On June 7, 1913, the supporters of the Industrial Workers of the World led textile worker strike in Paterson, New Jersey held the Paterson Strike Pageant at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The only such stage of production of strikers in American history, perhaps nothing demonstrates both the great skills and significant limitations of the IWW more than the strike pageant and its aftermath.
On February 1, 1913, the Paterson silk workers went on strike, demanding an 8-hour day and better working conditions. Paterson was an early site of the Industrial Revolution and one of the first cities in the United States to see significant labor strife. A century later, skilled weavers still dominated the labor culture, even as mechanization had deskilled and sped up labor and brought a great deal of European silk production to Paterson. Women and children had replaced men in the mills, but men still held a privileged position in the city’s labor movement. Silk workers toiled 10-hour days. Skilled workers averaged $11.69 a week, the less skilled between $6-7. $11.69 equals about $267 in 2012 dollars. So top notch workers were making the equivalent of $1000 a month today. Employers said they could not improve working conditions or they would become less competitive with other states. Workers didn’t accept this. A brief strike in 1912 led to short-lived improvements. The American Federation of Labor showed a bit of interest in organizing the most skilled workers, primarily those who spoke English, but never got very far. The majority of workers were ready to walk out in order to preempt the destruction of their livelihood by low wages and harder work.
In early 1913, the Paterson strikers invited IWW organizers to help them because of the Wobblies’ success the previous year at Lawrence, Massachusetts (although that success was already falling apart after the Wobblies stopped paying attention to the workers’ struggles after the strike was over). The Wobblies responded with vigor. They found the Paterson strike more to their revolutionary liking than Lawrence. It’s multiethnic (although it was significantly less diverse than Lawrence) and multigender nature, filled with songs and cultures in different languages appealed. Of course, the reality was more complicated, with the Jewish and Italian immigrant workers ready for militancy and the native-born Americans and English speakers reticent and conservative. Even more attractive for Wobbly intellectuals was the different nature of the Paterson strikers, who fought for a better life and culture, whereas Lawrence was a reaction to a wage cut. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn called Paterson “more significant” than Lawrence because these workers were more directly seeking a better future.
Wobbly leaders were at their best in bringing big names into a strike in order to mobilize the workers, keep them occupied, and lead large marches. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn played a huge role in Paterson, giving several important speeches and helping organize activities for the strikers. The Italian syndicalist Carlos Tresca came to organize workers. Big Bill Haywood arrived in March, when he was immediately placed under arrest. On April 19, a fight broke out between company thugs and strikers. Modestino Valentino, an innocent bystander, was shot and killed. No charges were filed. The Wobblies built on Valentino’s murder to show workers the corruptness of the system. Not that the system cared. On May 10, a jury convicted Alexander Scott, the editor of a local socialist newspaper, of sedition for the grand crime of criticizing the town’s police force in print.
The silk owners refused to even talk to anyone associated with the IWW, which they considered an un-American organization. Explained one factory owner, “The silk manufacturers of the country are watching our fight and praying for our success for they realize that if we are beaten it will be their turn next.” They had full support from the town’s political leaders, religious figures, and police force. The owners decided to invite the AFL in, figuring if they had to have a union, they might as well work with the one they could stomach. But the workers booed and hissed down the AFL speakers the city organized to speak, destroying this plan. Police repression continued unabated.
What the IWW probably did better than anything else was create culture. Even at the time, their cultural productions attracted attention from both workers and intellectuals. The proximity of Paterson to New York City and the IWW’s skilled propagandists allowed New York’s intellectuals to connect with the Paterson strikers. In the course of the strike, New York intellectual John Reed, future chronicler of the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, met IWW head Big Bill Haywood. Haywood encouraged Reed to visit Paterson. Reed was arrested as well, helping to radicalize him. After his visit, he decided to mobilize the New York art community for the strikers. Reed secured funding from New York art patron (and founder of the New Mexico artist colony and romanticizer of Native Americans) Mabel Dodge and decided to put on a play at Madison Square Garden in New York to show the world the great evil of the Paterson employers and the nobility of the workers’ struggle.
Reed recruited a team of volunteer theater professionals to train the strikers in their performance. You can read the Paterson pageant program here. The workers acted out their work routines, sang famous songs, and reenacted the Valentino murder. Workers dressed as police acted the beatings they received daily. Wobbly leaders like Flynn and Tresca spoke. Everyone sang “The Internationale” and “La Marseillaise.” It was the first and last attempt to put on such a spectacle around a labor struggle.
Reviews were fairly positive. However, neither pageant nor strike were successful in the end. The pageant itself lost money. The strike collapsed almost immediately after the pageant. Reed had promised workers the pageant would pay to keep the strikers going, but it didn’t raise nearly enough money. Morale plummeted. As Flynn said, “Bread was the need of the hour and bread was not forthcoming even from the most beautiful and realistic example of art that has been put on the stage in the last half century.”
The strike preparations had distracted workers from actually striking, giving the owners the upper hand back in Paterson. Without the masses at the gates, strikebreakers began going to work. The pageant also split the workers. Because of space limitations, only 1000 out of the 25,000 strikers could go, leading to jealousy. The skilled English speakers started demanding a settlement. The Socialists and Wobblies began fighting amongst themselves. Food and money became ever more scarce. In early July, the skilled ribbon workers agreed to a shop by shop settlement, kicked the IWW organizers out of the decision-making process, and went back to work. The immigrant workers could not stay out without the English speakers. By July 28, the strike had collapsed in a total defeat for the workers and the IWW.
After 1913, the IWW by and large left eastern industrial organizing behind in order to focus on itinerant labor in the West. Never again would it organize a large walkout among the eastern immigrant working-class.
Much of the information for this piece comes from Melvyn Dubofsky’s still definitive 1969 history of the I.W.W., We Shall Be All. For what it’s worth, if you are in the New York area, I am chairing a panel this afternoon at 1:30 at the Labor and Working-Class History Association on the 100th anniversary of the Pageant, at the Graduate Center for Worker Education downtown. The panel includes Dubofsky and several other leading IWW scholars. Stop by if you are inclined.
This is the 63rd post in this series. Previous entries are archived here.