FEW PEOPLE ARE STILL AROUND TO REMEMBER, BUT IN 1926, IN PASSAIC NEW JERSEY, 16 THOUSAND WOOLWORKERS STRUCK THE MILLS AFTER THEIR MEAGER WAGES HAD BEEN CUT. THE STRIKE LASTED NEARLY A YEAR. SUPPORTERS ACROSS THE NATION SENT MONEY AND FOOD.
MARTHA STONE ASHER:
At one time these strikers who were handling a big truck filled with food were stopped by the police, and they arrested him and they arrested all the bread! ? . And it became a big issue among the strikers until the bread was freed. (She laughs.) That?s how they talked about it.
THE 19 TWENTIES ROARED ALRIGHT, BUT NOT THE WAY MOST PEOPLE THINK. COMING UP AFTER THE NEWS, A DOCUMENTARY: PASSAIC ON STRIKE!
THE FOLLOWING PROGRAM IS A CO-PRODUCTION OF NJN PUBLIC RADIO AND THE NEW JERSEY HISTORICAL COMMISSION. FUNDING FOR THIS PROGRAM WAS PROVIDED BY THE NEW JERSEY COUNCIL FOR THE HUMANITIES, A STATE PARTNER OF THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES, AND THE HISTORICAL COMMISSION. THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN THIS PROGRAM DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THOSE OF THE COUNCIL, THE HISTORICAL COMMISSION OR NEW JERSEY NETWORK.
Street ambiance. Crowd scene. Milling crowd, a bit threatening. At a distance. Car doors being slammed. A tiny little bit of talking.
JOHN DOS PASSOS:
At the place where the meeting was going to be forbidden the people from New York got out of the shiny sedans of various makes.
The sheriff was a fat man with a badge like a star off a Christmas tree, ? The cops were waving their clubs about, limbering up their arms .?
?All right move ?em along,? said the sheriff.
? The people who had come from New York climbed back into the shiny sedans of various makes and drove away. The procession went back the way it had come, down empty streets ? past endless facades of deserted mills, past brick tenements with ill-painted stoops, past groups of squat square women with yellow gray faces, groups of men and boys, standing still, saying nothing, looking nowhere, square hands hanging at their sides, people square and still, chunks of yellow gray stone at the edge of a quarry, idle, waiting, on strike. John Dos Passos.
[BRING UP MUSIC AND LYRICS]:
Every morning, every evening, ain?t we got fun,
Not much money, oh but honey, ain?t we got fun.
[Bring down the music under Dee Garrison.]
Well, the nineteen twenties is presented as a time of gayety and short skirts and short hair and lots of women dancing around Like, people were supposed to have had money and fun ?. But the reality of the twenties is that it was a very huge gap between the rich and the poor.
[Bring up music and lyrics again.]
There?s nothing purer, the rich get richer and the poor get children.
In the meantime, inbetween time, ain?t we got fun.
THE 1920?S ROARED ALRIGHT, WITH THE SIREN OF INJUSTICE. THE RED SCARE, LYNCHINGS, AND THE LABOR WARS?
NOWHERE WAS THIS BATTLE, BETWEEN THE HAVES AND HAVE NOTS MORE BRUTAL THAN IN PASSAIC, NEW JERSEY 15 MILES WEST OF MANHATTAN. HERE, IN 1926, 16 THOUSAND WOOLWORKERS WALKED OUT AFTER THEIR MEAGER WAGES HAD BEEN CUT 10%. IT WAS A LONG STRIKE ? NEARLY A YEAR. AND IT CAUGHT THE ATTENTION OF INTELLECTUALS AND ACTIVISTS NATIONWIDE. OVER THE HARSH WINTER OF 1926, PASSAIC BECAME A BATTLEGROUND, NOT JUST BETWEEN WORKERS AND BOSSES, BUT BETWEEN THE TRADITIONAL TRADE UNIONS AND A RENEGADE ORGANIZER IN THE AMERICAN COMMUNIST PARTY, WHO ENVISIONED A MILITANT, INDUSTRIAL UNION FOR ALL WORKERS.
NOW THE STORY OF?.PASSAIC ON STRIKE!
I was born in Passaic. I lived either in Passaic or in Clifton ? most of my life.
[Eastern European music begins.]
THE LATE JAMES SHENTON WAS A LEGENDARY HISTORIAN AND TEACHER AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY. HE ONCE RECALLED THAT IMMIGRANT CULTURE WAS SO STRONG IN PASSAIC, NEW JERSEY. IT WAS LIKE LIVING IN EASTERN EUROPE.
My grandmother ? who came in 1878 and died in 1931 -- never learned to speak English. She didn?t have to. She could speak Hungarian, because that was part of the fact of being born in Hungary, Slovak ? if you know Slovak, you more or less know Czech ? you knew Polish. She picked up German. By the time she got here, she knew enough languages that English was sort of an impediment. In a way, it becomes a world in which the stalla babbas ? the old women ? the old grandmas ? wearing the babushkas -- was part of the normal life of this town. ? My mother?s family came from ? the area of Slovakia which is called the Spis area. This was an area that had apparently some kind of influx of Germans, and it was an area of what was then the Kingdom of Hungary in which wool production was an aspect of their daily lives.
IN PASSAIC DAILY LIFE WAS DOMINATED BY TWO WOOLEN MILLS
-- THE BOTANY AND THE FORSTMANN AND HUFFMANN, BOTH GERMAN OWNED. IN 1890 CONGRESS HAD PASSED A TARIFF THAT MADE IT PROHIBITIVELY EXPENSIVE TO IMPORT WOOL, SO THE GERMANS OPENED MILLS HERE.
When World War One began, the Alien Custodian Commission seized control of the factories that were German-owned,
NARRATOR: AGAIN, JAMES SHENTON.
and who exactly was put in charge? American officers.
When World War One ended, Colonel Charles Johnston, who had been in charge of the Botany Woolen Mills, effectively began fighting to gain control. The Germans began fighting for regaining control, and this began to reflect itself in working conditions. The working class got caught in between in these fights. Wages began to come down, and this is where it gets really uneasy. The Bolshevik element came in. And the CP became a fact of life in this area.
