The Paterson Strike, Labor’s Defining Moment

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Strike leaders Patrick L. Quinlan, Carlo Tresca, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Adolph Lessig, and Bill Haywood.

Strikes by labor groups in the United States in the early 1900s defined the “Labor Movement”. Men, women and children took part in the Paterson Strike of 1913.

Striking laborers rallied against unfair labor practices with two of the most publicized strikes occuring in 1910: The garment workers in New York City and the strike that took place at the Los Angeles Times. However, one labor union strike would significantly define the labor movement: the Paterson Strike of 1913. To understand the pros and cons of striking unions, it’s necessary to recall that few federal or state laws had been enacted at that time to protect workers from unsafe working conditions or from exploitation through which laborers earned unimaginably low wages while working fourteen or fifteen hours a day.

Formation of American Unions

The formation of unions were a result of a kind of feudal system of labor where wealthy business owners could save millions of dollars by simply hiring workers and refusing to provide living wages or safe working conditions. These business owners were, in effect, modern-day feudal lords who answered to no one. Their money influenced government and often prevented labor laws from being enacted that would have avoided the devastating fire that occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City’s garment industry in 1911 that trapped laborers, largely women and children laboring inside and caused the deaths of 141 workers. The uprising of laborers was inevitably as sweatshops became intolerable workplaces.

The Strike at the Lawrence Massachusetts Textile Mill

One of the reason the Paterson Strike stands out among all others of this period in labor’s history is the violence that occurred as a result of laborers taking a stand against the scandalous conditions of textile mills in the Unites States. When the Massachusetts legislature passed a law reducing the workweek in textile mills from fifty-six to fifty-four hours, industry employers responded by cutting wages. The weekly wages of the lowest paid textile laborers was $6 a week with no vacations and holiday time off was deducted from wages. This miserly attitude forced laborers to take action and strike. 250,000 workers were out on strike that January of 1912. It should also be noted that the governor and Harvard president were both investors in the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile mill.

Labor leaders like Emma Goldman saw this as a cozy union between government, seats of learning and capitalism. A horde of police, collegiate bullies and hired industry ruffians caused the deaths of two strikers, Anna Lapezzo, who was shot to death and John Ramo, who was bayonetted by police. However, law enforcement blamed the deaths on two strike leaders. This strike raised the hackles of employers all over the country concerned about the growing “radical” labor movement, referring to labor actions as “socialism”.

The Paterson Strike Begins

Following the strikes in Massachusetts, several others occurred in New York and spread to other parts of the country. The next biggest strike event took place in Paterson, New Jersey in 1913, in one of the country’s most unsafe factories that included dyehouses and silk mills. The factories labor was comprised of more than eight different immigrant groups: Italians, French, Germans, Russian, Polish and Austrian Jews, Syrians and Armenians. The factory owners exploited their own brand of patriotism referring to striking workers as “unpatriotic”. The Paterson Strike began when local police ignored laws and beat and jailed striking laborers and their leaders. This only increased violence between the two factions. Five people were killed, hundreds wounded, home were stones and bombs exploded; but employers steadfastly refused to negotiate with strikers, fearing takeover of their mills by unions.

Strike Breaking

It was clear by May 1913, the Paterson Strike had been broken even though mills remained closed and workers grew desperate. More than $4 million dollars was lost in wages dueing the strike. But, mill owners also lost more – $5 million. During the Paterson Strike more than 1800 men, women and children were arrested. The Paterson Strike, as history views it, was one of the most pristine goals of all strikes in the country: To end unfair labor practices.

Source:

  1. America Enters The World, Page Smith, McGraw-Hill
  2. Colliers Encyclopedia