Today in labor history: Paterson silk strikers take to stage

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Today in labor history, silk workers held a one-time performance of Paterson Strike Pageant at Madison Square Garden in 1913.

"Paterson, New Jersey, was known as the 'Silk City of America.' More than one-third of its 73,000 workers held jobs in the silk industry. High-speed automatic looms were introduced into the factories at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1911 silk manufacturers in Paterson decided that workers, who had previously ran two looms, were now required to operate four simultaneously. Workers complained that this would cause unemployment and consequently, would bring down wages.

"On 27th January, 1913, 800 employees of the Doherty Silk Mill went on strike when four members of the workers' committee were fired for trying to organize a meeting with the company's management to discuss the four-loom system. Within a week, all silk workers were on strike and the 300 mills in the town were forced to close," according to UK-based Spartacus School.

Notable Industrial Workers of the World leaders, Bill Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, became strike leaders.

Radical journalist John Reed "went to Paterson to learn about the Wobbly-led silk workers' strike then in progress and decided to mount a massive public pageant to publicize the strike and raise money for the strikers. He won financial backing from art patron Mabel Dodge and enlisted artists such as John Sloan, who painted a 90-foot backdrop depicting the Paterson silk mills.

"The pageant opened on June 7 in Madison Square Garden and ended with the workers and the audience triumphantly singing the 'Internationale,' the anthem of international socialism," says History Matters.

Reed had been arrested in Paterson and then released when authorities learned he was embarrassing them through his writings of prison conditions. Other left-wing journalists, like Walter Lippmann, went to Paterson in solidarity with Reed.

Although the pageant lost money, supporter Dodge wrote of its importance, "For a few electric moments there was a terrible unity between all of these people. They were one: the workers who had come to show their comrades what was happening across the river and the workers who had come to see it. I have never felt such a pulsing vibration in any gathering before or since."

Photo: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speaks at a silk workers strike rally. As a way to fully engage the women of Paterson, Gurley Flynn held successful women-only weekly meetings during the strike. (CPUSA/Daily Worker collection/Tamiment)

This history note was originally published June 7,2012.

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