Anti-Capitalist Meetup: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the Paterson Silk Strike by JayRaye
Adolph Lessig, and Big Bill Haywood
Paterson, New Jersey 1913
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Arrives
On January 27, 1913 at the Doherty Silk Mill in Paterson, New Jersey, a workers committee requested a meeting with management. They wanted an end to the hated four-loom system which had doubled their work load with no increase in pay, and had caused the lay-offs of many of their fellow workers. When four members of that committee were fired, 800 silk workers, almost the entire work force, walked off the job spontaneously. They were without union organization to back them up. Being mostly foreign-born, non-English-speaking, unskilled workers, the AFL’s United Textile Workers did not want them.
But, in fact, there was another textile union in Paterson at that time: the IWW’s National Industrial Union of Textile Workers, Local 152 which local organizers, Ewald Koettgen and Adolph Lessig had established over several years of organizing. It was there, with this stalwart band of 100 Wobblies, that the strikers found a union willing to back up their strike. As it became clear that Doherty would not bargain with the strikers, Local 152 request help from IWW headquarters in Chicago.
On February 25, 1913, national IWW organizers, Pat Quinland, Carlos Tresca, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrived to speak at a mass meeting. All three were arrested that night at the meeting. Strikers followed them to the jail and held a rally outside the jail, singing and shouting for their release. Women shouted, “When the strike is won, Gurley Flynn will be the boss!”
By the time Big Bill Haywood arrived, later that week, the strike had spread to silk mills across Paterson. 300 mills were shut down, and 25,000 silk workers were on strike. Big Bill advised the strikers: “fold your arms or put your hands in your pocket and let the manufacturers do the worrying.”
Paterson, New Jersey 1913
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Speaks to Strikers
Meetings, rallies, marches, speeches, and singing were features of any IWW strike, and the Paterson Silk Strike fit that mold. Mass meetings were held every morning, and shop committee meetings each afternoon. Each shop elected two strikers to represent them on the shop committee, and this was the committee that ran the strike. There were also special meetings for the women and children who made up more than half of the strikers.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was much beloved by the strikers. Reporter Art Shields describes the strikers reaction to her:
Fifteen to twenty-thousand strikers and sympathizers were applauding a beautiful young woman, whose passionate voice reached everyone in the crowd. She spoke from a high platform heaped with gorgeous flowers. But violets and roses paled before this twenty-one-year-old beauty, and I fell in love with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn at first sight.
I wasn’t her only captive. No other woman speaker except Mother Jones won so many hearts as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She won them in struggles against big exploiters, not in quiet lecture halls….
And there was a dramatic scene when Elizabeth called an Italian girl she knew to the platform. This was a pale, thin teenager..Elizabeth embraced her and then said, “The silk bosses are killing Angelica. They are working her to death. They put her on four looms instead of two. She’s working twice as hard as before.”
…”But that isn’t all the silk bosses did to Angelica. They didn’t give her enough to eat.” Angelica, she said, was the only support of a sick mother and her younger brothers and sisters. Her father was dead. Her family was hungry The family seldom ate meat. “She’s also striking,” Elizabeth said, “for a raise to give her family enough to eat.”
The silk bosses are robbers, Elizabeth continued. The cars they are driving, the diamonds their wives are wearing, the rich food their families are eating, their winter vacations in Florida’s sunshine-all come from the labors of Angelica and twenty-five thousand other silk workers. “And when you win the raises you are fighting for,” she said, “you’ll get back only a little of what you produced. But these raises are just a beginning. The time is coming when you will run these plants for yourselves.”
“She got to be an idol with us.”
Irma Lombardi was a young seventeen-year-old striker. She left us this description of Gurley Flynn:
Gurley Flynn called a meeting just for the women one day. She started with that lovely way of hers. She looked at us and said, “Would you like to have nice clothes?” We replied, “Oh, yes.” “Would you like to have nice shoes?” “Oh,yes.” we shouted. “Well, you can’t have them. Your bosses’ daughters have those things!” We got mad. We knew it was true. We had shoes with holes, and they had lovely things. Then she said, “Would you like to have soft hands like your bosses’ daughters?” and we got mad all over again. She was a beautiful speaker. She got be an idol with us.
Sophie Cohen was the child of a former mill worker. Though not a striker, her father was passionate in his support of the strike, and often brought her to the rallies. She later remembered Gurley Flynn:
Gurley Flynn looked just like the pictures we see of her now. She was young, vibrant, enthusiastic. She wan’t really a good speaker, but she gave so much of herself in her talks. She would come at night to the soup kitchens. There were big cauldrons of soup set up in a lot next to the church and she would get up on a platform. There were red flares around her, and she’d get them singing and then she’d talk with them. It was just the thing people needed to keep them together and give them courage.
Sundays in Haledon
Meetings were not allowed in Paterson, but the nearby town of Haledon had a Socialist mayor who welcomed the strikers. On Sundays thousands of strikers marched to Haledon. A striker’s family offered the use of their two-story house. Speeches were given from the upper balcony to the crowd gathered below in the street and in the large green field opposite the house. Gurley Flynn later remembered those Sunday meetings fondly:
Sunday after Sunday , as the days became pleasanter, we spoke there to enormous crowds of thousands of people-the strikers and their families, workers from other Paterson industries, people from nearby New Jersey cities, delegations from all over America and from foreign countries. People who saw these Haledon meetings never forgot them.
