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Rip in the Silk Industry

Rip in the Silk Industry

America's Great Silk Worker's Strike

Book excerpt

By: William D. Haywood

Date: March 1913

Source: Kornbluh, Joyce, L., ed. Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968.

About the Author: William D. Haywood (1869–1928) was one of the founders of the International Workers of the World (IWW), America's first socialist trade union organization. The IWW, through Haywood and a group of activists that included Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890–1964), took control of the union organizing in support of the Paterson, New Jersey, silk worker's strike that began on January 27, 1913.


In 1913, Paterson, New Jersey, was the center of the American silk manufacturing industry. Known variously as "Silk City" and the "Lyons of America," in reference to the French silk making capital, one-third of Paterson's work force of approximately 75,000 people was engaged in one of three enterprises broadly aligned as the silk trade—the ribbon weavers, the broad silk weavers, and the dye makers. Many of the silk workers were recent immigrants to the United States.

At the heart of the manufacture of silk was the loom, the machine that wove silk thread into fabric. Until about 1890, much of the Paterson silk manufacturing was done on small looms that were often privately owned machines that weavers operated in their own homes. The introduction of large looms was critical to the centralization of silk weaving into factories in Paterson.

By 1912, the wages paid to a typical silk worker had not been increased in twenty years. In both Paterson and the nearby Pennsylvania towns where silk mills were located, poverty was the norm among the families of silk trade workers. Working conditions in the silk mills were difficult, with ten- to twelve-hour days the standard work day.

Further mechanization was on the horizon. In the Paterson factories, each weaver operated two separate looms, but many factories planned to introduce either three-loom or four-loom systems. In January 1913, a four-loom system was first imposed in the silk mill owned by Henry Doherty. His workers attempted to negotiate a solution with Doherty, fearing that the new system would result in widespread unemployment and that wages would further decline. Doherty refused to negotiate with the workers, who then turned to the local office of the International Workers of the World (IWW) for assistance. Eight hundred silk workers from Doherty's mill went on strike on January 27, 1913, setting in motion one of the most contentious and far reaching labor disputes in American history.

Prior to 1912, the prevailing belief among American capitalists was that those businesses with a largely immigrant workforce could never be successfully unionized, since the constituent groups in such workforces were often fractious and divided by old national rivalries. The Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile industry strike of 1912 altered that perception forever, as the IWW organized a union from a workforce comprised of over twenty different worker nationalities. The Lawrence strike had ended favorably for the IWW and the local workers.

In the first days of the Paterson strike, it appeared that the dispute would be confined to the Doherty factory. However, within days, the industry-wide discontent concerning the four-loom system spread throughout the 300 mills in the Paterson silk industry. At the peak of the dispute, as many as 50,000 silk workers were on strike in the region. The IWW advanced a formal platform that sought the abolition of the four-loom system, an eight-hour work day, and increased wages.

By modern standards, the dispute was remarkable for the degree to which public authorities were directed against the striking workers. Accounts vary as to the precise number of silk workers and IWW sympathizers taken into custody during the strike. The most conservative estimates exceed 1,900 persons. Many of those arrested for their part in the demonstrations served ten-day jail sentences. Two strikers were killed during of an altercation with private detectives hired by the mill owners.

For both sides, the strike became a simple war of attrition. By June, 1913, the IWW was staging weekly rallies that attracted thousands of spectators to nearby Haledon, New York, to rouse public sentiment for the strikers and their cause. A pageant was organized in June, 1913, by a group of New York intellectuals who sympathized with the silk worker's cause. The proceeds of the pageant, held at Madison Square Garden, were directed to the relief of the silk workers, most of whom had no other source of income. Given the importance of the silk trade to the city, by June, 1913, the Paterson economy had collapsed.

In July, 1913, a group of ribbon weavers returned to work, and the Paterson strike was soon over. Perceiving that they had an advantage, various mill owners offered to permit their workers to return at their previous wages, on condition that the workers resigned from the IWW.


When the broad silk weavers in Henry Doherty's mill in Paterson, N. J., left their machines last February they inaugurated what has proved to be the closest approach to a general strike that has yet taken place in an American industry.

They revolted against the 3 and 4 loom system which until recently has been confined to the state of Pennsylvania. This system is restricted to the lower grades of silk, messaline and taffeta.

