Paterson, N.J. silk workers' strikes (1911-1912)


Paterson, N.J. silk workers' strikes (1911-1912)
VOL. 111 NO. 11


In 1911, mill owners in the broadsilk industry in Paterson, N.J., began to introduce the four-loom system in place of the two-loom system that had been in place for years.

The lead in the four-loom direction was taken by Henry Doherty, who also took the precaution of inviting the American Federation of Labor's United Textile Workers of America (UTWA) to "organize" his mill on condition that it discipline the workers to accept "arbitration" as the means of settling disputes.

The UTWA accepted Doherty's condition. When the weavers began to rebel against the four-loom system the UTWA discouraged them. Finally, disgusted with the union and the arbitration system, the silk weavers at Doherty's mill decided to strike. Two hundred of them walked out on Nov. 10, 1911.

The strike eventually grew to include 4,000-5,000 workers from mills in and around Paterson, and it spread to milling communities in New York and Pennsylvania. To coordinate and lead the strike, the weavers turned to another union. That union was the socialist and Detroit-based Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The strike that began in November was brought to a successful conclusion in March 1912, when 100 of the 110 mills affected reached agreements with Local 25 of the Detroit IWW. When the mill owners failed to act on their agreements, the workers walked out again, and again the mill owners came to terms.

The Paterson strike of 1911-1912, and the socialist IWW that led it, should not be confused with the unsuccessful silk workers' strike of 1913 led by the Chicago-based anarchist IWW. The 1911-1912 strikes succeeded despite repeated efforts by the anarchist IWW and the Socialist Party (SP) to interfere with and disrupt the strike in an effort to take over its direction. After the 1912 settlements were reached, however, local members of the anarchist IWW and of the SP, some of whom had scabbed during the struggle, helped the mill owners to identify and blackball many SLP and Detroit IWW men. Local 25 of the Detroit IWW, which had led the strikes of 1911-1912, was effectively undermined by these actions, and once they were the mill owners began to renege on their agreements.

As the mill owners resumed their efforts to spread the four-loom system, workers rebelled again in January 1913. Seeing its opportunity, the Chicago IWW moved in and succeeded in planting itself at the head of the strike.

The following article from the Industrial Union News of February 1912 is the first in a series of reports on the Paterson silk workers' strikes of 1911-1912 that will be reprinted in this and coming issues of The People.

The Industrial Union News was the official newspaper of the "Detroit IWW." Its reports on the strike were written from the scene by Russell H. Palmer. Readers of The People will remember Palmer's name from our August 1998 review of Anthony Lukacs' best-seller, Big Trouble, which was reputed to be a history of the 1906-1907 Haywood-Moyer-Pettibone trial in Idaho. Palmer attended the trial and his daily dispatches were printed in the Daily People.

The series will be followed by an epilogue summarizing the history of the silk strikes and the roles of the two IWW organizations.

-- Editor




Craft Unionism Indicted -- The 'Golden Rule' at Work

(Industrial Union News, February 1912)

For over 12 weeks 200 weavers employed by the Henry Doherty Silk Co. have been valiantly fighting against a four-loom system which the company was gradually introducing into its silk mills in Paterson and Lakeview (a suburb of Paterson).

A four-loom system means that one weaver shall operate four looms, whereas two looms and no more have heretofore always been considered sufficient for one weaver. But the pockets of the silk capitalists cried for greater profits and the Doherty company attempted to double the number of looms upon each weaver without even increasing the wages to any appreciable extent. The wage of a four-loom weaver was set by the firm at only $15.40 per week, although a weaver can earn about $13 or $14 a week on two looms, figuring on a piece work basis.

But it is not the wages that the striking weavers are complaining about -- they do not want a four-loom system at all, realizing that the physical and mental strain on the workers would be terrific, and realizing, also, that with one weaver doing the work of two, 50 percent of the weavers would be thrown out of employment (if not immediately, within a very short time) and brought into competition with the 50 percent happening to have jobs.

The argument of the firm was and is that without driving the weavers faster than ever and squeezing additional profits out of them, the firm could not exist owing to the competition going on throughout the silk industry. Pennsylvania was especially pointed out as the field from which the fiercest competition emanated.