[The Red Army singing The Internationale.]
IN THE WAKE OF THE 1917 BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION IN RUSSIA, THE FLEDGLING COMMUNIST PARTY IN AMERICA, THE CP, OFFERED AN ALTERNATE VISION FOR THE WORKING CLASS IN PASSAIC. TO THE UNASSIMILATED IMMIGRANTS, COMMUNISM WAS NOT A FRIGHTENING FOREIGN IDEOLOGY, RATHER A WAY TO GAIN CONTROL OF THEIR LIVES. THE RED SCARE DIDN?T SCARE THEM.
There was a tremendous wave of government-inspired, but also conservative, propaganda ?
PAUL BUHLE, SENIOR LECTURER IN AMERICAN CIVILIZATION AT BROWN UNIVERSITY.
under which the Russian Revolution, for instance, was described as having nationalized women, and which the atheistic quality of the new Russian leadership was played up as an attack on God. And through which all respectable, God-fearing and monogamous Americans were told that they had to resist Communism, because otherwise there would be God-less triumph and no sexual morality. ?
MANY YOUTHFUL AMERICAN IDEALISTS WHOSE SYMPATHIES LAY WITH LOW-PAID WORKERS DIDN?T BUY THE RED SCARE, EITHER. SOME JOINED THE YOUNG COMMUNIST LEAGUE.
Ah, yes. It had a following among young people in their teens and in their early twenties -- mostly in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and so on ? that was absolutely idealistic and willing and eager to do anything ? to travel anywhere, to take any personal risk, and very frequently these were young women.
II. VERA AND ALBERT (7:25)
[Sounds of a steam-powered railroad train coming to a stop]
For me the historic Passaic strike began one evening in December 1925, as I was westward bound from New York on a train of the Erie Railroad.
VERA BUCH, A YOUNG ACTIVIST LIVING IN CALDWELL, NEW JERSEY, WAS DRAWN TO THE CAUSE. THERE ARE NO KNOWN RECORDINGS OF HER STORY. SHE DIED IN 1987. BUT SHE WROTE A MEMOIR.
This time I was not headed for Caldwell ?, but for Passaic, one of the many small industrial towns of northern New Jersey. As we jogged over the Jersey Meadows, a vast, barren, swampy tract, little inhabited and bisected by the Hackensack River, all of it now smothered in evening mist, I was feeling a certain trepidation.
BUCH HAD BEEN RECRUITED BY BERT MILLER, A COMMUNIST PARTY ORGANIZER IN NEW YORK CITY. SHE WAS ON HER WAY TO SEE A YOUNG HARVARD LAW GRADUATE NAMED ALBERT WEISBORD, WHO WAS ORGANIZING THE WOOLEN WORKERS IN PASSAIC.
Albert Weisbord met me at the station. As we walked down Main Avenue, with just a quick appraising glance at me, he plunged at once into an exposition of what seemed to be his dominating interest. He talked fast, a sort of machine-gun fire. Though he appeared tired, as if from lack of sleep, he was nonetheless vigorous and his concentration was intense
[Faint sound of a harmonica. David Rapkin, playing ?Joe Hill?]
In the little office some workingmen were playing checkers in one corner, while in another a slim, dark-eyed youth softly drew a tune out of a harmonica.
THE HARMONICA PLAYER WAS MIKE ELASIK, A LOCAL STRIKE LEADER FROM PASSAIC WHO SHOWED VERA AROUND A TOWN THAT WAS ABOUT TO BECOME A PART OF LABOR HISTORY?
Mike Elasik and I crossed the railroad tracks, at once entering the mill section of town. ... The dingy, two- or three-storied frame buildings were dark, and complete silence prevailed as though everyone were already asleep.
Soon we came to a bridge over a river. Here a raw wind swept down the valley. I shivered in my winter coat. ? The city behind us cast a faint glow over the sky; the water shimmered vaguely. Here the mills were all around us near and far, up and down the river.
?Forstmann-Huffmann, big rich company,? said Mike, pointing to a huge structure not far away, lighted by floodlights on the lawn in front. ?They have other big mills in Garfield,? pointing in another direction. ?Here is Botany Worsted Mill. I work here. Father, Mother also. Mother works on night shift. ??
[Sound effects growing in intensity. Build to a climax.]
It appeared to be a big complex of buildings of different sizes, some lighted, some dark. In one immense building windows were all alight. The whole structure throbbed with life, looms crashed and wheels whirred, all blending in an incessant pounding rhythm, like some giant heart, permeating the winter night.
MILL WORKER MIKE ELISIAK SHOWED VERA BUCH THE INDUSTRIAL LANDSCAPE. ORGANIZER ALBERT WEISBORD PUT HER TO WORK -- ASKED HER WHETHER SHE?D BE WILLING TO TEACH AN ENGLISH CLASS FOR THE WORKERS. SHE AGREED TO COME BACK TO PASSAIC THE FOLLOWING WEEK -? AND TO HAVE SUPPER WITH WEISBORD.
[Sounds of people eating in a Chinese restaurant]
Now I found myself opposite Organizer Weisbord at a little table in a Chinese restaurant?There was a suggestion of suppressed passion in his heavy eyelids and in the softness of his voice.
We talked chiefly of our backgrounds. What I said had to be in words pushed in edgewise whenever there might be a pause in his almost unceasing flow of speech. I told him of my home life, my Puritan background, my long struggle with tuberculosis. When he heard I had joined the Communist Party among the first, had been briefly in the underground and also in the IWW, I could see some hint of respect from him.
ALBERT WEISBORD, WHO WOULD COME TO LEAD THE PASSAIC WOOL WORKERS STRIKE, WAS BORN IN NEW YORK CITY, DECEMBER 9, 1900, OF RUSSIAN-JEWISH PARENTS. AT CITY COLLEGE, HE JOINED THE BROOKLYN BRANCH OF THE SOCIALIST PARTY. BY 1920 HE?D BECOME AN ORGANIZER, ATTENDING STREET CORNER RALLIES, AND DISTRIBUTING LITERATURE. ALL ALONG HE CONTINUED TO WORK IN HIS FATHER?S GARMENT FACTORY, WHICH HAD NO UNION.