There are almost 300 silk mills in Paterson. Doherty was the first manufacturer to introduce this system there and later it was carried into 26 other mills. The silk workers soon realized that unless this scheme for exploiting them still further was checked, it would in time pervade the entire industry in the Jersey city.

The silk workers of Paterson are the most skilled in the United States and the employers thought that if there was anywhere in the country where this system could be successfully adopted it was in Paterson. They thought that their workers would stand for it. The workers themselves were not consulted, as the manufacturers afterward realized to their sorrow, when a general strike was called embracing the industry in all its branches and extending to all states where silk is manufactured.

At present no less than 50,000 silk workers are on strike in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut, including those in the preparatory processes, the "throwster" mills, dye houses, broad silk making in all grades, as well as in nearly all the ribbon mills.

In many respects this strike is hardly less significant than that at Lawrence. It involves nearly as many workers and the conditions are just as bad. But the Paterson revolt has attracted less public attention than did the woolen fight. This is due to several reasons.

In the first place, the manufacturers, through their control of outside newspapers, were able to bring about a general conspiracy of silence. The New York papers, for example, after the first few days in which they gave prominence to the strike, were warned through subtle sources that unless there was less publicity they would be made to suffer through loss of support and advertising. Then the Paterson strikers were fortunate in having among them several trained veterans in the labor movement, such as Adolph Lessig, Ewald Koettgen, and Louis Magnet, who had been members of the I.W.W. since 1906, and knew what to do towards putting the strike on an organized basis. For a time they were able to take care of themselves without relying much on outside help. Besides, the authorities kept their hands off for a time, after their first fright in which they threw Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Carlo Tresca and later Patrick Quinlan and Alex Scott, the Socialist editor, into jail. These organizers got on the job instantly and have done excellent work.


Paterson is the Lyons of America. It practically has a monopoly in the making of the finer grades of silk in this country. It has 25,400 people engaged in the silk industry and in the manufacture of silk machinery and supplies. Therefore, when practically all these workers came out, the industry was tied up tight.

Fifty-six per cent of the Paterson silk workers are women and children and they have been among the most devoted and enthusiastic strikers.

As this is written, the strike has entered upon its seventh week and the demands of the workers have crystallized around a determination to have the eight-hour day. This will apply to all the workers involved, except the broad silk weavers whose principal demand, as stated, is the abolition of the grinding 3 and 4 loom system.

So greatly have wages been reduced in recent years that the weavers are now demanding the restoration of the 1894 price list which was imposed on them at the time. With the improvements in machinery that have been made, this would be a great advantage to the ribbon weavers. The dye house workers are holding out for a minimum wager of $12 a week. In other branches there is a general demand for a 25 per cent increase in wages.

Present wages, according to the manufacturers' figures, average $9.60 a week. A general call at one of the mass meetings for pay envelopes brought out hundreds which showed the average wage is much lower than this and as all wages are determined by working periods, the actual yearly wage would bring average "earnings" down to $6 or $7 a week.

Paterson manufacturers have an absolute monopoly on the finer grades of silk, like brocades, that are made on the Jacquard loom, and it would be easy for them to raise prices to meet wage increases, but because of the cutthroat competition among them, silk is cheaper, on the whole, than it was 15 years ago. This reduction in price, needless to say, has been taken out of the flesh and blood of the workers.


The big capitalists have never tried to enter the silk trade, because it deals with a luxury. They are too busy securing their grip on the necessities of life, like food, clothing, steel, transportation, etc.

The Paterson workers, then, have not had to fight a concentrated trust, such as existed at Lawrence, but a gang of scattered employers, all jealous and fearful of each other. The strike undoubtedly would have ended much sooner had it not been for the desire of the richer manufacturers to see the smaller makers starved out and driven into bankruptcy, which already has occurred to a number of them.

The manufacturers as a whole have used as any excuse for not raising wages the plea that they cannot afford it on account of Pennsylvania's competition. But this is untrue, because the Pennsylvania mills are controlled largely by the same interests that center in Paterson.

The Pennsylvania silk mills are situated generally in mining camps and industrial centers where the wages of the men have been so reduced that women and children have been compelled to seek employment in the mills. Ninety-one percent of the workers in the Pennsylvania silk mills are women and children.