Nothing was said, of course, about the competition for jobs among the workers.

Previous to the strike the weavers employed at the Lakeview mill (who compose the majority of the strikers) were members in good standing of Local 607, United Textile Workers of America, of which the notorious John Golden is president. The weavers employed in the Paterson shops of the firm were not members of any union, having severed their connection with the above-named local about a year before the strike, owing to having received an extremely dirty deal through arbitration (which is a cardinal principal with the UTW) on a class of goods called "grenadine."

The UTW had previous to this strike a working agreement with the Doherty company, which stipulated that any change in working conditions which could not be arranged between the firm and the employees, should be subjected to arbitration, and that, if either party to the agreement, not desiring to live up to its provisions, should wish to sever relations through it with the other party, three months' notice must be given.

Soon after the Doherty company built the big new mill at Lakeview they attempted to introduce a four-loom system in the hard-silk department. Indeed, your correspondent has been told by people who ought to know that the mill was built with the purpose in view of running four looms per weaver in both the hard-silk and the soft-silk departments.

There was quite a hitch when the company tried to enforce the four looms in the hard-silk. Considerable conferring took place but the local ended by endorsing, at the behest of its leaders (President Golden, Organizer Miles and Local Organizer Hubschmitt, a Socialist Party man, who told the writer personally that the new system spelled "progress"), that first step toward the complete ruin of the textile workers of Paterson.

>From that time on a rumble of discontent spread itself through the mills, and the officers of the union began working behind the scenes.

Almost immediately after the inauguration of the four-loom system in the hard-silk the firm attempted to turn the same trick in the soft-silk, but this time the jig did not work and the "obstinate" protest of the weavers, and the obviously determined attitude of the firm caused the matter to be submitted to arbitration, with a judge by the name of Cabell of the neighboring city of Passaic as third man on the arbitration board with whom the decision rested.

While the matter was pending, Mr. Doherty, on behalf of his firm, wrote a letter to Organizer Miles of the UTWA (which was read to members of the local) in which Mr. Doherty stated that if the arbitration went against him his firm would not live up to it.

The firm commenced to put the three- and four-loom system into operation in one room of the mill, and as fast as the weavers in other rooms finished their warps they were told to either go to work on three or four looms or else go home and wait till the firm found work for them. (The irony of it all!) The superintendent was gradually stopping the looms in the two-loom rooms and starting more and more looms in the four-loom department. Did the Doherty company give the three months' notice required by the contract existing between them and the UTW? W-h-a-t?! Live up to a contract when it affects our material interests so closely? "Nothing doing" said the firm. "This is our mill and we intend to exercise in it the same rights enjoyed by the silk manufacturers of Pennsylvania and New England."

And they were exercising their rights, having brought some misguided wage slaves from New England to start the abominable system going.

The weavers grew impatient and indignant. President John Golden told them that his daughter was running six or eight looms "down East." They demanded that a strike be called. Their leaders urged them to wait "and not act hastily."

Upon insisting upon an immediate strike the edifying information was imparted to them that although they were in good standing in the local, the local was not in good standing in the national body; there was no money in the local's treasury and a strike was impossible!

The inevitable happened. The leaders were dumped overboard, the UTWA was repudiated and under the leadership of IWW men the weavers struck both mills of the company on Friday, Nov. 10, 1911.

It took the loom-fixers, twisters and warpers, who are affiliated with the AFL-ized UTW, just six weeks to make up their minds to strike with the weavers.

In the meantime the weavers of the Hollbach Silk company, who had been the backbone of Local 607, proclaimed their independence, retained control of the old headquarters at 184 Main Street, and offered to the strikers the use of their hall and rooms.

The action of the loom-fixers and warpers in remaining at work for six weeks after the strike was called dealt a blow of considerable magnitude to the strike at the very outset. They excused (or thought they excused) themselves by saying that the weavers did not consult them before striking; that they had certain rules to go by, etc.

