When the Socialists and Anarchists Came to Town in 1912
On November 1, 2007 fifty-one workers at the Redco plant in my old hometown of Little Falls, New York went on strike in response to a company decision to deny new workers the kind of health and pension benefits that had made Redco, and its predecessor companies, desirable places for lifelong employment. Located on the tiny island where Christian Hansen first began to manufacture “Junket” custard in 1891, the plant was sold to Salada in 1958, then to Kellogg in 1969, and in 1988 to a German-based transnational, the Teekanne Group.
Despite the multiple owners, Hansen’s Island continued to be a good place to work for over a century, and the workers evidently felt their value to the company would make a strike winnable. However, their attempt to assure a middle class living for those who came after them was no longer the way the American dream worked. With only fifty-one workers locally and a parent union of only a few thousand, the strikers had no effective weapons at hand. The BCTGM union did file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and Homeland Security alleging illegal use by Redco of German nationals as scabs, but this charge was quickly dismissed.
The strike dragged on for over a year, but I am not sure what happened to the 50 strikers, if they eventually went back to work, or lost their jobs. Efforts to get any kind of statement from Redco or the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers union have been unsuccessful, but perhaps readers of this site can provide an update.
The strike by longtime residents of a small, fading factory town against a giant, foreign-owned corporation was the latest, and perhaps the last, echo of the fierce struggles that once dominated the economy of the Mohawk Valley.When I was growing up in the town, no one spoke of the the many other labor wars that took place on our own streets long ago. In small-town America, there are no historical markers for those battles and no re-enactors to portray that kind of heroism. And lacking any knowledge of a past when working people dared to fight for their rights, people are left with little guidance when they find themselves facing poverty and unemployment while the few grow wealthy.
Nearly a hundred years ago, 2000 largely female textile workers went on strike in Little Falls under the banner of the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, attracting national attention and winning a significant victory. In contrast to the “bread-and-butter” unions that won recognition in the 1930s, the IWW favored mass organization of all workers into “one big union” as a prelude to taking over the entire economy and establishing a utopian society. One of the few sources of information on the 1912 strike are at the town library in the microfilmed records of the local paper, The Evening Times.
Young women and children were the primary work force of the textile industry that developed in Little Falls during the later 1800s. Many workers had a story like that of my grandmother, who left school for the Gilbert knitting mill at 13 when her father died, leaving behind a pregnant wife and six younger children. Working conditions were abysmal and my grandmother was not shy in describing the horrendous noise of the machines, and the sexual abuse practiced by mill owners and their managers. The only time reforms were considered was in response to tragedy.
It was the death of 146 women in the Triangle Factory Fire in New York City in 1911 that finally got the state legislature moving, although some reforms tended to have unforeseen results. As soon as a law reducing the work week for women from 60 to 54 hours was enacted, the owners of the Gilbert and Phoenix knitting mills reduced the pay of women to match the shorter hours. Since the workers were already living at a near- starvation level, as documented in a recent visit by the state’s Factory Investigating Committee, the women were outraged. On October 9, 1912 eighty of them spontaneously walked out of the Phoenix Mill in protest. At this point there was no organized strike, but the story I heard is that that brutality toward the strikers by the owners and by the local police ignited a much larger walk-out, eventually including all 1000 workers from Phoenix and another 1000 from Gilbert’s.
At that time the Socialist party was quite strong in the larger industrial city of Schenectady, home of GE, and located about 50 miles away. Socialist activists from Schenectady came by train from on October 13 and the next day a number of them were arrested for making speeches in Clinton Park adjacent to the Phoenix Mill. On October 15 George Lunn, the Socialist mayor of Schenectady, was arrested by Police Chief James “Dusty” Long for making a speech in support of the strikers.
The rapid appearance in Little Falls of the Socialists, who were at that point becoming a major political party nationally, may have been in response to a call for help from Helen Schloss, a nurse specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis. She had been hired by the “Fortnightly Club,” an organization of wealthy women including the Gilberts and the Burrells, who were probably unaware of her earlier work with the Socialists in Malone, NY. When the Factory Investigating Committee came to Little Falls that August, Miss Schloss had provided investigators with graphic evidence of unsanitary conditions in the factories and tenements on the South Side. Once the strike began, she was very active in its support and was later arrested.
According to local historian Richard Buckley, local press and clergy actively opposed the strikers, most of whom were immigrants from southern or eastern Europe. Police Chief Long, a friend of my grandfather in later years, made no excuses for his attempts to deny free speech and assembly rights to strikers and their supporters: “We have a strike on our hands and a foreign element to deal with. We have in the past kept them in subjugation and mean to hold them where they belong.”
Chief Long’s efforts to silence free speech failed as socialists sent hundreds of supporters to town, leading to mass arrests beyond what the city could manage. At the same time the first organizers of the Industrial Workers of the World arrived and established committees for each factory and subcommittees for each ethnic group. By October 22 a Strike Committee was up and running, relying on democratic procedures of motions, amendments and vote counts. By the 24th the strikers voted to affiliate with the IWW and were awarded with a charter as Local 801, the National Industrial Union of Textile Workers of Little Falls.
The IWW were far more radical than the Socialists but the two organizations often made common cause at this time. Although the Socialists favored an electoral path to power, the “wobblies” were anarcho-syndicalists, and envisioned a new society formed by direct expropriation of the means of production by worker organizations. But they knew how to organize, especially among groups who spoke many languages.
