New Jersey. The Paterson silk industry was having its problems. New competitors had opened up in the surrounding area. Paterson’s competitors had newer machinery, and a more desperate, immigrant workforce. The women running the competition’s machinery and looms were willing to work more hours, and tend more looms for less money. The Henry Doherty Company and others in Paterson decided that their workers would just have to do more for less also. Their first innovative step was categorized as a “speed up”. Women workers who were attending two looms would now have to attend four looms.
On Jan 27, 1913, eight hundred workers stormed out of the Henry Doherty Company and shortly thereafter 25,000 area mill workers joined them. In February the I.W.W., hot off its victory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, was more than happy to accept the call from the Paterson workers. The union demanded on behalf of the silk workers the resumption of the two loom system, an eight hour day for all workers, time and a half for overtime and a minimum wage of twelve dollars per week. The authorities in Paterson knew about Big Bill Haywood and his crowd of “Wobbly”, anarchist agitators. The police, under Chief John Bimson decided to nip this whole thing in the bud. They banned picketing. They banned outdoor public meetings. They even banned Big Bill Haywood the right to make any speeches in Paterson, New Jersey.
On March 7, 1913, Big Bill Haywood arrived at the Erie Depot. He was immediately arrested. His bail was posted and that night at the various union halls around Paterson, Big Bill told the crowds of his brush with the law. The authorities wondered if he carried a weapon, he told them. Then he reached into his vest pocket and pulled out his only weapon. The police had missed it in their search. It was his I.W.W. union card. The only weapon any worker would ever need.
In the midst of the Paterson uprising, trouble broke out in Akron, Ohio at the rubber plants. When Big Bill got off the train in Akron he was greeted by the mayor, Frank Rockwell, the chief of police, Robert Guillet and two or three hundred vigilantes from the Akron Citizen’s Welfare League. Captain Guillet informed Mister Haywood that he was on touchy ground and that he would be wise not to be making any speeches in Akron. Big Bill asked the sheriff if he had a warrant. When the sheriff replied in the negative, Big Bill told him to get out of his road. As Big Bill marched forward the Citizens Welfare Committee parted like the Red Sea and when Big Bill Haywood emerged from its ranks, he was immediately flanked by a crowd of union well wishers cheering and hooraying with delight. The Akron police and Citizen’s Welfare committee used all their powers and numbers to see that the union rubber workers would make no headway. Their beatings and illegal arrests were successful and the disturbance in Akron was over before it got started. Haywood returned to Paterson.
In Paterson, March 17 was declared American flag day. The I.W.W. were considered to be anarchists, radicals and revolutionaries. Haywood had mentioned that the Industrial Workers of the World marched under the red banner of revolution and reform. The authorities and business leaders thought this to be a good time to play the patriot card. The American flag was everywhere in Paterson. It was not only on the tops of all the public buildings but all the factory tops and businesses. Who but a traitor would not adorn an American flag?
At his next speech at a union rented park in Haledon, Haywood and union supporters marched through the streets under an American flag. Haywood could speak in Haledon. The Mayor of Haledon was sympathetic to workers and their causes. Haywood’s speech turned Paterson’s flag day upside-down. Haywood spoke out against the capitalist and the money-class. These people have no flag, he told his listeners. They have no country. They have no patriotism. They have no God. Their only loyalty is to gold and the almighty dollar. They have no nation. They are international in their outlook. Their only flag is the black flag of piracy, adorned with the skull and cross bones of the little children who they have ground up in their mills and factories.
The union then tried to challenge Paterson’s ban on outdoor meetings. They rented the Lafayette Oval battlefield in Paterson. They would march through the streets of Paterson to the battlefield, 20,000 strong.
The police blocked their arrival at the park. The 20,000 union members, who could have overpowered the small contingent of police, chose not to be violent. They would instead march to Haledon, where free speech and freedom of association were still honored. When they reached the city line, they were greeted by the police once again. The police then proceed in an attempt to agitate the crowd to violence, by arresting Big Bill Haywood and another union leader, Adolph Lessig. The crowd did not respond in the desired manner. Neither of the men arrested had broken any law. Nevertheless, they were convicted of disorderly conduct, sentenced to six months at hard labor, and their bail set at five thousand dollars each.