During the times I was working packing shoulder pads for delivery I would make some effort to urge the workers to organize and to improve their poor conditions. When word of this reached my father he grew very angry accusing me of being ungrateful and disloyal. But I told him it was a matter of principle with me. ? I left home not to see the family again for 12 years.
WEISBORD PUT HIMSELF THROUGH HARVARD LAW SCHOOL, NOT SO MUCH TO PRACTICE LAW, HE LATER WROTE, AS TO STUDY HOW LAWS RESULT FROM SOCIAL FORCES. MEANWHILE, HE WAS RISING IN THE YOUNG PEOPLE?S SOCIALIST LEAGUE -- ELECTED SECRETARY. HE FOUND HIMSELF IN THE LEADERSHIP OF SOCIALIST PARTY. BUT WHEN HE FAILED TO CONVINCE THE S.P TO ORGANIZE MILITANT UNIONS, HE QUIT.
I had become convinced that my place was with the actual working class, not with the S.P. ? I gave up my old associates and joined the communist Workers Party in Boston ?
? I was concerned with testing myself whether I had really broken from my petty-bourgeois past and was fit to call myself a communist. The only way I could test myself was to immerse myself in the working class. To get a job in a factory. Here I would find myself. ?
FIRST, WEISBORD WORKED AT A SILK MILL IN NEW ENGLAND, THEN MOVED TO, NEW JERSEY TO BECOME A WEAVER IN PATERSON. WHEN THE SILK WORKERS IN WEST NEW YORK, NEW JERSEY, WENT ON STRIKE, WEISBORD WAS THERE.
BUT THAT STRIKE WAS SMALL AND SHORT-LIVED COMPARED TO ONE THAT LOOMED ON THE HORIZON.
III. STRIKE! STRIKE! (13:39)
ON SEPTEMBER 25, 1925, THE MANAGEMENT OF THE HUGE BOTANY WOOL MILLS IN NEARBY PASSAIC ANNOUNCED A TEN PERCENT WAGE CUT. OTHER MILLS FOLLOWED SUIT. IN OCTOBER, 350 WORKERS WALKED OUT OF THE PASSAIC WORSTED AND SPINNING COMPANY. ALBERT WEISBORD LEFT WEST NEW YORK AND HEADED FOR PASSAIC.
The first thing was to get some contacts and learn the true situation first hand. The Party did have a Hungarian Workers Club in Passaic, part of the Hungarian Federation. Here I met Gus Deak who, as a young mill worker, represented exactly the kind I wanted to take leadership. The Hungarian workers readily agreed to arrange a mass meeting for me and help distribute flyers. ? They were able to get Neibauer's Hall for a meeting which I addressed. Hundreds came to sign up for the union.
WEISBORD?S UNITED FRONT COMMITTEE IN PASSAIC WAS BECOMING A UNION. HE ASKED FOR PARTY HELP IN ORGANIZING THE MASS MEETING. BUT OFFICIAL COMMUNIST POLICY ? GOING BACK TO LENIN - WAS TO BORE FROM WITHIN: TO RADICALIZE EXISTING UNIONS, NOT CREATE COMPETING ONES. NO ?DUAL UNIONISM.? NONETHELESS, HIS ALLY IN NEW YORK, BURT MILLER, AGREED TO HELP.
Now I went back to New York to get a prominent speaker for the big mass meeting to follow. We agreed on Benjamin Gitlow, a good plain speaker who had just come out of Dannemora State Prison on appeal and who was available. ?
The mass meeting in Passaic was a rousing success, but it was about the last time we were to see Gitlow in Passaic. Nor did we ever see Foster, or Cannon, or Lovestone, or any of the "bigs" in Passaic. Some of them were in Moscow, others wanted to "wait and see" before participat-ing. Miller, however, did furnish the money for the membership cards and for opening up a headquarters on Main Street ?
UNDER WEISBORD?S LEADERSHIP, THE STRIKE COMMITTEE GREW, SO DID TENSIONS INSIDE THE LARGEST MILL, THE BOTANY, WHICH WAS STILL OPERATING. WHEN A WORKER WAS FIRED FOR BEING A MEMBER OF THE UNION, A COMMITTEE OF THREE WENT TO THE MILL?S MANAGER, COLONEL CHARLES F. H. JOHNSON, TO DEMAND THAT THE WORKER GET HIS JOB BACK. JOHNSON REFUSED AND DECLARED ALL MEMBERS OF THE UNION WOULD BE FIRED.
On Monday, January 25th, a committee not of three but of forty-five went to see Johnson and not to beg for reinstatement but to present their demands ? The whole scene was carefully prepared in advance as were the demands. At a given time, all delegates stopped their machines and went from room to room, in a very impressive manner, gathering themselves together into a committee to go to see the management. All the workers quit work to see what would happen. The air was tense. Each moment was an hour.
The committee presented their demands and found the management ruthless. All were fired and told to leave by the front gate. Chief of Police Zober and many policemen were there to see that the workers got out quickly. But the committee had rehearsed and was prepared for the whole event. With a burst of force they flung the police aside. Into every room they scattered with cries of STRIKE! STRIKE!
NOW THE STRIKE WAS TRULY GAINING MOMENTUM. ACCORDING TO VERA BUCH, IT WAS WEISBORD?S PASSIONATE LEADERSHIP AND THE GROWING SENSE OF SOLIDARITY.
? One by one the mills were brought out by picket lines of the workers already on strike. On Wednesday, January 27, the Garfield Worsted Mill; on January 30 the Passaic Worsted Spinning Mill; and the next week on February 6, the big Gera Mill, followed by the New Jersey Spinning Company. Now, with a permit obtained from a surprised chief of police, a great parade of all these strikers marched past an amazed city population. ?
NEXT, THE PASSAIC WOOL WORKERS DECIDED TO TAKE ON THE POWERFUL FORSTMANN-HUFFMANN COMPANY, WHICH OWNED THREE MILLS.