Marching under the banner of the IWW on October 25, the strikers paraded in a great circle around the Gilbert and Phoenix Mills. The better-paid male “American” workers of the Snyder bicycle plant attempted to attack the largely female and foreign-born strikers, but newly hired police deputies managed to keep the two sides apart.
The daily parades under the IWW banner continued until a major clash occurred on October 30. According to Robert Snyder’s “Women, Wobblies and Workers Rights; the 1912 Textile Strike in Little Falls NY: “As Chief Long and his deputies clashed with the strikers, special police and patrolmen mounted on horses closed in on the largely unarmed pickets with their clubs. During the riot, a local police officer was shot in the leg, a special policeman furnished by the Humphrey Detective Agency of Albany was stabbed several times, and numerous strikers were beaten, some into unconsciousness.”
A running battle ensued, with the police pursuing strikers across the river into the south side, where most of them lived. The police then broke into the strike headquarters at the Slovak Hall, smashed the place up, and proceeded to make mass arrests. Helen Schloss, by now considered a ringleader, was arrested a mile away. The police brought in three doctors to “examine her sanity” but she had a lawyer who soon secured her release.
Even though all 24 members of the Strike Committee had been arrested on October 30, and some were held for over a year, the strike continued. Matilda Rabinowitz, a Russian-born IWW organizer, soon arrived and joined forces with Helen Schloss. Together, the two women had an entirely female picket line up within a day of the mass arrests.
“Big Bill” Haywood, a founder of the IWW arrived few days later to organize the “Little Falls Defense League” to provide living expenses and legal support for the strikers. Haywood, Schloss and Rabinowitz set off on a speaking tour of the north east that month to raise the funds that kept the strike going into the winter months. The anarchists Carlo Tresca and Filippo Bocchino also came to Little Falls to help organize the Italian-speaking strikers.
As Christmas neared, the IWW won a public relations victory by announcing that the children of strikers would be sent away for the holidays to join Socialist families in Schenectady. With the newspapers publishing reports of the embattled mothers and their children, Albany politicians were moved to act. Just after Christmas, the state Board of Mediation and Arbitration held three days of public hearings in Little Falls.
The strike ended on January 3, 1912 on terms set by the Board that were favorable to the strikers: (1) The companies were to reinstate all workers (2) There was to be no discrimination against strikers (3) All men and women working 54 hours are to receive pay formerly paid for 60 hours.
However, the long decline of Little Falls began only seven years later when the Phoenix Mills closed and moved its operations to North Carolina, and by 1930, city population had dropped by 2000. The Phoenix building, later occupied by the Allegro shoe factory, was eventually replaced by a parking lot, and Gilberts was closed decades ago.
And what became of the organizers and those they led to victory?
The radical organizers moved on to the next industrial battle, and there were plenty just before World War I, and there is a record of their journeys. However, the IWW’s attempt to replicate its success in the larger textile town of Paterson, NJ met with failure when the silk mill workers were starved into submission. John Reed, Mabel Dodge, Elizabeth Gurfley Flynn, Bill Haywood and Carlo Tresca all tried to rally the workers but to no avail. Unlike the Little Falls conflict, there was no state board to step in and impose terms.
Considering its success, it is not surprising that Bill Haywood described the Little Fall strike in glowing terms in the pages of International Socialist Review, where he provides details on the roles of Helen Schloss and Matilda Rabinowitz, as well as on the support provided by Helen Keller. Haywood was one of the many Socialists and Wobblies targeted in the 1917-1919 Red Scare and fled the country, ending his days unhappily in the USSR. Significantly, the 1917 Espionage Act used to silence the socialists and anarcho-syndicalists is the same law being considered by the Obama administration for the prosecution of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
Helen Schloss’ rationality is evident in a letter to the New York Times, published four years before her arrival in Little Falls. I can find no information on her life after 1912.
Matilda Rabinowitz (aka Matilda Robbins) went on to play a role in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti and was a UAW organizer. Although not well-known in comparison to other female activists of the IWW, there is a record of her work, in the archives of the United Auto Workers.
Carlo Tresca became an outspoken opponent of Mussolini and was assassinated in New York in 1943 by a Mafia gunman associated with the Fascists. Fillippo Bocchino followed another path and became one of Mussolini’s most ardent defenders in the Italian-American community in the years before World War II.
George Lunn’s political career continued in both the Socialist and the Democratic Parties. As a Socialist he was elected mayor of Schenectady, twice as a Socialist and once as a Democrat. He was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1917 and Lieutenant Governor in 1923. He later became friends with Chief Long and spoke at his retirement dinner in 1940.
As for the 2000 strikers themselves, many must have been living in Little Falls when I was growing up, and I know now that I counted their grandchildren among my friends and classmates. However, the story of the strike was completely buried, an episode that no one wanted to talk about. The strikers were largely Catholic immigrants from Italy and eastern Europe and the local priests (notably Rev. E. A. O’Connor) had condemned the strike as the work of atheists. That condemnation, and the later closing of the textile mills, may have made the whole strike something people wanted to forget. And early 20th century immigrants, in general, tended to be ashamed of their own language and culture, and made little effort to talk about the impoverished lives they had both in Europe and after coming to America.
Sadly, the small and largely ignored strike of the Redco workers in 2007 and 2008 seems to be yet another labor conflict no one in the town wants to talk about.