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Striking the textile towns of Lawrence and Paterson
The power of workers united

July 14, 2006 | Page 10

ELIZABETH SCHULTE tells the story of two important labor struggles that showed the power of immigrant workers.

AT THE start of the 20th century, immigrants made up a growing section of the expanding U.S. working class.

Unfortunately though, the potential power of immigrant workers was ignored by the main trade union federation, the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Even in the face of rapid industrialization and ever-increasing large-scale factories and workplaces, the AFL continued to organize its members in smaller craft-based unions. As a result, one workplace might have several unions representing a few skilled workers each, while the unskilled workers remained unrepresented--even though they might be the majority.

In this way, the AFL concentrated exclusively on skilled workers, and therefore the white and native-born, at the expense of immigrant and Black workers.

Founded in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as the Wobblies, devoted itself to organizing workers of all skills and races into "One Big Union." The socialists, anarchists and other militants who helped form the IWW--among them, well-known working-class leaders like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Big Bill Haywood--were committed to militant class struggle and ultimately the "emancipation of the working class from wage slavery."

Perhaps the most instructive and inspiring contributions that the Wobblies made to the hidden history of working-class militancy in the U.S. were their fights demanding justice for immigrant workers. In these struggles, and those to organize Black workers, the IWW proved in practice its slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all."

Two IWW strikes in the textile industry--in Lawrence, Mass., in 1912 and Paterson, N.J., in 1913--illustrated the amazing potential for workers of many different nationalities to build solidarity and challenge some of the greediest employers of the time.

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LAWRENCE WAS a one-industry town, largely controlled by J.P. Morgan's American Woolen Company, the leading textile firm in the nation.

Immigrants from Italy, Poland, Russia, Syria and 20 other countries made up 48 percent of Lawrence's population; their children accounted for another 38 percent. Instead of the dream of a better life in America, they found wages at starvation levels.

In a 56-hour week in 1912, a worker took home on average $8.76--but a third of workers made $7 or less a week. On top of that, the companies gave almost no one work every week, so those who made $400 a year were doing well.

About half of workers' earnings went to housing, even though families had to crowd into tiny living quarters. "The normal family of five," said a U.S. Senate report, " is compelled to supply two wage earners in order to secure the necessities of life." As historian Sidney Lens wrote in The Labor Wars, "By 1912, Lawrence was a mean and ugly little city, no different from other urban blights--worse in fact."

The fight at Lawrence began when Massachusetts shortened the workweek for women and children to 54 hours a week, down from 56. When workers received their considerably smaller paychecks on January 11, they were outraged.

At the Everett Cotton Mill, Polish weavers refused to work. The next day, workers at American Woolen's Washington Mill went through the plant, cutting off the power, smashing light bulbs, shredding cloth and pulling other workers from their machines.

Carrying Italian and American flags, the workers marched to the nearby Wood mill. Strikers quickly spread the strike to other mills, and soon, some 20,000 Lawrence mill workers were out.

The Lawrence workers came from all over the world and spoke dozens of languages. They faced brutal employers who had the police, the press and the church on their side. And they could not expect any help from the AFL.

So strikers turned to the IWW, which had been active in Lawrence for a decade. The Wobblies immediately sent more organizers, including Joe Ettor, who spoke six languages, and Arturo Giovannitti, an Italian-born anarchist and socialist.

But the leadership of the strike came from workers themselves. A strike committee of 56 workers was formed, with each of the 14 most numerous ethnic groups electing representatives (and backups, in case their delegates were arrested). The committee met every day to make key decisions.

Mass meetings of thousands were held weekly in all languages. Workers organized mass pickets, with thousands circling the plants 24 hours a day.

The Lawrence workers put a premium on building solidarity among the different immigrant groups in the struggle, and also with workers in other cities. So when strikers feared for the safety of their children, they gathered the kids and sent them to stay with supporters in other cities.

In New York City, the arrival of the Lawrence children was celebrated by a giant labor rally. The children attracted the attention of Congress, who heard their testimony on the miserable condition in the textile towns.

In the end, the amazing solidarity of the struggle paid off. Despite the employers' brutality and the arrest of leaders Ettor and Giovannitti, the companies were forced to settle in March, with workers winning most of their demands.

"We want bread and roses" was the slogan of the Lawrence strike--meaning that workers were fighting for better pay, but also for respect, dignity and quality of life.

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ALTHOUGH IT didn't end in victory like Lawrence, the 1913 struggle in Paterson, N.J., demonstrated the IWW's same commitment to organizing immigrant workers and creative flair.

When workers at Doherty Silk Mill tried to meet with management to talk to them about getting rid of a new system in which workers operated four looms instead of two, they were fired. This sparked a walkout of 800 on January 27.

On February 25, thousands of Paterson workers turned out to a mass meeting to hear the IWW's Haywood, Flynn, Carlo Tresca and Patrick Quinlan. Within the week, 25,000 were out on strike; 300 of Paterson's silk mills were shut down.

The first task was to bring together the different groups of workers. Most of the ribbon makers were English speaking and U.S.-born; most dyers were recent Italian immigrants; the broad silk weavers were non-English-speaking Italian and Jewish immigrants; and most of the unskilled work was done by women and children from all over Europe and the Middle East.

When Paterson's schools tried to teach children that the strike was wrong, strikers picketed, and Haywood explained to the kids what their parents were fighting for. The students organized their own strike committee.

Workers organized ways to provide strikers with food and other resources--and regular mass meetings fueled their determination to fight. When the city of Paterson outlawed their mass meetings, the strikers walked to the neighboring town of Haledon each week, where their meetings were welcomed.

Strikers were met with constant harassment from police and private security goons hired by the companies. Journalist John Reed--who would go on to write Ten Days That Shook the World, an eyewitness account of the 1917 Russian Revolution--was arrested for standing on the porch of a worker's home.

Transformed by the Paterson experience, Reed organized a pageant in Madison Square Garden where strikers and IWW leaders would draw attention to the struggle. The night of the show, red lights spelling out "IWW" on the sides of the Garden could be seen from miles away.

The rapt crowd heard speeches from Flynn, Tresca and Haywood--and watched strikers acting out mass pickets and mass meetings in Haledon, the murder of an innocent bystander by company goons, and the funeral procession in his honor.

"[F]or a few electric moments, there was a terrible unity between all those people," recounts Mabel Dodge, who Reed enlisted to help finance the event. "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."

People in the audience wept, and at the end, rose to join the cast in singing "The Internationale."

"Perhaps the thing that struck the observer most forcibly," read a review of the event in Survey magazine, "was the sort of people the strikers seemed to be and the absence of race prejudice...One German striker, when asked how those of his nationality got along with the Italians, said, 'We're all brothers and sisters'--and it certainly seemed so, for the Italian singer was reinforced by a hearty chorus of German women."

As the strike extended into July, however, it took a toll on strikers. When the companies made an offer to the ribbon weavers on July 18, this group of workers announced it was pulling out of the strike and would deal with the employers on a craft basis.

Solidarity among different workers had been the strength of the Paterson strike--the struggle's doom was sealed when that solidarity broke down. With the workforce divided into some 300 separate shop units, strikers had no leverage to win their demands and returned to work, with no more than they had five months before.

Nevertheless, the stories of Lawrence and Paterson provide an invaluable lesson for today: Building workers' solidarity isn't an option--it's a necessity.

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