The workers in F-H had not yet received wage cuts; they were on the ?hunger treatment,? that is, they were working part time, a situation which, as they learned by experience, often preceded wage cuts. With their spirits broken, the workers would not resist the cuts when they came. Forstmann-Huffmann had a company union called ?The Assembly,? the chief purpose of which was to keep the workers obedient to the company. This did not prevent a good number of people from the largest F-H mill, which employed four thousand, from joining the United Front Committee. ?
The frantic bosses were determined to stop the ever-onward march of the workers. On Monday police mounted on horse and motorcycles appeared. "Terror Week" had started.
[Sounds of strikers marching and chanting]
To reach the biggest of the F-H mills, located in nearby Garfield, it was necessary to cross the Ackerman Avenue Bridge over the Passaic River.
Having been briefed to expect trouble, the workers braced themselves. The strongest forces had been mobilized; the entire strike committee headed the march. Newspapers from the whole metropolitan area had been notified so that reporters and cameramen were ready at the bridge.
THE CROWD GREW TO 3,000. ON THE CLIFTON SIDE OF THE PASSAIC RIVER, THE POLICE HEADED OFF THE STRIKERS BEFORE THEY COULD CROSS THE BRIDGE AND REACH THE FORSTMANN HOFFMANN MILL. SUDDENLY, FOUR MOTORCYCLE PATROLMEN ROARED UP. SOME BOYS PELTED THEM WITH SNOWBALLS; AND WOMEN SHOUTED INSULTS. THE POLICE DREW THEIR CLUBS AND CHARGED INTO THE CROWD.
DEMONSTRATORS ATTEMPTED TO FLEE THE SWINGING CLUBS.
CLIFTON CAPTAIN OF DETECTIVES ANTHONY BATTELLO ORDERED HIS MEN TO PREVENT THE NEWSPAPER PHOTOGRAPHERS FROM TAKING PICTURES OF THE MELEE. AGAIN, VERA BUCH.
Many of the casualties came into the office that day with bleeding head wounds, or limping, or holding an arm or shoulder bruised by the clubs. At the mass meeting that evening one of the most severely beaten strikers was up on the platform. When he took off his shirt to expose his broad upper back, completely covered with black and blue marks, a shudder and a groan went through the ranks. Some wept. The town, the New York area, and the entire country were horrified when the pictures were released showing the police wielding their clubs on defenseless strikers. ?
IV. THE STRIKE BULLETIN (20:40)
IN THE NATIONAL SPOTLIGHT, THE STRIKERS NOW HIRED MARY HEATON VORSE, THE FOREMOST LABOR JOURNALIST OF THE DAY, TO TELL THEIR SIDE OF THE STORY. SHE BEGAN PUBLISHING A STRIKE NEWSPAPER. HISTORIAN DEE GARRISON OF RUTGERS UNIVERSITY.
G:10:13 ? It was called The Textile Workers Bulletin and it was published every week ? sometimes even more often ? and it is so important historically because it represents an entirely new kind of union tactic in appealing, not writing just to the workers ? not just talking among strike leaders ? an appeal to the wider public ? and it did. And it was also given worldwide, international kind of attention. And that -- it was beautifully written, of course. She was a fabulous writer.
IN A MARCH ISSUE OF THE TEXTILE STRIKE BULLETIN, MARY HEATON VORSE WROTE A PORTRAIT OF ONE OF THE STRIKERS. IT WAS TITLED: ?MRS. BREZNAC AND THE PICKET LINE.?
MARY HEATON VORSE:
She never misses picket lines. You always see her tramping sturdily along, a short, powerful figure, broad shouldered, deep breasted, a heavy built woman, strong. Her mouth is a determined line. Her nose juts out obstinately. Her eyes are two bright sparkling points. Humor and intelligence are in them and often indignation and anger. She never misses a meeting. After the meeting you could see her in the hall talking. Maybe, she's telling about what happened on the picket line, Maybe she's telling how her husband first made 15 cents an hour and pretty soon that is all the workers will be getting if they don?t win the strike.
Round and round she's always at strike meetings at night. She is a delegate of the United Front Committee from the Botany Mills. In some way she embodies the spirit of the strike more than any one person. Strong, powerful, persistent and is fortified with the indignation of years. That is Mrs. Anna Breznac. She is not an individual. She embodies the working mothers whose slow anger is now kindled.
Well, she brought the strike alive. She brought the people alive.
AGAIN, PROFESSOR DEE GARRISON.
. .. and remember she also had all those ties to Greenwich Village groups. ? She was able to bring into Passaic literally, physically, many of these New York intelligentsia and artists and writers. ... She loved to take some rich or upper class or middle class intellectual into a home in Passaic ? the worker?s home ? where there were no windows, where it was literally dark constantly, where 16 people often lived in one room in the family, and when you see that, you know, you don?t forget it.
V. WORKERS RELIEF (23:41)
AS THE STRIKING WOOLWORKERS STRUGGLED THROUGH THE COLD WINTER OF 1926, MANY BEGAN TO RUN SHORT OF FOOD AND FUEL. BUT THE PUBLICITY TRIGGERED A FLOW OF MONEY AND RELIEF SUPPLIES THROUGH THE COMMUNIST PARTY?S WORKERS INTERNATIONAL RELIEF ORGANIZATION. ALBERT WEISBORD LATER REFLECTED -- WITH SOME AMBIVALENCE -- THAT THE PARTY MUST HAVE RAISED A MILLION DOLLARS?
? over half of this was siphoned off for Party use. So long as these funds were used, if only in part, to pay all the union's bills, I really had no objection that the Party was the major beneficiary, since it and it alone could have mounted the campaign?. could use the money for the organization of the unorganized in other places. But of course this was not the intention of the Party leadership at all. What they found was a bonanza for them that could help them mightily in their factional struggles.
IF HALF THE RELIEF WAS DIVERTED; THE OTHER HALF GOT TO THE HUNGRY STRIKERS.
MARTHA STONE ASHER:
A-6:10 - Well, the food was brought in from out of town.
AT AGE 16, MARTHA STONE ASHER, WAS ONE OF A HANDFUL OF IDEALISTIC YOUNG NEW YORKERS WHO CAME TO HELP THE STRIKING PASSAIC WOOL WORKERS. SHE?S NOW 95 YEARS OLD AND LIVES IN CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA.
