Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Socialists, Anarchists & the Little Falls Textile Strike of 1912

Redco strikers at Hansen Island bridge, 2007
courtesy the Union Review


 On November 1, 2007 fifty-one workers at the Redco plant in Little Falls went on strike in response to a company decision to deny new workers the kind of health and pension benefits that had made Redco, and its predecessor companies, desirable places for lifelong employment. Located on the tiny island where Christian Hansen first began to manufacture Junket custard in 1891, the plant was sold to  Salada in 1958, then to Kellogg in 1969, and in 1988 to a German-based transnational, the Teekanne Group
Hansen's Island, site of Redco plant

Despite the multiple owners, Hansen’s Island continued to be a good place to work for over a century, and the workers evidently felt their value to the company would make a strike winnable. However, their attempt to assure a middle class living for those who came after them was no longer the way the American dream worked.  With only fifty-one workers locally and a parent union of only a couple thousand, the strikers had no effective weapons at hand.  The BCTGM union did file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and Homeland Security alleging illegal use by Redco of German nationals as scabs, but this charge was quickly dismissed. 
My impression is that the strike dragged on for over a year, but I am not sure what happened to the 50 strikers, if they eventually went back to work, or lost their jobs. Efforts to get any kind of statement from Redco or the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers union have been unsuccessful, but perhaps readers of this blog can provide an update.



The  strike by longtime Little Falls residents  against a giant, foreign-owned corporation was the latest, and perhaps the last, echo of the fierce struggles that once dominated the economy of the Mohawk Valley. Nearly a hundred years ago, 2000 largely female textile workers went on strike in Little Falls under the banner of the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, attracting national attention and winning a significant,if transitory,  victory. In contrast to the "bread-and-butter" unions that gained respectability in the 1940s, the IWW favored mass organization of all workers into "one big union" as a prelude to taking over the entire economy and establishing a utopian society.

The most complete and easily accessed source for information on the 1912 strike is Richard Buckley’s history of Little Falls, Unique Place, Diverse People, which is for sale at the Little Falls Historical Society Museum. Richard spent years poring over old records and newspapers and his book is very well sourced. Copies can be purchased by mail order.

Young women and children were the primary work force of the textile industry that developed in Little Falls during the later 1800s. Many workers had a story like that of my grandmother, Jennie McTiernan, who left school for the Gilbert knitting mill  at 13 when her father died, leaving behind a pregnant wife and  six young children. Working conditions were abysmal and my grandmother was not shy in describing the horrendous noise of the machines,  and the sexual abuse practiced by mill owners and their managers.  The only time reforms were considered was in response to tragedy.

It was the death of 146 women in the Triangle Factory Fire in New York City in 1911 that finally got the state legislature moving, although some reforms tended to have unforeseen results. As soon as a law reducing the work week for women from 60 to 54 hours  was enacted, the owners of the Gilbert and Phoenix knitting mills reduced the pay of women to match the shorter hours. Since the workers were already living at a near- starvation level, as documented in a recent visit by the state’s Factory Investigating Committee, the women were outraged. On October 9, 1912 eighty of them  spontaneously walked out of the Phoenix Mill in protest. At this point there was no organized strike, but it is possible that brutality toward the strikers by the owners and by the local  police may have ignited a much larger walk-out, eventually including all 1000 workers from Phoenix and another 1000 from Gilbert’s.
 Socialist organizers came by train from Schenectady on October 13 and  the next day a number of them were arrested for making speeches in Clinton Park adjacent to the Phoenix Mill. On October 15 George Lunn, the Socialist mayor of Schenectady, was arrested by Police Chief James “Dusty” Long for making a speech in support of the strikers.

 
Chief "Dusty" Long, at right,
courtesy LF Museum

 The rapid appearance in Little Falls of the Socialists, who were at that point becoming a major political party nationally, may have been in response to a call for help from Helen Schloss, a nurse specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis. She had been hired by the “Fortnightly Club,” an organization of wealthy women including the Gilberts and the Burrells, who were probably unaware of her earlier work with the Socialists in Malone, NY. When the Factory Investigating Committee came to Little Falls that August, Miss Schloss had provided investigators with graphic evidence of unsanitary conditions in the factories and tenements on the South Side. Once the strike began, she was very active in its support and was later arrested.

 Women textile workers, circa 1912, unknown location

According to Richard Buckley, local press and clergy actively opposed the strikers, most of whom were immigrants from southern or eastern Europe. Police Chief Long, a friend of my grandfather, made no excuses for his attempts to deny free speech and assembly rights to strikers and their supporters:  “ We have a strike on our hands and a foreign element to deal with. We have in the past kept them in subjugation and mean to hold them where they belong.”

Long’s efforts to silence free speech failed as socialists sent hundreds of supporters to town, leading to mass arrests beyond what the city could manage. At the same time the first organizers of the Industrial Workers of the World arrived and established committees for each factory and subcommittees for each ethnic group. By October 22 a Strike Committee was up and running, relying on democratic procedures of motions, amendments and vote counts. By the 24th the strikers voted to affiliate with the IWW and were awarded with a charter as Local 801, the National Industrial Union of Textile Workers of Little Falls.

