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the Readings


Inquiry Question

Historical Context


Reading 1
Reading 3



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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Strike!

On January 27, 1913, 800 broad silk weavers walked off the job at the Henry Doherty plant, one of Paterson's largest and most modern silk mills. Their grievance centered on Doherty's extension of the four-loom system in broad silk throughout the mill. Doherty's new looms were equipped with automatic controls that stopped the machinery whenever a thread broke. This technological improvement made it possible for one weaver to tend three or four looms, instead of the customary two. Claiming competition from low wage silk mills in Pennsylvania and the South, Doherty said he had turned to the four-loom system to increase productivity and thus save jobs. He refused to discontinue the system for which he invested a great deal of money.

The broad silk weavers were soon joined by the ribbon weavers and the dye house workers. Soon after the strike started, the local representative of the Industrial Workers of the World union sent out a call to national headquarters requesting help in organizing the strike. The IWW, usually called the "Wobblies," advocated the formation of unions that included all workers in an industry, whether skilled or unskilled, and openly rejected the capitalist system. The union had earned a reputation for militant radicalism, even among other union organizers. "Big Bill" Hayward, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Carlo Tresca, and other famous IWW leaders arrived in Paterson in mid-February. They helped organize a central strike committee to unite the various craft and ethnic groups. Committees were established to handle communications, to manage a strike relief fund, to provide legal help for arrested strikers, and to organize mass meetings. By the end of February, nearly 300 mills and dye houses were closed, as 24,000 men, women, and children joined in an industry-wide strike.

The strike immediately divided the Paterson community. On the one side were the mill owners and managers, the mayor, the chief-of-police, the judiciary, the clergy, the local press, and most of Paterson's middle class professionals and merchants. On the other side were the workers led both by their own people and by the IWW militants. The battle lines were drawn. This polarization was a major factor in the extraordinary length of the strike.

The strikers' demands were radical for the times. They included the abolition of the three- and four-loom system in broad silk and the two-loom system in ribbon weaving; wage increases for broad and ribbon weavers, dyers' helpers, and other workers; and the eight hour day. To achieve these demands, the workers relied on maintaining industry-wide unity. They agreed that no one would return to work until all of the owners accepted their terms. Picket lines kept strike breakers out of the mills and intimidated those who did go back to work. More than 2,000 workers allowed themselves to be arrested, flooding the jails. Mass meetings informed the workers of strike developments, quelled rumors, and boosted morale. Dramatizing the arrests of prominent IWW leaders and the funeral of a bystander shot by one of the private security guards hired by the owners helped maintain the solidarity of the strike, the commitment of all the workers to the common cause. A pageant in Madison Square Garden in New York City, organized by workers, IWW organizers, and sympathetic Greenwich Village intellectuals, attracted national attention.

The strike was remarkably free of violence. "Your power is in your folded arms," Haywood said. "You have killed the mills; you have stopped production; you have broken off the profits. Any other violence you may commit is less than this, and it will only react upon yourselves."¹

The mill owners refused to talk to the union. They tried to set old and new immigrants against each other and worked with police and the courts to forbid speeches and rallies by the strikers. "Solidarity, unconquered, unconquerable," the IWW's battle cry, also became the mill owners' primary tactic. They formed a manufacturers' association whose purpose was clear; the mill owners would stand united. The owners agreed that the best way to break the strike was to hold out until the harsh reality of empty stomachs and crying children forced the workers to answer the mill whistle. They farmed out what work they could to their Pennsylvania mills and waited.

By the end of May 1913, the workers' solidarity began to crack. The English-speaking and better paid workers were the first to break. They instructed their representatives on the central strike committee to vote to accept settlements with individual mill owners. At the same time workers started to cross the picket lines, despite the pleas of the IWW leaders. In July the central strike committee voted to endorse shop-by-shop settlements. The Paterson silk strike was over. The owners had conceded nothing. According to some estimates, the workers lost $5 million in unpaid wages during the strike and the mill owners lost $10 million in profits.

There is still debate about the effects of the strike. Although the owners agreed to none of the strikers' demands, the two-loom system was still the standard in Paterson in 1919. The strike certainly accelerated the transfer of Paterson's large-scale silk manufacturing to Pennsylvania that had begun in the 1880s. There is no debate on the effect of the strike on the IWW. The defeat in Paterson marked the end of the union's effectiveness in the East.

Paterson's silk industry did not stop growing after the strike, although its share of national silk production fell. Stimulated by wartime demand, it reached peak employment in 1919. Although hard hit by the Great Depression, a 1939 guide to New Jersey could still report that Paterson was the largest single silk-producing center in the country. By this time, the whole silk industry was in decline. The reasons given in the report were antiquated mills, the replacement of large mills with small family-operated shops, and the introduction of artificial silk (rayon).²

Questions for Reading 2

1. What role did the IWW play in the strike?

2. What was the immediate cause of the strike? What changes did the workers demand?

3. Who do you think "won" the strike? What were its effects?

4. What factors contributed to the decline of the silk industry in Paterson? Do you think the decline might have been prevented if the outcome of the strike had been different? Why or why not?

Reading 2 was adapted from James Sheire, "Pietro Botto House" (Passaic County, NJ) National Historic Landmark Documentation, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1982.

¹ Frederick S. Boyd, "The General Strike in the Silk Industry," in The Pageant of the Paterson Strike (New York: The Success Press, 1913), 5.
² Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of New Jersey,
New Jersey: A Guide to Its Present and Past (New York: Hastings House, 1939 [1959 reprint]), 354.


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