Bakers, you know, donated food. And other places ? larger places ? produced food - made donations. And that was just tremendous. And in fact at one time these strikers who were handling a big truck filled with food were stopped by the police, and they arrested him and they arrested all the bread! ? The men were driving the truck ? I don?t have their names ? were you know released after bond was put up for them, they were released. But the question of getting the bread out was big problem. And it became a big issue among the strikers until the bread was freed. (She laughs.) That?s how they talked about it. And they were then able to distribute it to the ? there were then about seven stations as I recall. I might not be right about the number.
Now a change took place in my own status in the strike.
AGAIN, THE WORDS OF VERA BUCH.
One day I went to visit the soup kitchen for the strikers? children, run by the Council of Workingclass Housewives, a group of Jewish women, residents of Passaic, most of them members of the Workers Party. They were giving hours of their time daily, canvassing stores to get donations of food, and preparing a hearty soup or stew which with bread and milk provided one good mean a day for the strikers? children. It occurred to me this work should be done by the women strikers. I reported the idea to Albert, who concurred and made arrangements for me to contact the women at the picket station. Although my little speech was amateurish enough, the women responded at once, a good number coming out to a meeting to get the work organized? It looked as though the women had only been waiting for a chance to apply their creative energies... I trained the women to run their own meetings. I insisted that each one had to take her turn at being chairwoman. Many would hesitate, object; these work-worn women, mothers of families would even cry. I insisted, ?If you can?t speak English, do it in Polish, or Italian, or whatever.?
The women marched shoulder to shoulder with the men on the picket line and were in the heart of all activities of the union.
The strike freed the women the worst enslaved of all. They were made to feel the breath of life that a union puts into their beings. Special clubs were formed attached to the national organization of the United Council of Working Class Women. Not only the women strikers, but the wives of the men, were drawn into the struggle through these women's clubs. It was the women who managed the children's kitchens and did the thousand and one strike duties necessary to be performed. These "backward peasants," as the labor traitors would say, became the greatest strike enthusiasts of all.
MARTHA STONE ASHER:
Yes, there was one woman who walked through a crowd when the police were trying to hold her up, you know,
AGAIN MARTHA STONE ASHER...
and she walked with her child and bypassed the police and came to the head of the line. And every striker had their heart in their mouths. They were afraid that they would just shoot at her. But it never happened. And she walked successfully through the crowd of pickets and placed herself at the head of the line, pushing her carriage with the baby in it.
VI. THE SILENT MOVIE (29:06)
[Sounds of the movie projector starting up]
THE STRIKERS KNEW THEIR STORY HAD THE POWER TO MOVE PEOPLE EMOTIONALLY. WHILE MARY HEATON VORSE WAS WRITING THE TEXTILE WORKERS BULLETIN, STRIKERS COMMISSIONED A FILM TO SPREAD THE WORD, SILENTLY. IT WAS CALLED: THE PASSAIC TEXTILE STRIKE
[Sound up and down]
THE MOVIE STILL EXISTS. PROFESSIONAL FILMAKERS BEGAN THE PROJECT, BUT IT WAS COMPLETED BY A RADICAL GROUP WHO LATER WOULD FORM THE FILM AND PHOTO LEAGUE WHICH MADE PROPAGANDA FILMS IN THE 30S. THE FILM ENDED UP HALF MELODRAMA, HALF DOCUMENTARY. IT CONTAINS GRAPHIC FOOTAGE OF THE POLICE BEATING UP THE STRIKERS. IN THE FICTIONALIZED SEGMENTS, THE BOSS IS PORTRAYED NOT ONLY AS A MISER BUT A LECHER. DOCUMENTARY FILM HISTORIAN STEVE KRINSKY?
What?s interesting about the film they made is that it was really an attempt kind of to harness the power of silent movies, which in the early days of the twentieth century was the most powerful medium imaginable to people at the time. You know, that was the era of movie palaces and the big Hollywood productions. And people on the Left ? particularly in Europe ? recognized that that power was something important to recognize and be part of. In a sense, the American Left came to this very late. The Europeans ? particularly the Russians and the Germans ? almost immediately ? certainly right after the Russian Revolution ? people like Eisenstein and many others did some incredibly creative things with cinema as part of the social movements of their time and place.
THE PASSAIC TEXTILE STRIKE FILM REACHED AUDIENCES FROM THE EAST COAST TO THE MIDWEST, MAINLY INDUSTRIAL CITIES AND TOWNS ACCORDING TO STEVE KRINSKY.
The film was shown six times in two days in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a shoe-production town, running alongside two comedies and a newsreel.
It was often shown alongside Russian films brought over from the revolutionary country. According to news reports in Haverhill, ?Workers from this city packed the Lafayette Theater last night.? ? In Boston, blocks of tickets were bought by the Jewish Bakers Union, the Photo-Engravers Unions, the Billposters Union, and locals of carpenters, painters, and engineers. In New York City, it was shown at the New Waldorf Theater ?Continuous Performances from Two to Eleven.? The ad for the screening notes that quote ?the picture of the Passaic strike will be played to the tune of the famous Russian balalaika orchestra.? And at the bottom of the page it said, ?No worker can afford to miss this picture.?
I don?t have any doubt that anybody seeing this film in the right context would not be moved by it, particularly since the standard method for showing films like this was for it to travel with a speaker...the response was very positive.
VII. STRIKE STRATEGY (32:15)
DESPITE GROWING NATIONAL SUPPORT FOR THE STRIKERS, THE MANAGEMENT OF THE MILLS SHOWED NO SIGN OF RELENTING ON THE WAGE CUT. IN MARCH, 1926, A COMMITTEE OF STRIKERS WENT TO WASHINGTON TO SEEK A CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATION OF THE CONDITIONS IN PASSAIC. STRIKE PUBLICIST MARY HEATON VORSE WAS A MEMBER OF THAT DELEGATION.
She along with others went to appeal to senators and congressmen in Washington
AGAIN HISTORIAN DEE GARRISON:
and in particular Senator LaFollette was a person who eventually came out in support of the strike among many, many other middle-class politicians.
