The 1913 Paterson silk strike was a work stoppage involving silk mill workers in Paterson, New Jersey. The strike involved demands for establishment of an eight-hour day and improved working conditions. The strike began in February, 1913, and ended six months later, on July 28.
The strike began on February 25, 1913. During the course of the strike, approximately 1,850 strikers were arrested, including Industrial Workers of the World leaders William Dudley Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
In an effort to support the strike financially, many artists based in Greenwich Village, New York, organized a pageant play in which the events of the strike were reenacted. The pageant was held at Madison Square Garden, and drew a large crowd.
Paterson's strike was part of a series of industrial strikes in the garment and textile industries of the American east from the years 1909 to 1913. The participants of these strikes were largely immigrant factory workers from southern and eastern Europe. Class division, race, gender, and manufacturing expertise all caused internal dissension among the striking parties and this led many reformist intellectuals in the Northeast to question their effectiveness. A major turning point for these labor movements occurred in 1912 during the Lawrence Textile Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts where laborers were able to successfully pressure mill owners to raise wages, later galvanizing support from left-leaning intellectual groups. The successful strike helped attract interest from intellectual circles in Paterson’s labor movements and gave union organizers confidence in also achieving improved working conditions and wages for Paterson’s silk weavers.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was the main outside agent behind both the Lawrence Textile Strike and the Paterson silk strike and was primarily faulted with causing the disruptions by law enforcement authorities. On February 25, 1913, the first day of the strike, the IWW’s prominent feminist leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was arrested after giving a talk on uniting strikers across racial boundaries, the authorities falsely charging her and her fellow speakers with inciting violence through radical speech. Before the Senate Commission on Industrial Relations, police captain Andrew J. McBride upheld these charges, claiming that the revolutionary air among the textile mills was caused by and could be attributed to the IWW. Paterson’s mayor at the time, Dr. Andrew F. McBride, also supported the idea that the strikes were primarily the result of the IWW’s propaganda. Regardless, the strikes were carried out for months even after the arrest of IWW leaders, dispelling the notion that the workers were only agitated by outsiders.
The city’s suspicion about the solely external source of Paterson’s labor militancy was in direct conflict with the IWW’s actual philosophy. It promoted grassroots mobilization and allowed the strikers themselves freedom to choose the direction of their militancy. William D. Haywood, a founding member of the IWW and man venerated for his crucial involvement in the Lawrence strike, helped strikers create their own democratically organized strike committee, representing all of the workers’ nationalities and not subject to the supervision of other more conservative and centralized labor groups. Paterson’s strike was distinguished because of this decentralization.
The Paterson strikers mobilized after years of declining wages, continued poor working conditions, and long work days. The increasing number of women and children in the labor supply due to changing social customs and improved health through technological advances provided cheaper labor for mill owners and reduced demand for more expensive male laborers, bidding down their wages. In addition, technological advances in silk production reduced demand for skilled labor in the silk mills of Paterson. New technology in silk mills in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts which allowed weavers to run multiple looms at once posed significant competition to smaller New Jersey shops which manufactured silk much less efficiently and at a much higher cost. In response to these much larger corporate mills with multiple-loom systems and in order to stay in business in the long run, New Jersey’s mills had to respond by adopting the more efficient technology. High skilled weavers such as those in ribbon shops thus fought against multiple-loom systems. The reduced labor intensity of the new silk industry also meant that low skilled broad-silk weavers would be displaced and hurt by the industry changes. All weavers also wanted to shorten their work days and establish certain minimum wage.
The first major change in the local silk industry leading up to the 1913 strike was the Doherty Silk Company’s construction of a modernized mill in nearby Clifton, NJ in 1911. The multiple-loom system of this mill upset workers who feared the inevitable transformation of all of Paterson’s mills and the subsequent loss of jobs. In response, sixty weavers struck, beginning a string of union meetings with business agents to negotiate wages for silk workers in Paterson. The following year, Edwald Koettgen formed the Eight-Hour League in Paterson, championing the idea of an eight-hour work day, sowing the final seeds of the 1913 strike.
With the help of the IWW, Paterson silk workers were able to put together a general strike by recruiting thousands of workers. Two weeks into the strike, all types of weavers united to create a list of demands directed to mill owners and employers, ranging from minimum age restrictions to protect children to abolishing the multiple-loom systems to ensure the presence of jobs. Manufacturers responded with a seven-part statement regarding the economic unviability of the demands, among other concerns.
Ultimately, the strike ended in failure on July 8, 1913. Scholars cite an important reason for this failure as Paterson’s necessary adaptation to the new machinery and new economics of the silk industry. Manufacturers would not acquiesce to the demands of strikers because they simply could not. Without producing goods at competitive prices through new machinery and cheap labor, they would otherwise have been put out of business by firms in Pennsylvania.
Two were killed in the strike: bystander Valentino Modestino fatally shot by a private guard on April 17 1913, and striking worker Vincenzo Madonna fatally shot by a strikebreaker on June 29.
The strike was featured in the 1981 film Reds. It is commemorated today at the Pietro and Maria Botto House National Landmark in Haledon, New Jersey, which served as a rallying point during the strike. In 1934, there was another silk strike in Paterson.