Their excuse is an indictment of their craft unionism, which condemns them to scabbery upon the slightest pretext. As to their claim that they were not considered before the strike -- was not the union to which all belonged given every opportunity to act? And did not the procrastination of that union result in the three- and four-loom system being instituted over the heads of the weavers?

The strikers organized themselves, held several mass meetings, the attendance of each of which was about 2,000 persons, and establishing a Strike Bulletin, the first number of which appeared the second week of the strike. Seven numbers have so far been published.

The money collected for the support of the strikers from AFL sources was negligible. If the strikers had been dependent upon that they would have starved to death to the last man long before this. Most of the support came from the unorganized workers of the city; from locals of the Industrial Workers of the World; from branches of the Workmen's Circle and other lodges and from the Purity Cooperative Association, a baking concern, which has contributed $25 weekly since the beginning of the strike.

Immediately after the loom-fixers and warpers came out (they call it a "sympathy strike" on their part!) the firm declared an open shop and placed ads all over the country for scabs.

This must have frightened the loom-fixers and warpers (the chief object of these narrow craft unions being to control jobs for their members), and added to the fact that they had taken the winders on their payroll, caused them to begin to waver.

Here we have the same motives that have influenced so many craft unions in the past to act contrary to the best interests of the working class -- fear of losing control of the jobs and solicited for their precious treasuries. At the end of the 10th week of the strike suspicious movements began to make themselves evident and the classconscious and uncompromising element among the strikers began to get on their guard.

After some opposition a standing committee was elected to maintain a well-beaten path between the strikers' headquarters and the office of the firm.

Followed a few days of calm and then the storm broke. The loom-fixers and warpers requested the weavers to call a special meeting for Friday evening, Jan. 26, which was done. The loom-fixers and warpers attended in a body, accompanied and led by their paid business agents, Thomas Morgan and Jim Star. Rudolph Katz was also present, the privilege of attending and having the floor having been accorded to him by the striking weavers.

Both Morgan and Star indirectly advised the weavers to call off the strike and go back on terms not one whit better than those struck against. And both speakers vehemently, directly and personally, attacked Katz, calling him a cheap labor skate, etc.

When Katz attempted to take the floor in reply the warpers and loom-fixers tried to have the weavers deny him the floor and access to the meetings because he was not a textile worker. The weavers refused to do so, and the loom-fixers and warpers attempted to disrupt the meeting and create a rough house, standing and jumping and howling like barbarians in a war dance. During this exhibition of craft unionism many women became so nervous they were forced to leave the hall.

When the excitement was somewhat subsided Katz commenced to speak and Messrs. Morgan and Star made for the door, followed by their trusting rank and file. Immediately calls of "cowards" and "traitors," and even "scabs," came from the surprised weavers and the denizens of the closed shop halted at the door and did not leave.

Katz gave them their money's worth; no one attempted an answer, but Mr. Star was moved by the spirit of craft unionism and capitalism to say that the weavers should return to work and leave it up to each individual weaver to keep out the four-loom system! Ye Gods!

At two more regular meetings of the weavers, Wednesday and Friday, Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, the same performance was repeated, each time the weavers standing by Katz and telling the lovers of a big union treasury that they ought to be ashamed of themselves. Many of the weavers took the opportunity to secure the floor and rub some odoriferous past history under the noses of the disrupters.

This is the proposition which the firm put up to the weavers and which the warpers and loom-fixers want them to accept:

A 10 percent reduction of wages on two looms. No weaver would be forced to run three or four looms but could do so if he desired. On the third loom 30 percent reduction and on the fourth loom 40 percent reduction in wages. Not a scab to be taken back.

These conditions are worse than those struck against. But the loom-fixing and warping departments would probably be "closed" and, also, the awful drain on the treasury would be stopped. And there you are.

The weavers, by a large majority, rejected such a settlement and the strike is being carried on with renewed energy in spite of the attempts of the emissaries of capitalism to throw a wet blanket on the struggle of labor.

Many of the strikers have joined Local 25 of the IWW, several other shops have come into it and a flowering organization is building up.

The strikers wish to thank the IWW locals all over the country for the support given and the interest shown the strike. More next month.

-- R.H.P.

Paterson, N.J., Feb. 4, 1912