She was a little too aggressive in her approach to these politicians. She didn?t know how to say it in such a way as to ? she wanted to say, ?Senator, LaFollette,? you know ?get off your butt and do something now.? And this was not the way you address senators. They didn?t let her go back very much. ?
THE STRIKERS DELEGATION ATTEMPTED TO SEE PRESIDENT CALVIN COOLIDGE. WHEN THEY REACHED THE WHITE HOUSE, THE PRESIDENT?S SECRETARY TOLD THEM TO TAKE THEIR CASE TO THE DEPARTMENT OF LABOR.
ALBERT WEISBORD LATER SAID HE COULD NOT UNDERSTAND HOW THE PRESIDENT COULD BE TOO BUSY TO MEET WITH THEM, WHEN - IN HIS WORDS THEY HE HAD TIME FOR ?CHARLESTON DANCERS, GLEE CLUB SINGERS AND ALL SORTS OF OTHER PEOPLE WHO HAD NO PARTICULAR BUSINESS TO TRANSACT.??
IN FACT, COOLIDGE WASN?T TOO BUSY. HE AND OTHER CONSERVATIVES WERE SYMPATHETIC TO THE MILL OWNERS, AND SUSPICOUS OF THE STRIKE?S LEADERSHIP. HISTORIAN DEE GARRISON?
-- and of course Vorse was accused of being a Communist. Albert Weisbord, who led the strike, a young recent graduate from Harvard Law School, was a Communist. Vorse was not. ? But that?s the way they hit Vorse and that?s the way they hit the leaders and that?s what the Conservative said over and over, ?These workers are fine. They?re not worried about anything. It?s the agitators, Communists who want to overthrow our democracy.? It was the classical, old, Red-Scare approach that has been used so often in American history to fight the Left or the Liberals.
TO COUNTER THE ACCUSATION THAT THIS FIRST COMMUNIST-LED STRIKE IN AMERICA WAS FOREIGN THREAT -- MOSCOW TRYING TO TAKE OVER THE CITY OF PASSAIC --- WEISBORD COUNTERED WITH WHAT HE CALLED THE ?GERMAN QUESTION.?
The mill owners were not Americans but Germans, some of them enemy aliens whose property had been sequestered by the U.S. Government and was in the custody of Col. Johnson. I decided to ignore the Colonel and to attack the real owners. ?
Many of the strikers were returned soldiers. To the clubs and bombs of the police, the strikers had answered with the wearing of their steel trench helmets and gas masks. They had fought the Kaiser in Germany and they were going to fight the Kaisers of America.
ALBERT WEISBORD DEFLECTED ANTI-COMMUNISM WITH PATRIOTISM. BUT THERE WAS ALSO THE QUESTION OF ANTI-SEMITISM. HE WAS A JEW IN ATOWN OF CATHOLIC WORKERS. BUT HE TURNED THIS TO HIS ADVANTAGE AS WELL.
By openly matching myself with Abe Preskel, Jewish Commissioner of Public Safety in charge of the police, actually headed by the German Chief Zober. I openly called Preskel to task for violating the Jewish tradition ? [by] being part of a police military force and ? behaving against the interests of the people in the country where Jews immigrated. Not Preskel, but I, was the best example of the Jew in his relation to the general population. The strikers met my attack on the Jew Preskel with whoops of joy and merriment. The "Jewish" issue was settled. No one talked of "the protocols of Zion." The Catholic churches became friendly; the Jewish middle class in Passaic came to support the strike; the religious issue no longer could be brought up.
FAILING TO DISCREDIT ALBERT WEISBORD, THE MILL OWNERS AND THEIR ALLIES DECIDED TO LOCK HIM UP.
ON APRIL 10TH,1926, PASSAIC POLICE DESCENDED ON THE UNITED FRONT HEADQUARTERS, ARRESTING WEISBORD AND OTHER STRIKE LEADERS.
In the evening following the arrests those of us left of the staff ? a few women ? went into New York to obtain whatever counsel and help we could at the Party headquarters.
AGAIN VERA BUCH.
I was unable to sleep at all that night imagining Albert attacked and beaten in jail. A few days later I went out to see him in the county jail at Paterson. He had on a sort of striped pajama suit, looked pale and heroic.
VIII. THE RIOT ACT (35:05)
Then with the strike leaders in jail, Sheriff Morgan was called into the city of Passaic. He immediately armed his deputies and started to see to it that there were no mass picket lines in Passaic. At the same time Sheriff Nimmo was called into Garfield by Mayor "Botany" Burke. With the utmost brazenness the mill owners furnished Nimmo with deputies and in defiance of the law even paid them out of their own pockets in order to be sure to secure immediate control of them. At once Nimmo closed down the only meeting place of the strikers in Garfield, read the riot act, proclaimed "riot law" (what that was no one knew except the sheriff and he said it was something like martial law! No meeting or groupings of any kind were permitted), and broke up all picket lines, arrested many prominent New York liberals who had come to defend the civil liberties of the strikers. A real Reign of Terror was started.
TWO DAYS AFTER WEISBORD WAS ARRESTED POLICE DISPERSED A CROWD OF 5,000 STRIKERS AT THE FORSTMANN AND HUFFMANN MILL IN GARFIELD.
SEVEN PEOPLE WERE ARRESTED INCLUDING ROBERT N. DUNN, DIRECTOR OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION. ALBERT WEISBORD:
To cap it all the Forstmann-Huffman Company secured the most drastic temporary restraining order in New Jersey legal history. No one could picket or even talk about the strike or contribute any money to it. Ordinarily, to Left Wing leadership injunctions are mere scraps of paper. This injunction, however, was enforced by 700 armed men ready to shoot to kill.
NOW THE ISSUE BECAME ONE OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND ASSEMBLY. LIKE ANOTHER CAUSE CELEBRE OF THE PERIOD ? THE SACCO AND VANZETTI CASE ? THE PASSAIC STRIKE CREATED A COALITION OF LIBERALS, COMMUNISTS, AND ? SOCIALISTS.
MARTHA STONE ASHER:
Norman Thomas was in a big feud with the Communists.
MARTHA STONE ASHER.