Wages in the Pennsylvania silk mills average much less than in New Jersey and it is a peculiar fact that the men get less than the women. The men get $6.06 a week while the women are making $7.01.

There are six prominent processes in the making of silk and they are usually done in different establishments. "Throwing" is largely done in Pennsylvania—reeling the raw silk as it comes from cocoon, etc. The dyeing is done in separate factories.…


In this connection it is worth while to relate an incident—one of the most dramatic of the strike. The Paterson bosses lost no time in injecting the "patriotic" issue, after the fashion of Lawrence, Little Falls and Akron. The red flag, they howled, stood for blood, murder and anarchy—the Star Spangled Banner must be upheld, etc., etc. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was on the platform at a big strike meeting one day explaining the significance of the red flag when a striking dyer sprang up from the middle of the audience crying: "I know! Here is the red flag!"

And aloft he held his right hand—stained a permanent bloody crimson, gnarled from years of toil, and corroded by the scarlet dye which it was his business to put into the fabrics worn by the dainty lady of the capitalist class as well as by the fawning prostitute.

For an instant there was silence and then the hall was rent by cries from the husky throats as all realized this humble dyer indeed knew the meaning of the red badge of his class.

Ribbon weaving is largely done by men and women. In this department the bosses have developed a speeding up system with reductions in pay, overlooking no opportunity to introduce improved machinery. Thus they increase production, at the same time they lowered the pay, until the workers are now demanding a scale which 19 years ago was imposed upon them! That is, the weavers now ask a wage that prevailed two decades ago.

The significance of this demand makes it plain that in the evolution of industry and the introduction of new machinery the workers have obtained no benefit, while the bosses have reaped ever increasing profits.

Many children are employees in the silk industry, most of them being between the ages of 14 and 16. However, there are few violations of the child labor law, not because the manufacturers care anything about either the law or the children, but because the making of high grade silk requires the careful and efficient work that only adults can give. However, the Paterson capitalists have begun to set up plants in the southern states as well as in the mining regions of Pennsylvania, installing there new style looms which can be operated by girls and children.


One of the best and most enthusiastic meetings held during the strike was that for the benefit of the children of the mills. They packed Turner Hall and listened eagerly and with appreciation as speakers outlined to them the development in the manufacture of silk from the cocoon to the completed fabric lying on the shelves of the rich department store.

The strike has been viciously fought from the very beginning. The usual combination of press, pulpit and police has labored both openly and secretly to weaken it and break it, but without avail. For seven weeks the Paterson newspapers have delivered screams of rage and fury day after day. They have not hesitated to urge any measure that might break the strike, from tar-and-feathers to murder. Day after day in big, black headlines in their front pages they have demanded that the "I.W.W. blatherskites" be driven out of town. They have constantly incited the police to violence and urged the authorities to take "drastic measures." All in vain. On the day this is written the leading organ of the manufacturers admits that the police, the administration and the courts have been helpless and it now begs the workers themselves to "drive the I.W.W. out of town," promising that if they will organize into "a decent, dignified, American union," the whole city will demand that the bosses give them the conditions for which they ask.


Despite this, another paper admits in its editorial columns that Paterson after all ought to be thankful. "Though 25,000 people have been on strike here for seven weeks," it says, "there has been remarkably little violence."

As was the case in Lawrence, nearly every nationality on earth is represented in the strike. The Italians and Germans are the most numerous, with thousands of Russians, Poles, Hungarians and Armenians besides. Shoulder to shoulder they have stood, with a spirit and loyalty that nothing could break or weaken. For seven long weeks they have held out and in place of food many of them have simply taken up another link in their belts and drunk a glass of water. Some relief money has come in but not enough to help any except the most needy cases.

Incidents without number could be given to show the spirit of self sacrifice and devotion among the Paterson workers. The jail has had no terrors for them, since accommodations there are hardly worse than in the "homes" they are compelled to live in. On occasions when the police have started wholesale arrests they have vied with each other in placing themselves in the hands of the "bulls." One day when the police gathered in more than 200 of them, they refused to walk to jail but demanded the patrol wagon. When the police pleaded that the patrol wagon would hold only a few at a time, they said they would wait! And the patrol wagon the police were compelled to get, making trip after trip to the jail while the arrested strikers stood in a group and laughed and sang.