Haywood and the union took the case to the Supreme Court of New Jersey. The court decided that it was not acting illegally to be at the lead of a crowd, nor to have a crowd of people follow behind in a peaceable manner. But they were making a lot of noise, the prosecutors countered. And do you arrest the Salvation Army when they make noise in the streets, or form lines or attract a crowd, the judges asked.
The case was dismissed.
The strike lingered on even though the workers were running out of money and food. The bosses were winning and they had a new advantage. The press which was anti-union simply stopped reporting the events going on in Paterson. When the workers took their children to the train station to be sent out of town so as not to be hurt by the police and vigilantes, the press did not attend the exodus. When the police refused to allow free citizens to meet together peacefully, the press did not show up. When women workers were beaten and clubbed, the press took no photos. When local newspapers who supported the strikers wrote positive articles, their newspapers were ransacked and their owners and editors were arrested and put in jail for disturbing the peace or inciting a riot. One man was even arrested for reading the New Jersey Constitution. Sumner Boyd was arrested for reading a freedom of speech clause in the New Jersey constitution to a crowd. Alexander Scott was arrested and sentenced to a term of one to fifteen years for exciting hostility against the government in his Weekly Issue Newspaper. And when thousands were arrested and held illegally in Paterson jails, for crimes like picketing or assembling, the rest of the America and the world were none the wiser.
Big Bill had been making friends with some of the better off and monied crowd across the Hudson in New York City’s Greenwich Village. People like Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Mable Dodge, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, Henrietta Redman, Max Eastman, and last but not least, the twenty-six year old writer, journalist, and Harvard graduate John Reed.
Big Bill was sick. He had developed ulcers from his worries and tensions. He had lost over one hundred pounds. He was losing strength. He went to his new found friends and commiserated about the big silence on the part of the press. He needed money to keep the strike going. If good people in America only knew what was happening to the poor and hard working in Paterson, New Jersey, they would send money in buckets. It had happened before. It happened in Lawrence, it happened in Colorado, it could happen in Paterson.
John Reed had an idea. The union would sponsor a pageant at Madison Square Garden. The pageant would tell the story of how Modestino Valentino, and innocent bystander was shot and killed by private detectives who were hired by the mill owners. The detectives had simply lost their cool and began shooting at strikers in front of a mill. The bullets went through the crowd and killed poor Modestino Valentino who lived across from the mill and was simply sitting out on his front porch. The union held a funeral for Modestino and thousands of Laborers followed his casket to the grave site. There, each mourner dropped a red rose petal onto the casket until the casket had disappeared beneath a mountain of blood red, rose petals.
The pageant would symbolize the strike and the unnecessary killing and the funeral with the rose petals. The pageant was an artistic success but a financial failure. The bosses had a propaganda scheme of their own. They encouraged their Citizen’s committees to violently suppress the strikers. They accused Big Bill and the other union leaders of greeting rich off the poor workers union dues. They said that Big Bill was a gourmand who ate nothing but the finest foods and drank only imported wine. He was immoral. He was a thief. He was a murderer.
He had been indicted for murder in Colorado. Martial and vigilante law took over in Paterson. Forty-eight hundred strikers were arrested. They were pulled out of peaceful picket lines by police and “citizens” wielding clubs and guns. Thirteen hundred were sentenced to jail terms. Patrick Quinlan, a union leader was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 2-7 years at hard labor. Haywood was charged with inciting assault on the Paterson Police department. They founded the charge on a speech he had made promoting the eventual victory of the union over the authorities in Paterson.
Finally the beatings, the illegal arrests, the lack of press and outside support led the Ribbon Weavers, a specialized craft group, to settle with the bosses on their own. The union was broken. The strike was dissipated. And eventually the charges against Hayward were dismissed as unfounded by the court. But unfounded, illegal, unauthorized, unconstitutional, immoral, dishonest, violent, un-American or whatever, the “good citizens” and the industrialists of Paterson beat the immigrant underdogs, took away their jobs and made the town of Paterson, once again “safe for Democracy

*Books used in this essay include: “Roughneck” The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, P. Carlson; “A History of American Labor” J. G. Rayback; “Labor Problems in American Industry”, C. R. Dougherty; “The Rise of Industrial America”, Page Smith.