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July 17, 2017


I was acquainted with the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913 over a century ago from taking a couple of labor economics courses in undergraduate school leading to my degree in economics, but it was a bare acquaintance. I knew some of the contours and results of the strike but few of the details of this sordid experience in labor history where even skilled immigrants along with the unskilled were treated like criminals during this and other strikes in the silk industry, especially those strikers who were Irish, Italian and Jewish. I know much more now thanks to an article in the July edition of Harper’s Magazine entitled “Labor’s Schoolhouse, Lessons from the Paterson Strike of 1913,” by Garret Keizer, which serves as my research base for this essay thanks to his efforts.

The Bottos came to Ellis Island from Italy in 1892. He was 26, his wife was 22 and they had a one year old daughter. Pietro Botto was a skilled weaver from the Piedmont region in Italy renowned for its weaving. His skills made it easy for him to get a job in New Jersey’s thriving textile industry. He worked in a silk factory in Paterson, New Jersey, and his wife Maria worked at home “picking silk” for imperfections while maintaining the household and giving birth to three more daughters. The Bottos were hard working and thrifty and in 1907 had saved enough money to build a 12-room house in Haledon, a suburb of Paterson and within easy “trolley ride” for transportation, a house now known as The Botto House and a tourist site which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

The Bottos were ambitious. They supplemented their income by renting out their upstairs rooms and conducting a kind of workers’ weekend resort, cooking and serving as many as 100 guests, featuring homemade wine. There was a small balcony attached to the front of the house, a balcony during several months of the Silk Strike of 1913 in Paterson that featured such notable speakers as Upton Sinclair and organizers for the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, familiarly known as “Wobblies”) such as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and “Big Bill” Haywood, who spoke to crowds in Haledon numbering from 3,000 to 25,000, most of whom were striking silk workers.

The crowds were diverse, and deliberately so, as agents for the silk industry went to Ellis Island to recruit a workforce as diverse as possible with the hope that language differences and ethnic rivalries would serve as a check on collective action. (Keizer reports intra-ethnic bias as well with his recounting of the story of a northern Italian woman that if a girl came home and said that she was going with a Napolitano, “Oh, her father would have killed her.” (It seems there was a north and a south Italy with their own sets of biases, and as an aside and though past the dating age, I note this with some levity, being myself a part-time resident of Naples, Florida.)

Paterson had a history as America’s first planned industrial city and began producing silk products in 1840. By 1910 it was producing half of the silk draperies, upholsteries, and clothing in the United States with more than 20,000 men, women and children who worked in the 276 mills, one of which employed 8,000 workers in a virtual city within a city. Children as young as eight climbed up the giant looms to fix jams and remove impurities and Paterson’s schools were open at night for children who had the energy after a ten-hour workday to go to school. One such mill hired only women, believing them to be more docile than men, and withheld every new hire’s wages for the first six months. A strike under such workplace conditions was certainly in order in 1913; we were still 20 years or more from FDRs New Deal labor reforms featuring the Wagner Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, long and painfully overdue.

Owners of the silk mills in Paterson who hired immigrant labor straight from Ellis Island to Paterson (not far away from New York City where such immigrants disembarked) were cut from the same pattern as corporate owners are these days, though modern employers (finally) can’t get by with hiring child labor and not paying wages for six months’ running, not even with Republicans in control. Slavery, after all and at least officially, has been outlawed by constitutional amendment following the Civil War.

These days we substitute right to work and other legislative edicts and rules to blunt the labor reforms of the New Deal such as, for instance, Trump’s proposed rule in his infrastructure plan to allow states to set prevailing wages in their jurisdictions for work done there, in defiance of the federal Davis-Bacon Act which, unsurprisingly, acts to set “prevailing wages” at a higher rate than those likely to be set by states and which, if my conspiracy theory is any measure, gives Trump an opportunity to decide what states will be in line for his infrastructure plan to (as cheaply as possible) gussy up our roads and highways and bridges before handing our transportation system over to Wall Street privatizers who will make guaranteed profits from our tolls and fees for using the roads, highways and bridges we used to own and use in common.

Strikers at Paterson included workers from nine nationalities, including thousands of Jewish weavers, who when Upton Sinclair and others were giving speeches from the Botto House’s balcony, would come to the front of the line when the speeches were translated into their language. They, unlike now, were united in understanding that the touted benefits of technology are always contingent on who owns the means of production. They were not Luddites; when the so-called four-loom system doubled the mill owners’ production and triggered layoffs of half of their workforce, they did not destroy the looms as did the Luddites in Britain. They instead demanded an eight-hour day, wage raises, improved work schedules and a promise of no retaliation for union activities (all demands later recognized in New Deal legislation), but the local politicians and police and the mill owners and other hardliners at the time weren’t having it. As one Socialist and editor wrote of police conduct at the time: “They don’t waste words with workingmen – they simply crack their heads.” Whose heads? Those of thousands of Irish, Italian and Jewish members of the workforce which, I hope but cannot know, at least excluded women and children.

I will discuss the results of the Paterson strike and its contrasts with modern day Republican treatment of our workforce, both immigrant and native, such treatment being in many respects a fine-tuning of that employed by the mill owners in Paterson, but under thinly-disguised legislative cover, in Part II. Stay tuned.     GERALD      E







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