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courtesy of The American Labor Museum
The Botto House, 1913.


Excerpts from The Fragile Bridge: Paterson Silk Strike 1913 by Steve Golin

The silk strike that began in February 1913 was one in a series of industrial conflicts that erupted in the eastern United States in the period from 1909 to 1913. New immigrants from southern and eastern Europe took the lead in these industrial conflicts. When they struck, these new immigrants tended to form all-inclusive, industry-wide unions that cut across traditional lines of craft and sex.

In the ribbon trade, and to a lesser extent in broad silk, the male striker was direct heir to a long tradition of artisan independence. The delicate nature of the silk thread demanded great skill on the part of the weaver. The first ribbon and broadsilk weavers in Paterson owned their own looms and supplied the power with their hands and feet. They owned their homes in Paterson and expected to be treated with the respect due artisans. As an industrial town, Paterson at the beginning of the twentieth century was something of an anomaly. It was unusual not because it depended on immigrant labor – that was hardly exceptional – but because it depended on skilled immigrant labor. And it was unusual because it had undergone the process of industrialization so recently and, indeed, incompletely. The industrial revolution started later and proceeded more slowly in the weaving of silk than in the production of other textiles, and the efforts of Paterson silk weavers to protect themselves against its effects were more successful.

The power loom came to silk only in the 1870s. Equipped with an automatic device that stopped the loom when the thread broke, the new loom could be attended by women and girls, a less expensive and initially more manageable source of labor. In broad silk the male weavers fought a delaying battle against the power loom, which nevertheless gradually replaced the handloom during the 1880s. In ribbon weaving, however, power lagged behind. Ribbon weavers made the narrow and often fine silk used for ties, labels, and hatbands. For the very reason that power came to silk so much later than to cotton and other textiles – because, that is, of the delicacy of the thread and of the work – power came to ribbon weaving last. Not until 1889, when a high-speed automatic ribbon loom was introduced, could embroidered designs on ribbon goods be produced efficiently by power looms.

Throughout the 1890s some handloom ribbon weavers still worked the old way, but by 1900, or 1905 at the latest, the handloom had disappeared in Paterson. By using the latest technology, Paterson's manufacturers captured markets from the less mechanized European silk industry and also attracted capital away from Paterson's older industries; by 1900 they had succeeded in making Paterson into "Silk City," the "Lyons of America". But the new technology did not equally transform their work force; the habits and attitudes of the handloom weaver outlived the handloom. Long after the English and French migration had stopped and the power loom had completely replaced the hand-loom, weavers were needed. And they were still troublesome, because only by causing trouble could they maintain the value of their skills.

The refusal of skilled weavers to be stepped on by the manufacturers made Paterson notorious as a center of labor militance and radicalism during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. Throughout these years they struggled as well against their internal divisions by nationality, craft, and gender. Finally, in 1913, as a direct result of what they had learned from previous setbacks, they went on strike together: male and female weavers, English-speaking and Italian and Jewish weavers, skilled weavers and unskilled dyers' helpers.

Skilled workmen, proud of their craft and aggressive in the pursuit of justice as they conceived it, were central to the rise in Paterson – and to its fall. Their old independent habits, their constant strikes, and especially their many victories were costly to the silk manufacturers. By resisting with all their strength and wisdom the tendency of capitalism to turn improvements in machinery against them by lowering the value of their labor, the skilled male weavers inadvertently helped launch the flight of capital from Paterson.

The ribbon weavers refused to believe that the tendency of modern machinery to render their labor cheaper was irreversible; to them, the relationship between improved technology and falling wages seemed neither natural nor inevitable.

It was the broad-silk weavers who triggered the strike of 1913 and succeeded in transforming it into a general strike. The unity between different nationalities, first achieved by the broad-silk weavers, was one essential ingredient of the 1913 general strike. The other essential ingredient was the achievement of unity between the different crafts. The basis for solidarity between dyers' helpers and broad-silk weavers was developed by militant silk workers in the months preceding the strike and centered on the movement for an eight-hour day. Resistance to four looms directly involved only broad-silk weavers, but the demand for the eight-hour day expressed in radical fashion the hopes of all silk workers for steadier work, more bargaining power, and better conditions and wages.

