For May Day: The Story of the Paterson Silk Strike Pageant of 1913:
(Note: The Rude Pundit is putting on his scholar's cap today. This year is the 100th Anniversary of the Paterson Silk Strike, one of the seminal events in American labor history. On June 7, 1913, a massive consciousness-raising and fundraising pageant of the strike was staged in Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, 21 miles away, by John Reed -- you know him as Warren Beatty in Reds -- and hundreds of participants. This is the story of that great and sad moment in radicalism in the United States. Grab a bottle o' beer: this is a long one.)
In Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, the Industrial Workers of the World, considered the most radical labor union of the period, had their greatest success defeating mill owners during a strike. In Lawrence, one major mill, the American Woolen Company, dominated the town. Once it fell, all the smaller mills followed. By contrast, Paterson, New Jersey, had 300 small silk mills, with none dominant, so that there was even greater competition. As a result, and because they feared being overwhelmed by competition, unsympathetic employers paid their workers little and treated them poorly. When the mills in Paterson shifted from making high quality silk to cheap silk in order to compete with mills in Pennsylvania, the employers hired less skilled workers, mostly women. With technological innovations, a worker could tend four looms instead of two; at the same time, since the workers were paid per thread in a pattern, cheaper silk, which had fewer threads, meant less pay. The silk worker labored ten hours a day for an annual income of $580, lower than that for any other industry in New Jersey. They worked in unheated mills surrounded by a fog of steam and acid fumes from the dye. Many workers died at an early age from tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases.
When the Paterson strike finally occurred in 1913, unskilled immigrants went out first, followed by the skilled English-speaking immigrants. The American Federation of Labor tried but failed to organize the workers in the United Garmentworkers Union. The moderate approach offered by the AFL was too little too late for workers primed by several years of IWW pamphlets and materials circulating around Paterson. The IWW also earned the respect of the workers because of the willingness of their leaders to go to jail. As in Lawrence, the success of the IWW stemmed from its ability to organize those unskilled workers the AFL either failed or refused to bring into their union. While the IWW led the strike of 25,000 workers, at the time of the strike only 1000 workers were dues-paying members, more than likely because of the economic conditions of the workers.
Possibly the greatest appeal of the IWW was its ability to bring together all the ethnic groups of workers. This unity was hard to achieve. John Reed, a young reporter only a few years out of Harvard, spoke to immigrants who were discontent because they were picketing whereas native-born Americans were not. IWW speakers, though, sought to transcend prejudices, preaching "solidarity . . . [and] instilling class spirit, class respect, [and] class consciousness," writes labor historian Melvyn Dubofsky. IWW leaders at the strike, including Carlo Tresca, William Haywood, Patrick Quinlan, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, organized strike committees that were run by Paterson workers. They made sure outsiders were not negotiating with the employers. Flynn especially urged only outsider support and organization skills, and she preached nonviolence, as did all the strike leaders.
However, employers refused to negotiate with the organized workers, primarily because they were Wobblies. As John Fitch points out, while the employers were against any kind of union, they might have negotiated with the AFL, but because of the reputation of the Wobblies as "hoodlum, radical, un-American unionists," they would not sit at the bargaining table with the union. Interestingly, the public had a more violent reaction to the IWW than any violence the Wobblies ever committed. In an article unsympathetic to the Wobblies, Fitch cites several cases of such vigilantism. In Lawrence, two Wobbly leaders were charged with a murder they did not commit, while a soldier who openly bayoneted a striking worker was never even arrested. In San Diego, the IWW was banned from speaking on street corners. When the Wobblies kept returning, they engendered open hostility from the citizens who "tortured," beat, and sent the defiant Wobblies into the desert. The events at Paterson followed much the same pattern: the Paterson Press implored its readers to help rid the town of the IWW "no matter how it is accomplished." Others called more explicitly for violence, including one Civil War veteran who urged that new cemeteries "be filled with just such people as those who are now making this disturbance -- the first graves to be filled with Haywood and his crowd." Strikebreakers beat and killed Wobblies yet were never arrested. Only strikers were arrested and their leaders, like Quinlan, were brought to trial. Reed was radicalized even more when he was jailed by police for refusing to clear the streets. In jail with Tresca and others, he was impressed by the way the Wobblies kept up their spirits by singing and educating themselves.