They spoke at different meetings and debated all the questions that came
from the text books of Karl Marx and Lenin. And he was an ardent ? you know,
active opponent. He announced to the Communists that he was going into the
strike. And he didn't want any hassles. He wanted to speak to the
people. He wanted to support. His members in the Socialist Party
wanted to help out and they didn't want to be ostracized. And they
weren't. That was one time when the Communists yielded. In those
years the struggles were pretty bitter. But in the case, he was
honored. He spoke and the only opposition came from the police who
arrested him. ?
IN FACT, NORMAN THOMAS GOT ARRESTED ON PURPOSE, AN ATTEMPT TO OVETURN THE "RIOT ACT" AS AN UNCONSTITUTIONAL RESTRICTION ON ALL PUBLIC DEMONSTRATIONS. THOMAS, WHO HAD INHERITED THE LEADERSHIP OF THE SOCIALIST PARTY FROM EUGENE DEBS, WAS FREED ON $10,000 BAIL. WEISBORD WAS RELEASED WHEN HE POSTED $25,000.
Public reaction to these fresh outrages was intense.
We had publicized the extremely low wages, the new wage cuts
inflicted, the long hours, the speed-up, the night work of women
(illegal at that time in New Jersey), the high death rate of babies
and young children in the mill towns, the illiteracy of the workers ?,
and the employers' resistance to efforts of the Board of Education to
teach the workers English.
In the wake of public indignation some of the more decent men on the
Passaic police force, disgusted with what they were called upon to do,
resigned, their placed being filled by thugs picked up from the Bowery
of New York. The strike had become a scandal. ?
Public reaction to these fresh outrages was intense.
We had publicized the extremely low wages, the new wage cuts inflicted, the long hours, the speed-up, the night work of women (illegal at that time in New Jersey), the high death rate of babies and young children in the mill towns, the illiteracy of the workers ?, and the employers? resistance to efforts of the Board of Education to teach the workers English.
In the wake of public indignation some of the more decent men on the Passaic police force, disgusted with what they were called upon to do, resigned, their placed being filled by thugs picked up from the Bowery of New York. The strike had become a scandal. ?
X. ENTER THE AFL (39:11)
THE SUPPRESSION OF THE PASSAIC WOOL WORKERS MAY HAVE UNITED LIBERALS, SOCIALISTS AND COMMUNISTS, BUT IT DID NOT BRING TOGETHER THE DIVIDED LABOR MOVEMENT. THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR ? WARY OF IMMIGRANTS -- THREATENED BY INDUSTRIAL UNIONISM (WORKERS ORGANIZED BY INDUSTRY, RATHER THAN BY SKILLED CRAFT) -- WANTED NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS COMMUNIST-LED THE STRIKE. AGAIN VERA BUCH.
Now, to add to our difficulties, the AFL leadership, which so far had followed a hands-off, no-help policy toward our strike, came out openly against it.
ON JULY FIRST, 1926, NINE MONTHS INTO THE WALKOUT, AFL PRESIDENT WILLIAM GREEN DENOUNCED THE STRIKE LEADERS AS COMMUNISTS BENT ON DESTROYING THE AFL, BY SETTING UP A COMPETING DUAL UNION. THE COMMUNIST PARTY ? ALWAYS AMBIVALENT ABOUT WEISBORD?S INDEPENDENT WAYS ? OFFERED AN ACCOMODATION AND TOLD ALBERT WEISBORD TO GO ALONG.
Out of jail, I was informed by the leading Party comrades that there was a fair chance the strike could be settled if we entered the American Federation of Labor. An appointment was made for me to see Sidney Hillman, President of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union of America, who, with the interested concern of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, might serve as an intermediary. At our meeting held in his office, Hillman asked how I felt on joining the A.F. of L., and the indispensability of my leadership. I answered warily that the United Front Committee had come to Passaic not as a dual union because there had been no other union in the field to be dual to, and not as an inflexible opponent of the A.F. of L. If our joining the A.F. of L. would settle the strike in a favorable manner and permit the functioning of a strong democratic union, I was all for our joining. As for me, my decision coincided with the needs of the workers, and I would not stand in the way of a favorable settlement.
THOUGH HE FOUGHT THE DECISION, WEISBORD DID WHAT THE PARTY LEADERSHIP TOLD HIM TO DO ? HAND OVER THE STRIKE TO THE AFL.
ON AUGUST 13, 1926 ? IN THE TENTH MONTH OF THE STRIKE ? ALBERT WEISBORD STEPPED ASIDE AS LEADER OF THE PASSAIC WOOL WORKERS.
LATER, HE CAME TO BELIEVE THERE WAS A CONSPIRACY BETWEEN THE AFL AND THE COMMUNIST PARTY TO DESTROY HIS MILITANT, INDEPENDENT UNION. BUT IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN MORE CONFUSION THAN CONSPIRACY, ACCORDING TO BROWN UNIVERSITY HISTORIAN PAUL BUHLE.
The complications of the national leadership of the Communist Party on the one hand and the local leadership of individual Communists in Passaic is very difficult to fathom, we only have it from one side, more or less, from the side of Albert Weisbord.
They may have been jealous of Albert Weisbord?s rising popularity and charisma as threats to themselves. But it seems just as likely that they were terrified by the prospect of needing to conduct a major strike without anything close to the kind of material resources and human resources to put into the cause.
I did not know, and the strikers did not know, that I was to be removed permanently and not allowed to come back. It was also made sure that when I did come back there was nothing to come back to. At a big union rally I bade my departure, but the strikers waited for weeks before the A.F. of L. United Textile Workers came into the picture. I was sent away on a several months' national speaking tour
Now the mill owners revealed what they really had in mind. On August 19 Charles F. H. Johnson, vice president of Botany Worsted Mill, announced to his employees gathered in the mill yard that the company would have nothing to do with the new union sponsored by the American Federation of Labor claiming to represent those no longer employed at the mills, in other words, the strikers.
On August 20 Julius Forstmann, president of the Forstmann-Huffmann Company, told his employees he would deal with them only through the representative assembly, in other words, the company union?.
Soon the strike had fizzled out to a mere caricature of what it was.
AGAIN, THE LEADER OF THE PASSAIC WOOL WORKERS STRIKE, ALBERT WEISBORD.
