On January 25, 1926, the Passaic textile strike began. This was the first really important strike that the Communist Party ran and one that provided the workers a marginal victory after an absolutely epic struggle that brought police power down on the workers and their supporters in a most brutal manner.
While textiles had been a critical part of the Industrial Revolution since the late 18th century, Passaic was not a center of the industry until shortly after the expansion of tariffs on worsted wool in 1889. That highly incentivized domestic production of wool for suits, carpets, hosiery, gloves and other products. New factories went up outside of Paterson, which did have a long history. Many of them were in Passaic, south of that city.
In the mid-20s, this industry employed about 15,000 people in wool mills, particularly the Botany Worsted Mill, with around 6,000 employees. Like the rest of this industry, the conditions of work were awful and the poverty of the workers tremendous. It was a nearly all-immigrant workforce, though by 1926 immigration had largely ended from the nations where the workers originated, especially Russia, Italy, Poland and Hungary. Even working 10 hour days, the workers simply did not make enough money to live under anything but poverty conditions. How bad were things? A 1925 study by a state agency showed that infant mortality among these workers’ children was 43 percent higher than the state average for children under 1 and that number rose to 52 percent higher for children under 10.
Efforts to unionize the workers hadn’t gone too far. The Paterson silk strike of 1913, led by the Industrial Workers of the World, had brought in some of these Passaic workers, but it had failed miserably and led the Wobblies to pretty much give up on textile unionism. By the mid-20s, the anarcho-syndicalism of the IWW was well out of fashion on the left and the Communist Party was ascendant. The workers not only had interest in communist ideas, but also the end of immigration gave them additional power for two reasons. First, they had all been in the nation for at least a few years and so were acclimated to conditions without new immigrants still seeing these mills as a place of hope. Second, the different ethnic groups had gotten to know each other and so a common bond was building.
Life for the workers got even worse in 1925. The mills cut work hours and then issued a 10 percent pay cut. This turned impoverished workers into desperate and angry workers. Meanwhile, Albert Weisbord, a communist organizer with the Trade Union Educational League, came to town. The TUEL was William Z. Foster’s current baby for building left-leaning unions through combining radicals from many unions. It was about done, as Soviet policy was soon going to change and American communist policy with it. But Passaic would prove to be TUEL’s most prominent hour. He started organizing the mills and within a couple of months, had about 1,000 workers in the Botany Mill signed up. This was a very good start. It also filled a major vacuum. One of the many problems with the American Federation of Labor was that it assumed these immigrant workers were unorganizable so it just didn’t bother trying. At the same time, it would not accept other unions organizing them, to the point of actively working with employers as it often did with the IWW. So it turned out these workers weren’t unorganizable. They were just unorganized.
On January 21, 1926, one of the workers Weisbord had organized was fired for organizing and speaking out about the terrible conditions. This was the spark that led the workers to strike. As so often happens, employer overreactions lead workers to take power for themselves. When Botany announced that no member of the United Front Committee, what Weisbord called his organization there, would be employed any longer, the workers saw no choice. They formed a committee and created a list of demands, including a 44-hour week, overtime pay, the elimination of the 10 percent pay cut, and no retaliation against union members. The response of management was to fire the entire committee immediately.
The strike was a hard one. It was cold and the employers just didn’t care about the workers. Despite police violence, they managed to expand the strike to other mills in the area in February. It was the strike’s expansion that led the powers of Passaic to strike back. The city had a riot act passed back in the 1860s for some reason. Someone remembered this and the city used it, giving the police full power to do whatever they wanted against the strikers. On March 2, horse-riding cops cornered a group of marching strikers and beat the living hell out of them. They sprayed tear gas and water at the marchers; given the weather, the water might have been worse. The cops then started beating the reporters covering the strike, destroying their cameras. Weisbord was arrested and held on $50,000 bail.
Amazingly, this did not stop the strike. Rather, they took a day off and prepared. The workers got steel helmets somewhere and wore them to protect themselves. The media now watched from armored cars. The Communist Party knew what this meant to them and they used all their resources. Taking a page from the IWW-led Lawrence strike in 1912, they shipped the children of strikers to sympathizers out of town to make the strike easier to run and to gain sympathy from other areas. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the former “Rebel Girl” of the IWW and now a committed communist hired the great journalist Mary Heaton Vorse to run publicity, including a daily newspaper. Led by Alfred Wagenknecht, the CP also used their significant artistic connections to make a film about the strike. Five of the seven reels of The Passaic Textile Strike were long known to exist and have been restored. We can watch it here. Interestingly, in 2006, a sixth reel was found at NYU. I’m not sure if this version includes that reel.
The American Civil Liberties Union showed up too, protesting the ban on speech. This just led their members to get arrested too. New Jersey did not care. They were not going to let these workers win. This was actually good for the strike though. Among the ACLU leaders there was the Socialist leader Norman Thomas and the arrest of him and others gave them the legal standing to sue for the violation of their constitutional rights.
Now, the Communist Party had a rather inconsistent relationship with the American Federation of Labor. At times, the CP wanted to create alternative unions to AFL craft unions. At other times, it switched gears and committed itself to bore in from within. But in any case, this was not the IWW with its fear of the AFL or even of union contracts. The TUEL and CP was generally fine with AFL help if they could get it. Weisbord had appealed to the AFL. It was extremely not interested at first, hating communists. But in the end, the TUEL and CP were a lot more pragmatic than the IWW. They didn’t see the strike as a front just for moving forward the revolution. They wanted the workers to win. So with no end in sight, in August, with the strike now having gone on for nearly seven months, the workers agreed with the TUEL that they would allow the AFL to take over the strike, through the United Textile Workers, and the communists would completely withdraw from the scene.
In the aftermath of the UTW taking over, strike publicity disappeared but the UTW and mill owners also had real negotiations. The UTW was far from the best run union and was pretty conservative overall. So they got the workers a marginal deal and got them back to work. This was a big victory. But the UTW also did not trust these Passaic workers who had spent months under communist leadership and now had many communists among them. Part of the deal with mills was that clear communists could be fired. Many were. But the local remained pretty radical. And in 1928, when against UTW orders, they supported the New Bedford textile strike, another CP-led action, the UTW simply expelled the entire local from the union. After its disastrous, albeit important in the context of all the other strikes that year, 1934 strike, the UTW was effectively dead. Textiles never did get properly organized in the United States, with even the 1970s and early 1980s successes promptly followed by plant closing and capital mobility to Mexico and then anywhere.
This is the 423rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.