The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

100 Years Ago, Workers Strike for Better Conditions

Feb 18, 2013

A century ago, from February through July 1913, eighteen hundred silk workers in Paterson New Jersey carried out one of the most important strikes in U.S. history. Mostly immigrants from different European countries, they were demanding shorter working hours and better working conditions.

Textile was one of the largest, most profitable industries in the U.S. at that time. The bosses even sent recruiters to Europe to find more workers. The hours were long – the day could stretch to 14 hours; the pay was low; the machines ran fast and dangerous.

Factory workers scarcely earned enough money to live. One third of workers didn’t live past 25 years of age in this era. And children as young as five tended machines in the textile industry – just as young children in that era were sent down to work in the mines.

Only a year earlier, almost 20,000 textile workers from the plants of the American Woolen Company in Lawrence, Massachusetts, went on strike on January 12, 1912. Their meager pay checks had been cut when a new law in Massachusetts reduced the work week from 56 to 54 hours.

As an example of the dangers of working in the Lawrence mills, a teenager, Camella Teoli, got her hair caught and pulled into a machine she was operating. She was hospitalized for seven months.

The 1912 strikers invited into Lawrence prominent organizers, like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Bill Haywood from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), along with other militants not so well known – Joseph Ettor, Arturo Giovannitti and Margaret Sanger. The IWW connections brought the strikers money and the support they needed in the working class movement.

In both the Lawrence strike and in the Paterson strike a year later, workers had to overcome enormous divisions. The languages spoken by strikers included Italian, Polish, Russian, German, French, Yiddish and sometimes very little English. They came from countries and from differing religious backgrounds with long histories of antagonism, even war. The bosses had been hiring women and children in order to pay lower wages than they paid the men. There were divisions by skill. Still they were able to go on strike together.

In addition to mass picketing, with IWW help the workers organized Sunday meetings for supporters of the Paterson silk strike in the spring of 1913. Some 20,000 people would show up at these meetings in Haledon, New Jersey. Nearby New York artists, writers and socialists joined strikers and their families, raising money and spirits.

By May of 1913, the Paterson silk workers were beginning to face real desperation and hunger. Workers decided they had to go back to work in Paterson in July. But the fight they made in 1913 helped them win the eight-hour day by 1919.

The fight for safer conditions, better pay and fewer hours played out over a long period. U.S. workers had been making these demands since the early 1800s, with strikes and demonstrations.

Only their fights would force the bosses to improve conditions in the factories and mills and mines.