The city officials of Paterson tried to get the AFL to come in once again to organize the workers because the larger union would presumably lead the strikers to a more peaceful and more accommodating resolution of the situation. In a meeting that was already filled with a sense of the theatre that would come later, the AFL organizers arrived and attempted to hold a rally in Turner Hall; they hoisted an American flag, an act that was booed by the workers who, in response, all thrust their red union cards into the air.
This theatricality would, of course, lead to the Pageant, which came into being, according to the memoirs of both Mabel Dodge Luhan and Hutchins Hapgood, when, at a gathering at the apartment of his mistress, Haywood complained to Mabel Dodge about the lack of publicity for the strike outside of the immediate area. Dodge suggested, "Why don't you bring it to New York and show it to the workers?" Haywood liked the idea but had no concept of how to do so until Reed stepped forward and said, "I'll do it! My name is John Reed. We'll make a Pageant of the strike! The first in the world!"
The Pageant, therefore, was the idea of Reed, the former Harvard cheerleader, who, according to Dubofsky, hoped "simultaneously to save the strike from certain defeat and to make the IWW the link between New York's radical "new" intellectuals and the "new" working-class revolutionaries, who together . . . would leap out of their times, transcend the prevailing structure of society, and transform the values of bourgeois America."
The goal of the Pageant was to let the workers in New York City get a fair impression of the strike and the strikers. In this way, money might be generated, but the more immediate goal was, as Hutchins Hapgood wrote in the New York Globe, "to give the whole of New York an idea and the meaning of the great industrial and social happenings which are taking place in Paterson and all over the country." For the IWW, therefore, the Pageant was an organizing tool, while, for the Greenwich Village intellectuals like Reed, it was a culmination of their artistic efforts to that point.
In casting the Pageant, Reed chose over 1000 workers to participate. These workers contributed to Reed's basic scenario and, in a sense, were coauthors of the piece; they evolved the details of the scenes from the incidents of their own lives while Reed's emphasis was on the revolutionary aims of the Pageant. As outsiders, Reed and the other organizers were able to gather pieces from the workers' existence and demonstrate the very real pattern of class struggle. Reed brought in intellectuals, artists, designers, directors, voice experts, and others to drill the workers into a theatre company in less than three weeks.
During rehearsal, music became a key part of the Pageant, with songs from the participating ethnic groups becoming part of the Pageant. The IWW was justly famous for its songbook, which ably demonstrated the use of song as a weapon in class struggle. Reed himself contributed to the musical aspect of the program. Dodge noted after seeing a rehearsal led by Reed: "One of the gayest touches, I think, was teaching them to sing one of their lawless songs to the tune of 'Harvard, old Harvard!'"
Despite the open rehearsals and the inclusion of many prominent intellectuals, Haywood was correct in his complaint against the press; other than the socialist newspapers, the New York press paid very little attention to the strike and the Pageant prior to its performance. In the Sunday New York Times of June 1, an announcement of the Pageant appeared at the bottom of page 8 in section 7, the drama and fashion section, after several vaudeville announcements.
On the evening of the performance, according to the Times, the old Madison Square Garden was filled with 15,000 people and red IWW flags and signs. No desecration of the American flag was allowed; in fact, the Sheriff threatened to shut down the proceedings if such an event occurred. Wobbly reputation notwithstanding, the organizers of the Pageant attempted to keep the evening as noncontroversial as possible. When two workers not associated with the Pageant openly placed at one end of the Garden the anarchist sign, "No God, No Master," which had been displayed prominently in Lawrence, one of the strike leaders immediately tore it down. Because they were trying to forge a unity between workers and audience, the Wobblies did not want the clergy to turn against them as they had in Lawrence.
The audience inside Madison Square Garden was greeted with a spectacular set. Designed by Robert Edmond Jones, it featured a huge stage and an enormous backdrop of life-sized silk mills. Through the center of the Garden, a wide aisle representing a street bisected the audience. This aisle would become one of the most potent tools of the Pageant in merging the audience and the workers. At nine p.m., the Pageant began.
Episode One, "The Mills Alive--The Workers Dead," according to the program, opened with the band of workers playing a strike march followed by the whistle of the mills. Then the workers trudged to the mill, walking through the wings of the theatre and down the center aisle as if "ill-fed" and talking about the impending strike. This crowd of workers included older people as well as children, and their muttering merged with the whir of looms coming from inside the mill where electric lights glowed through the backdrop. "Everything indicated industrial peace and contentment," remarked the New York Times without a hint of irony. Then, "The Workers Begin to Think," as the program reads, and the men and women gathered in small groups in front of the mills and pantomimed a discussion about going on strike. At this moment, an excited mob of workers burst out of the mill doors -- the backdrop had an opening wide enough to allow thirty people through at once -- all shouting, "Strike! Strike!" The stage was crowded with mobs of men and women, all intoxicated with sudden freedom. The whir of the mill died, and the band played "La Marseillaise" as the workers left the stage and the mill and marched down the entire length of the aisle through the Garden as the audience cheered.
