Paterson Silk Strike Remembered in Sleepy NJ Suburb
Wednesday, February 06, 2013
Hidden away in the quiet New Jersey suburb of Haledon, N.J., a stately Victorian home is the epicenter of a movement to remember a big labor victory in the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913.
On a recent Friday night, a group of mostly gray-haired labor activists gather in a yellow Victorian house an ordinary suburban street in northern New Jersey. It’s the kick-off to a month of events commemorating the 100 anniversary of the strike. For six months, 23,000 workers from more than 300 textile mills went on strike, fighting for the eight-hour work day and against mill owners' attempts to double their workload.
The house is now a museum filled with replica furnishings from that time and black and white photographs of the strike. The Solidarity Singers of New Jersey, a group of picket-line musicians, attempts to breath life back into some of the forgotten strikers' songs.
How a simple house in this bedroom community came to be a hotbed of labor activism is a historical quirk. The mayor of Paterson was allied with the mill owners who targeted union activists. He readily padlocked their meeting halls and threw protesters in jail. In contrast, Angela Santomauro, the museum's executive director, says the mayor of neighboring Haledon, was a socialist and sympathetic to the “Wobblies.”
"So he said to the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, also known as the Wobblies, ‘You can come up to my town, my police force of one will not bother you,’” Santomauro said.
The home belonged to Pietro Botto, an Italian silk weaver, who agreed to allow the striking workers to convene there. This was a period when workers were fighting for better wages, an eight-hour day and an increased workload. The I.W.W., was at the height of its power coming off a successful strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and it tried to capitalize on its momentum.
From the home's second story balcony, famed union activists, gave rousing speeches, said Bloomfield College Professor Steve Golin, who wrote a book on the strike. One of them was 23-year-old Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who started a series of Tuesday night meetings for women and girls.
“The idea of working class strikers going to meetings for women only, where things like birth control were openly discussed. This was amazing,” said Golin. “There was no precedent for that 100 years ago. And at these meetings, the women and girls would tell their stories, and Flynn would egg them on. to come forward in the strike, to be equal to men, to assert their own leadership."
It wasn't just the leadership of women that was new, it was also the first time that workers of different ethnicities fought together against mill owners. The Sons of Italy raised money for the strikers and local Jewish bakeries provided them with free bread.
The strike got the attention of Greenwich Village writers, artists and poets who created the Paterson Strike Pageant that was performed in Madison Square Garden. The laborers hoped the pageant would get sympathetic New Yorkers to donate money to help keep the strike going. The garden was sold out for the extraordinary production that featured 1,100 workers trooping across the stage, Golin said.
"They burst out of the mill, screaming ‘strike, strike” ...singing, screaming, yelling ‘strike,” Golin said.’ The audience, then, joined in the chanting, bringing the Garden alive with the chants.”
But the exuberant support for the strike didn't last. Two months after the pageant, the strikers began returning to work in July 1913. It took another three years before the eight-hour work day would be realized.
Eventually, consumer preferences for synthetic fabrics doomed the Paterson silk mills and lately, the American Labor movement has diminished. Neighbors walk past the Botto House without giving it a second glance--unaware that inside is a tribute to its place in history.