The meetings we have held have been wonders. Day after day strikers have crowded into Turner and Helvetia Halls with enthusiasm just as rampant as on the first day of the strike and on the Sundays when the Socialist city of Haledon is visited, at the invitation of Socialist Mayor William Brueckmann, for open air meetings, it has seemed as if the whole population of the northern part of New Jersey was present. To speak at such meetings is worth a whole lifetime of agitation.


When William Haywood wrote "The Rip in the Silk Industry" in 1913, he was arguably the most experienced and battle-hardened union organizer in American history. "Big Bill" Haywood spent fifteen years organizing Idaho and Colorado miners in an atmosphere that was one of open warfare between owners and workers. In 1907, Haywood was charged with the murder of the former governor of Idaho, who had acted aggressively against the miners while in office. Haywood was subsequently acquitted in one of the most famous trials in American legal history, with Clarence Darrow leading his defense.

Given Haywood's experiences, his article is remarkable on a number of levels. Haywood adopts the measured and persuasive tone of an advocate, not the call to arms of a stereotypical union firebrand. He presents the Paterson strikers case with a mixture of local economic statistics and concrete examples of owner- and state-sponsored wrongdoing. Haywood states that the Paterson strike is a virtual general strike of 50,000 workers, a claim that was reasonably square to the facts. The strike is only seven weeks old at the time of Haywood's writing; Haywood clearly believes that the strikers, and his International Workers of the World, are not only determined to win the strike, they are taking the first steps towards a better life for the Paterson silkworkers.

The non-violent approach of the Paterson strikers is noteworthy in what would become a desperate struggle by June, 1913. The concept of strike funds or other relief payments to striking workers was unknown at the time, and since over 1,900 strikers or other protestors were ultimately arrested and jailed for illegal picketing or related demonstrations, heightened emotions and overt violence might otherwise have been expected.

The Paterson strike followed the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textiles strike in 1912, a dispute in which the workers were led by the IWW. The IWW had achieved a measure of victory in Lawrence and sought to apply the same tactics of non-violence and persistent, sometimes strident advocacy of their cause to secure public support. Much of the IWW success in Lawrence had turned on its ability to successfully organize immigrant workers from a number of different backgrounds and cultures. Those organizing tactics were refined in Paterson, whose silkworkers were of similarly diverse backgrounds.

The Paterson strike was also significant in establishing Elizabeth Gurley Flynn as a force within both organized labor and other types of social activism. Flynn was twenty-two years old when the strike began, and she was one of the most passionate of its leaders. Flynn made many speeches at the IWW-sponsored rallies held in support of the strikers in nearby Haledon, New York, in the spring of 1913. These events served to both attract thousands of spectators, as well as to publicize the strike and its issues to the broader public.

The workers' demand for a shorter work day was expressed by the phrase, eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours of pleasure. The Paterson workers would ultimately receive their eight-hour work day in 1919. However, the mill owners in Paterson would work over the next two decades to relocate their factories away from Paterson and its perceived militant labor force.

The Paterson strike represented a convergence of disparate forces into the union cause that was unique in American history to that time. The Paterson silk workers, whose concerns were primarily economic, gained the support of both the socialist IWW, as well as that of a group broadly described as the Greenwich Village intellectual class. Margaret Sanger, a registered nurse who would later advocate birth control and public sexual education, was a member of that intellectual class. When Flynn organized temporary housing in New York and Boston for hundreds of the strikers' children, to help the strikers cope with their diminished financial resources during the strike, Sanger was a prime mover in securing accommodation for the children.

The Paterson strike ended badly for the IWW. The strikers returned to work after almost five months of unemployment and they received very little in the way of concessions from the mill owners. The mill owners, fearful of another crippling strike, did not implement the four-loom system for another ten years. The failure of the IWW in Paterson foreshad-owed the general decline of the union. By 1920, the IWW was a spent force. Flynn went on to become one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union. Haywood was charged with sabotaging the American war effort in 1918, and he fled to Russia while on bail in 1921. He died in Moscow in 1928.



Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley. The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography. New York: New York University Press, 1955.

Golin, Steve. The Fragile Bridge: Paterson Silk Strike, 1913. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Web sites

PBS. "The American Experience: The Paterson Silk Strike of 1913." <> (accessed May 19, 2006).

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