In Episode Two, "The Mills Dead--The Workers Alive," the workers picketed the mill, where the lights were off to indicate its closure. The workers were on the alert for scabs; when the police escorted in a scab, he was booed by the workers but was nevertheless able to enter. At this point, the workers turned on the police and booed them, and the audience joined in the booing. The police then charged the strikers and beat the crowd. Forty strikers were arrested, and one worker, Valentino Modestino, was killed by a stray gunshot while standing on the porch of his house with one of his children in his arms. The police marched their captives down the long center aisle as a crowd of noisy strikers followed, with the audience joining in the cheering and booing.
Episode Three, "The Funeral of Modestino," began with a funeral procession accompanied by a death march. The audience hissed at the policemen leading the march. When the empty coffin was carried in, draped with a red Wobbly flag, the strikers covered it with red carnations, "the crimson symbol of the workers' blood," dropped one by one by the strikers passing the coffin. Reed had obtained the permission of Modestino's family before staging this scene, and the family members watched from a special box in Madison Square Garden. Tresca and Haywood gave the same orations as they did at the actual funeral: Haywood vowed on the blood of the slain man to protect Modestino's widow and children, and Tresca, speaking in Italian, promised blood for blood. Then the funeral procession led the coffin down the center aisle.
This most gloomy episode of the Pageant was followed by the most joyful, the "Mass Meeting at Haledon," which re-created the meeting run every Sunday in the town next to Paterson by a socialist mayor who opened the town to the workers. The performers enacted the regular Sunday program of support for the strikers, and the episode featured singing in Italian, German, and English. All the leaders of the strike spoke, climaxing with Flynn. Haywood called on the strikers to condemn the convictions of Quinlan and Alexander Scott, the editor of the Paterson socialist newspaper, for inciting a riot. The audience assented as readily as the performers, and the episode became a sing-along, with the audience joining with the strikers to sing the "International" and "La Marseillaise." After the episode, Haywood asked for funds to support the strike.
Episode Five was comprised of two parts: "May Day" and "Sending Away the Children." The episode began with a re-creation of the May Day parade, with bands, red flags, and celebration. Then, as they had on May Day, the mothers of Paterson sent away their children to live with "strike mothers" who would take care of the children so "that their parents might go on and fight and starve and struggle unhampered by their little ones." The hundreds of children participating wore red sashes or ties or both. They gave their mothers farewell embraces, and Flynn spoke to the weeping mothers, "dwelling upon the solidarity of labor in this vividly human episode." After Flynn spoke, Haywood took the podium once more to affirm the strike's validity.
In the final episode, "Strike Meeting at Turner Hall," a hall in Paterson closed to the strikers, Tresca, Flynn, and Haywood spoke once again. The strikers debated and passed a measure calling for an eight-hour work day, with the audience joining in the voting. During his speech, Haywood stood at the rear of the stage, facing the audience. The strikers stood on stage in front of him with their backs to the audience, transforming the setting into a vast meeting. Haywood spoke in front of the dead mill, which had loomed over the entire evening. He asked the audience to rise in protest against the conviction of Quinlan. All there did to listen to Big Bill Haywood in full roar.
After the Pageant, all involved agreed that it was an artistic success, but it quickly proved a financial failure. How much it affected the strike is disputed by historians. Flynn believed that the raised expectations among the workers, as well as the action of taking people off the picket lines, weakened the strike. Additionally, Flynn claimed that the casting of some workers over others created jealousy among the ranks of picketers.
The Pageant did succeed in raising consciousness about the strike and the goals of workers. In only one performance, the possibility of raising a significant amount of money above the amount invested was fairly low, although, heady with success, Haywood mentioned that the Pageant might be staged again. However, the community of workers created by the Pageant did not last. Eventually the unity among the workers broke down, as the skilled workers decided that the strike should be settled shop by shop. Once the workers were divided, the employers refused to take back workers except under pre-strike conditions. The failure of the Paterson strike marked, then, a downturn in the fortunes of the IWW in the eastern United States.
(Sources for all of this will be posted later today because you gotta give credit where it's due.)