The U.T.W. officials all met secretly with the mill owners. No workers had anything to say about the so-called negotiations which dragged on interminably. There was no recognition of the union. Those returning were discriminated against and refused employment. In one year's time this splendid body of strikers was reduced to a mere carcass. This was the "victory" that the C.P. leaders had foreseen and hailed.
? I yielded to fight another day. I had not heard from Russia. I knew that Russia had denounced the leadership of the party for failing to play any role whatsoever in this great strike. ?
X. THE FINAL CHAPTER (43:11)
[Sad Slavic music begins.]
And now it was all over; the great meetings,
the parades, the eloquent speeches, the cheers and singing, the terror, the turmoil, the constant daily effort, the travail and the glory of our strike ? all gone. The headquarters returned to the subdued quiet that had preceded the strike. Our small staff would gather forlornly for consultation and mutual commiseration. We were all tired and some were ill. ?
At the end of the year there was not even a union to come back to. All was dead in textile unionism in Passaic.
MARTHA STONE ASHER:
Everybody was exhausted. ? They couldn?t see themselves going on. Hunger was a big question already. Relief was beginning to decline a bit, although they raised plenty of money all along. But, you know, it was so long and with both men and women working, there was no source of any other income. And so people said, ?Look. You can?t win.?
They regretted that Weisbord was gone. They kept saying, ?Maybe we would have had a better settlement if he was there in the negotiations.? But they gave support to the people who were there. (Pause) I went home.
UNLIKE THE YOUNG VOLUNTEERS OR THE WELL-HEALED SUPPORTERS WHO CAME AND WENT IN THEIR SHINY SEDANS FROM NEW YORK CITY, THE WOOLWORKERS HAD NOWHERE TO GO. THEY WERE HOME. THEY HAD ENDURED A STRIKE OF 11 MONTHS. 16,000 OF THEM. AND THE MILLS HAD NOT RECOGNIZED THEIR UNION. BUT THE FIRST MAJOR STRIKE ORGANIZED BY THE AMERICAN COMMUNIST PARTY DID RESCIND THE 10% WAGE CUT AND IT GAVE THE WORKERS A GLIMPSE OF WHAT SOLIDARITY MIGHT BRING -- IF ONE COULD HOLD OUT FOREVER.
ALBERT WEISBORD?S VISION OF A POWERFUL, INDEPENDENT MILITANT UNION ROARED FOR MOMENT IN THE 20?S AND WENT SILENT.
ONE LASTING UNION DID EMERGE FROM THE STRIKE. IN 1928, ALBERT WEISBORD MARRIED VERA BUCH. A YEAR LATER, THEY BOTH WERE INVOLVED IN THE STRIKE OF COTTON TEXTILE WORKERS IN GASTONIA, NORTH CAROLINA, ANOTHER MILITANT WALKOUT IN WHICH THE COMMUNIST LEADERSHIP DISAPPOINTED THEM. WEISBORD AND BUCH LEFT THE PARTY IN 1929.
Albert Weisbord was far too mercurial to remain in any organization that he did not lead. ?
HISTORIAN PAUL BUHLE.
And, he would have been expelled as a follower of Leon Trotsky, if he hadn?t left of his own accord Thereafter, he led or took part in several further splits within the Trotskyist wing of the general American Left, and ended up in a small Chicago office by himself. It was said only two or three people ever came into that office. He was waiting for the Revolution to come to him.
[Bring up Bruce Springsteen music ?My Home Town?]
IN 1956 THE BOTANY WOOL MILL IN PASSAIC, NEW JERSEY, SHUT DOWN. ALBERT WEISBORD DIED AT AGE 77 IN 1977; HIS WIFE VERA BUCH WEISBORD, DIED TEN YEARS LATER.
They?re closing down the textile mill
Across the railroad tracks.
Foreman says, ?These jobs are going, boys,
And they ain?t coming back.?
To your hometown?
To your hometown
To your hometown
[Bring down the music]
If you said to me, ?What was the ultimate consequence of the 1926 strike??
? Let?s be blunt. THEY LOST! NOTHING HAD CHANGED! IF ANYTHING, IT HAD GOTTEN WORSE!
If I were to summarize it in a single word, I would say, ?If you lived in Passaic and were working class ?? BLEAK. Totally, absolutely, BLEAK. This is not an inspiring story.
[Bring up the Springsteen music again]
Last night me and Kate we laid in bed
Talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe
I?m thirty-five, We got a boy
Of our own now.
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel
And said, ?Son, take a good look around.
This is your hometown.?
[Play a loop of the instrumental accompaniment under the credits]
?PASSAIC ON STRIKE? WAS A CO-PRODUCTION OF NJN PUBLIC RADIO AND THE NEW JERSEY HISTORICAL COMMISSION.
IT WAS WRITTEN AND PRODUCED BY DAVID S. COHEN AND MARTY GOLDENSOHN.
PHIL BOSCO PLAYED ALBERT WEISBORD
ALLISON FRASIER PLAYED VERA BUCH.
.CHARLES POTTER: JOHN DOS PASSOS.
JANE SHARP PLAYED MARY HEATON VORSE.
MARTHA STONE ASHER, WHO WAS SIXTEEN WHEN SHE VOLUNTEERED AT THE STRIKE, PLAYED HERSELF.
LESZEK WOJCIK WAS THE RECORDING ENGINEER.
SPECIAL EFFECTS: DAVID RAPKIN
GRAPHICS: DEBORAH THOMAS
THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER WAS BILL JOBES.
THANKS ALSO TO:
THE BOTTO HOUSE/ AMERICAN LABOR MUSEUM,
THE PASSAIC PUBLIC LIBRARY,
FUNDING FOR THIS PROGRAM CAME FROM THE NEW JERSEY COUNCIL FOR THE HUMANITIES, A STATE PARTNER OF THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES, AND THE NEW JERSEY HISTORICAL COMMISSION.
I?M MARTY GOLDENSOHN.
[Fade out the Springsteen music.]
Title: "Ain't We Got Fun?"
Artist: Van and Schenck
Album: Hits of '21
Length of Excerpt: 3:05
Title: "My Hometown"
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Album: Born in the USA
Length of Excerpt: 3:05