In 1913, in Paterson, New Jersey, three vital groups of people came together: striking silk workers, organizers from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and Greenwich Village intellectuals. Solidarity in Paterson, growing out of the history of the silk workers, was reinforced by the influence of the IWW. The Paterson strikers invited organizers from the national IWW to help them in 1913 because of its highly publicized success in organizing the new immigrants in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. The IWW organizers brought democratic and nonviolent techniques of organization, innovative ways of actively involving women and immigrants, and a vision of America as the place where the working class of the world could come together. The Lawrence strike ended in victory in March 1912, and during the following year real relationships began to develop between the organizers and Village intellectuals. Writers and artists were able to observe the Paterson strike, to mix in it, to find their own way of contributing. Hence, the IWW was able to serve, for a moment, as a fragile bridge between the Village intellectuals and the Paterson working class.

The sense of convergence - between art and socialism, the women's movement and the industrial union movement, the personal and the political - defined the moment of 1913. As a young theorist, Walter Lippmann cited both the feminist movement and the industrial union movement as the "big revolts" that were transforming America in 1913; IWW strikes and the battle for women's suffrage were "at once the symptoms and the instruments of progress."

"We are living at a most interesting moment in the art development of America," wrote Hutchins Hapgood in the New York Globe on the eve of the Armory Show. "It is no mere accident that we are also living at a most interesting moment in the political, industrial, and social development of America. What we call our 'unrest' is the condition of vital growth, and this beneficent agitation is as noticeable in art and in the woman's movement as it is in politics and industry."

In the spring of 1913, visitors from Greenwich Village came to Paterson, drawn by their desire to see the strike. What drew them, as much as anything, was the nature of the strike. Like the Lawrence strike, the Paterson strike bubbled over with the songs and humor of many nationalities and was propelled by the courage of both sexes. More clearly than in Lawrence, where the strike began as a defensive reaction against cuts in wages, the Paterson strike aimed from the beginning at creating a human way of life. Flynn asserted again and again that Paterson was "more significant" than Lawrence, where "the strikers were forced to quit their work because they were down to starving conditions"; in Paterson, the weavers were beginning at a higher material and educational level and aiming at a better way of life. The silk workers' demand for an eight-hour day was especially attractive to Village writers and artists. In 1913 one of the slogans which the silk workers carried on banners in Paterson and shouted on the streets of New York was "Eight Hours Work, Eight Hours Rest, and Eight Hours Pleasure."

The silk strikers and IWW needed new allies to help break the deadlock in Paterson; the Village intellectuals needed to test their ideas and abilities in a practical situation, to prove themselves that the world was changing and that they were indeed part of the change. Haledon , New Jersey became a crucial link in the bridge from New York to Paterson. Haledon functioned as a halfway house, an almost neutral territory where the middle-class intellectuals could mingle with the strikers and feel the excitement of the strike without making themselves overly vulnerable.

The first meeting there was held on the first Sunday of the strike to protest the police activity of the previous week: arrests, clubbings, refusal to grant permits for parades, confiscation of literature, threats to close the halls. This meeting could not have been held in Paterson. In Paterson, Sunday belonged to the clergy; city law banned all other public business.

One month after the first Haledon meeting, the IWW leaders took possession of the house of Pietro Botto, at 83 Norwood Street, where they were able to address the great throng of strikers. An upper porch furnished an excellent platform from which the speakers could make their addresses and still be heard by the crowds. The Paterson strike came into its own at the Botto house. The size of the crowd kept increasing every Sunday. An admittedly "conservative estimate" by the New York Call put 20,000 people at the May 25 meeting; the hostile New York Times said 25, 000.

courtesy of The American Labor Museum     The Botto House today.

The strike spread also to silk mills even farther from Paterson. Writing in early April, when the defeats in Pennsylvania were not yet evident, Haywood asserted that 50,000 silk workers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut had joined the strike that the Doherty broad-silk weavers had begun, making it "the closest approach to a general strike that has yet taken place in American industry." Had the Paterson strikes and the IWW really closed down or hopelessly crippled the silk industry in Pennsylvania, there would have been no need for sympathy strikes in May; the Paterson strike would have been won, and the victorious strikers would have been back at work.