But there was a deeper reason for going to Haledon on Sundays, Gurley Flynn explained:
Because Sunday is the day before Monday. Monday is the day that a break comes in every strike, if it is to come at all during the week. If you can bring the people safely over Monday they usually go along for the rest of the week. If on Sunday, however, you let those people stay at home, sit around the stove without any fire in it, sit down at the table were there isn’t much food, see the feet of the children with shoes getting thin and the bodies of children where the clothes are getting ragged, they begin to think in terms of “myself” and lose the spirit of the mass and the realization that all are suffering as they are suffering…And so our original reason for going to Haledon was to give them novelty, to give them variety, to take them en masse out of the city of Paterson some place else to sort of picnic over Sunday that would stimulate them for the rest of the week.
On the picket lines, the strikers were subject to daily mass arrest. Many were sentenced to ten or twenty days, some to six months at hard labor. Most of the strikers went straight back to the picket line upon their release. Seventeen-year-old Hannah Silverman was arrested three times. She was back on the picket line the next morning each time she was released. Big Bill Haywood hailed her as “the greatest little IWW woman in America.” When Carrie Torello was arrested, she gathered her children together, put them in the patrol wagon and told another striker, “If you see Freddie, tell him to come to Jail.”
The Paterson Press
The Paterson Press openly called for violence against the IWW organizers, calling for the formation of a vigilance committee to drive them out of town:
Los Angeles, Akron, Denver, Ottowa, and other cities kicked the I.W.W. out of town in short order…What is Paterson doing to discourage this revolutionary horde?
And another example:
Akron, Ohio, could not find a law to banish this dangerous revolutionist [Big Bill] and his cohorts but a citizens’ committee of 1000 men did the trick in short order. Can Akron, Ohio, accomplish something that Paterson, N.J., cannot duplicate? The Paterson Press dislikes to believe it, but time will tell.
WE NEVER FORGET
On Thursday, April 17, 1913, Modestino Valentino was murdered by private detectives, hired gunmen imported from New York by the mill owners. This man’s only crime against the mill owners was that he was standing on his own front porch watching the strikers hoot at the scab-herders. He was not a striker, nor was he a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. The hooting so bothered the gunmen that they felt compelled to open fire on unarmed workers. Gurley Flynn described how he died:
[He] grabbed his child and started through the doorway, when he was shot in the back. His wife grabbed the child and her husband fell and dead at her feet.
Gurley Flynn went with a committee of strikers to visit the widow:
She was in bed, awaiting the birth of a second child. On the other side of a folding partition was the casket of her dead husband, parallel to the bed. The priest came in while we were there but he made no objection to our request [for the I.W.W. to provide for the funeral.] She was a simple grief-stricken woman, who expressed her sympathy with the strikers, many of whom were her neighbors. She placed the blame where it belonged-on the company thugs who murdered her husband. It was a tragic example of force and violence by the employers in the class struggle-a worker dead , a woman widowed, two children, one unborn, left orphans-a story repeated all too often in my experience.
According to IWW historian, Fred Thompson, five workers in all lost their lives in the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913.
Hunger, the Great Strikebreaker
In spite of the courage shown by the strikers and their leaders, the silk strikers were defeated. Some small concessions were made by a few of the mill owners, but for the most part, strikers went back to work defeated. Some had been replaced by scabs and were never rehired. Gurley Flynn partially blamed the Pageant for the loss of the strike, asserting that it was a distraction from strike duties. It was a financial disaster also, which only further discouraged the strikers. But in the end the strike was lost because the strikers were starving. Gurley Flynn later spoke of the suffering that the strikers endured before they were driven back to work by hunger:
I saw men go out in Paterson without shoes, in the middle of winter and with bags on their feet, I went into a family to have a picture taken of a mother with eight children who didn’t have a crust of bread, didn’t have a bowl of milk for the baby in the house,-but the father was out on the picket line. Others were just as bad off. Thousands of them that we never heard of at all. This was the difficulty that the workers had to contend with in Paterson: hunger; hunger gnawing at their vitals; hunger tearing them down; and still they had the courage to fight it out for six months.
Let us honor their courage and sacrifice by continuing the struggle for social and economic justice.
The IWW: Its First Seventy Years 1905-1975
-by Fred W Thompson & Patrick Murfin
IWW Press, 1976
The Rebel Girl
My First Life (1906-1926)
-by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
Women and the American Labor Movement
From Colonial Times to the Eve of World War I
-by Philip S Foner
My Shaping-Up Years
-by Art Shields
An Oral History of the IWW
-ed by Bird, Georgaks, & Shaffer
Lake View Press, 1985
Words on Fire
The Life and Writing of
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
-by Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall
Rutgers U Press, 1987
An IWW Anthology
-ed by Joyce L Kornbluh
Charles H Kerr Pub, 1988