By the end of May, after three months on strike, most families of silk workers were having real difficulty feeding themselves, let alone paying the rent. Actively renewing their faith each Sunday in Haledon, men and women transformed their daily struggles into a living testimony to resilience, courage, and hope. That is why Haledon had such an impact on visitors. There, New York intellectuals saw the working class at its most hopeful and most united. Back in New York, the intellectuals spread the word about Paterson, both publicly and privately, and joined in the serious task of fund raising. The round of fund-raising meetings begun in April continued in May, with their typical combination of Wobbly (IWW) and Socialist speakers. But the Village connection was already adding a new dimension to the drive to develop strike support in New York. By the third week in May, many New York writers and artists were hard at work on the Paterson Pageant.

By showing the audience the active role that workers were playing in Paterson, the originators of the Pageant hoped to reach out to the hearts and pocketbooks of workers in New York. They even hoped to force the New York newspapers to tell the real story of the strike. Haywood in an essay about the strike, which he had written earlier in April, pointed to the need for publicity. "Through their control of outside newspapers, the Paterson silk manufacturers were able to bring about a general conspiracy of silence. The New York papers, for example, after the first few days in which they gave prominence to the strike, were warned through subtle sources that unless there was less publicity they would be made to suffer through loss of support and advertising." The Pageant began, then, as a way of breaking the conspiracy of silence in New York.

On June 7 and overflow crowd of almost 15,000 people watched the silk workers enact the major events of their strike. When the doors were finally closed at nine o'clock by order of the police, every seat in the Garden was taken, 1,000 people were standing inside, and many thousands more were left outside in lines stretching for blocks. By that time almost 15,000 had crowded inside. Only about 12,000 of these had paid, however. The rest were silk strikers who had been admitted free, including 800 who had walked the twenty-three miles from Paterson to the Garden and a larger contingent from Hudson County, New Jersey. The audience as a whole was overwhelmingly working class.

On Sunday, June 8, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers read about the key events of the strike in detail in their newspapers. On Monday, William D. Haywood announced that the newspapers had been saying that the Paterson strike was broken, but now the Pageant had shown the people of New York the truth. And later in the month, sure enough, outside contributions to the strikers' relief fund in Paterson began to grow. In terms of its original purpose of publicizing the strike, the Pageant was an overwhelming success.

Realizing that hunger was becoming the key problem and that publicity had to be the means of solving it, they fell back on another tactic that proved decisive in Lawrence. They decided to send the children out of the city. Financially, sending away the children did help the strikers. All together, as many as 600 children were cared for by families in New York (including many in Brooklyn) and more than 100 others by families in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Fewer mouths to feed in Paterson provided the strikers some short-term relief.

Margaret Sanger helped Elizabeth Gurley Flynn organize the exodus of the children. She had played this role before, in Lawrence. But in Paterson, for the first time, she worked with Flynn at strike meetings in the brand-new effort to publicize the notion of family limitation. Sanger and Flynn believed that sending the children away was only a stopgap solution; having fewer children would in the long run enable working-class men and especially working-class women to take control of their own fate and become more powerful. (Sanger was already something of an expert in this area; her popular and provocative series of articles for women on sex education, including birth control, had been published by the Call in 1912. Although the national campaign for birth control had barely begun, and the role of Sanger and Flynn in the campaign would not be clearly defined until the winter of 1914-15, Sanger helped build the women's bridge in 1913).

In May, Sanger also threw herself into the preparations for the Pageant. On the day of the Pageant, in recognition of her leading role, she and Patrick Quinlan led the Hudson County and New York silk strikers in the great parade.

The Pageant had been made possible by the bridge that Haywood and the IWW had built from Paterson to New York, and it confirmed the value of that bridge. It confirmed, too, what the intellectuals had previously only hoped – that art could become an integral part of the revolution. For many in their generation the Pageant would remain, as it did for Hapgood, the highest point "of self-expression in industry and art." Hapgood was the first to recognize the importance of the Paterson Strike Pageant as both revolutionary art and revolutionary politics.

After the Paterson Strike Pageant the manufacturers were still united; their annexes in Pennsylvania continued to operate, and their allies in Paterson continued to increase the pressure on the strikers. Great as it was, the Pageant could not win the strike. Though more money came into the relief fund from New York, more and more strikers needed relief. Finally, more than seven weeks after the Pageant, the silk workers returned to the mills.

The problem was that no matter how much money came in, more was needed every week. All the resources of the strikers – their savings, their credit with store owners, and the help they received from local supporters – were exhausted. The cost of feeding the strike soared in June as the number of strikers needing relief of all kinds continued to grow. On the average, during the four months of its existence, the Relief Committee raised almost $500 a day, but by late June it needed almost $1000 a day just to meet immediate needs. In addition, the collapse of Paterson's economy as a result of the long strike undermined all local sources of support and created a multiplying effect.

What finally won the strike for the manufacturers was their ability to outlast the strikers. Normally, manufacturers shipped goods to commission agents who, as middlemen, warehoused them for sale and allowed the manufacturers to draw cash on account at interest against the future sale of these goods – frequently 60 percent of the expected market price. Having accumulated large surpluses as a result of competition in the industry, the commission houses were able to unload them during the strike, to their profit and that of the silk manufacturers. The strike, in that sense, prove a "blessing in disguise for the producer" by cleaning out inventories and transforming the market "from a buyer's to a seller's market." Even though their mills were closed, Paterson manufacturers could still make some money when their middlemen sold, at high prices, goods that were otherwise going to waste.

The other silk center that mattered was eastern Pennsylvania. Rivaling Paterson in the quantity of silk weavers and dye workers, if not in the quality of the product, this region had been expanded by the Paterson mill owners precisely to counter the militance of Paterson's silk workers. In Pennsylvania as a whole, the silk workers were not as militant as the Paterson workers had been for decades. They had not created the same traditions of struggle or developed the same unity.

In a war of attrition, Pennsylvania gave the manufacturers the advantage. The greatest resource of the Paterson mill owners – greater even than their control of the police, the courts, the local media, and most respectable opinion – was their ability to shift orders to their plants across the state line. "With plenty of cheap labor in Pennsylvania and extra looms the Paterson owners found a way to retain their regular clients," explained an industry insider, late in May. As orders from regular customers were received, "they were promptly transferred to mills in Pennsylvania." In the busy season of a good year, nevertheless, the strike was hurting them greatly. "This is the turning point in the Paterson strike," said the New York Call after the halls were closed. "No matter how much the workers have suffered, the manufacturers can sum up their suffering in great financial losses. But this is the time when every weapon in the possession of the manufacturers is turned against the worker."

Pennsylvania and hunger gave the manufacturers the victory. "The dyers were the first to break under the pressure….. followed by the broad-silk weavers," observed Quinlan. "The ribbon weavers held out for a week or so longer." Alone among the major groups on strike, the dye workers went back in total disarray, without receiving concessions. The backbone of the strike had been broken.

The Paterson ribbon weavers voted to abandon both the general strike and the demand for the eighth-hour day and to seek instead a nine-hour settlement on a shop-by shop basis. The broad-silk weavers were already returning to work, with vague promises from the manufacturers to discuss grievances and a more solid pledge to abolish the three- and four-loom system. Counting shop by shop, the delegates were able to conclude that a total of twenty-one firms had conceded a reduction in hours from ten to nine.

In 1916 and again in 1919 the manufacturers as a group made significant concessions to the silk workers on the length of the workday rather than risk a general strike. The manufacturers showed new flexibility regarding the touchy issues of work hours and union organization because they were convinced that they could not withstand another victory like that of 1913. On the four-loom issue, which had proved the most explosive of all, they proceeded with uncharacteristic restraint, increasing the loom assignments where they could but pulling back as soon as there was trouble. In 1919, two-loom assignments were still standard in Paterson – and only in Paterson. Everywhere else, broad-silk weavers worked four looms.

In addition to the strategy of avoiding confrontation, the manufacturers developed two strategies aimed at transforming the structure of the silk industry in Paterson and making a recurrence of 1913 impossible. One of these was to get out Paterson. Unable to control labor in Paterson, the large manufacturers ran away from the city, making it the haven of the small shop. Before 1913, the Paterson silk industry had been characterized by medium-sized shops. Within a decade after 1913, Paterson – and only Paterson, among the silk centers – became dominated by the small shop.

For the next three years, through 1919, the Paterson silk industry continued to thrive, and the silk workers remained on the offensive until finally, in 1919 – after a wave of shop strikes – the Paterson broad-silk and ribbon weavers won the eight hour day.