The IWW  were far more radical than the Socialists but the two organizations often made common cause at this time. Although the Socialists favored an electoral path to power, the “wobblies” were anarcho-syndicalists, and envisioned a new society formed by direct expropriation of the means of production by worker organizations. But they knew how to organize, especially among groups who spoke many languages.


 Gilberts Mill employed 1000 workers at the time of the strike

Marching under the banner of the IWW on October 25, the strikers paraded in a great circle around the Gilbert and Phoenix Mills. The better-paid male “American” workers of the Snyder bicycle plant attempted to attack the largely female and foreign-born strikers, but newly hired police deputies managed to keep the two sides apart.

The daily parades under the IWW banner continued until a major clash occurred on October 30. According to Robert Snyder’s “Women, Wobblies and Workers Rights; the 1912 Textile Strike in Little Falls NY,” as quoted by Richard Buckley: "As Chief Long and his deputies clashed with the strikers, special police and patrolmen mounted on horses closed in on the largely unarmed pickets with their clubs. During the riot, a local police officer was shot in the leg, a special policeman furnished by the Humphrey Detective Agency of Albany was stabbed several times, and numerous strikers were beaten, some into unconsciousness."
Mill and South Ann Streets today, looking south from the site of  Clinton Park.
The Phoenix Mill was located at what is  now the parking lot in the foreground

A running battle ensued, with the police pursuing strikers across the river into the south side, where most of them lived. The police then broke into the strike headquarters at the Slovak Hall, smashed the place up, and proceeded to make mass arrests. Helen Schloss, by now considered a ringleader, was arrested a mile away. The police brought in three doctors to “examine her sanity” but she had a lawyer who soon secured her release.

 Jailed strikers, from The International Socialist review

Even though all 24 members of the Strike Committee, including Ben Legere, had been arrested on October 30, and some were held for over a year, the strike continued.  Matilda Rabinowitz, a diminutive Russian-born IWW organizer, joined forces with Helen Schloss and the two young women kept the strikers united in the face of this setback.

Women and girls from the Gilbert Mill, 1911

Together, the two women had an entirely female picket line up within a day of the mass arrests. “Big Bill” Haywood, a founder of the IWW arrived few days later to organize the “Little Falls Defense League” to provide living expenses and legal support for the strikers. Haywood, Schloss and Rabinowitz set off on a speaking tour of the north east that month to raise the funds that kept the strike going into the winter months. The anarchists Carlo Tresca and Filippo Bocchino also came to Little Falls to help organize the Italian-speaking strikers.


 Carlo Tresca, anarchist and later opponent of Mussolini, 
rallied the Italian-speaking  strikers in Little Falls

As Christmas neared, Matilda Rabinowitz and Helen Schloss won a public relations victory by announcing that the children of strikers would be sent away for the holidays to join Socialist families in Schenectady. With the newspapers publishing reports of the embattled mothers and their children, Albany politicians were moved to act. Just after Christmas, the state Board of Mediation and Arbitration held three days of public hearings in Little Falls.

Big Bill Haywood (in derby hat) leading IWW
marchers in Lowell MA in 1912
courtesy, Library of Congress

The strike ended on January 3, 1912 on terms set by the Board that were favorable to the strikers: (1) The companies were to reinstate all workers (2) There was to be no discrimination against  strikers (3) All men and women working 54 hours are to receive pay formerly paid for 60 hours.

However, the long decline of Little Falls began only seven years later when the Phoenix Mills closed and moved its operations to North Carolina, and by 1930, city population had dropped by 2000. The Phoenix  building, later occupied by the Allegro shoe factory, was eventually replaced by a parking lot, and Gilberts was closed decades ago.

The victory of the women of Little Falls in 1912 was a transient one, and within five years the democratic American Left had  been silenced in "The Red Scare" campaign led by both mainstream parties. In subsequent decades, the manufacturing base of the country was systematically dismantled by  capitalists lacking in any loyalty to the United States and its people, while both parties celebrated the "free trade"policies that made it all possible.

And by 2011, as the self-described  socialist senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders ,recently noted, 90% of America’s wealth is owned by 1% of the population. 


And what became of the strikers and their leaders?

Certainly, many of the strikers remained in Little Falls, and possibly their descendants have family stories of the stirring days of 1912.  Richard Buckley mentions the names of a few of the strikers  whose family names were familiar ones in Little Falls in subsequent years: Susie Mucica and Tena Klc were arrested for throwing pepper at the police.: Annie Slavik and John Matis lodged a complaint about police vandalism at Slovak Hall; Louis Marosek spoke for the strikers at a public meeting.

The radical organizers moved on to the next industrial battle, and there were plenty just before World War I, and there is a record of their journeys.

Bill Haywood described the Little Fall strike in The International Socialist Review, and provides details on the roles of Helen Schloss and Matilda Rabinowitz, as well as on the support provided by Helen Keller. Haywood was one of the many Socialists and Wobblies targeted in the 1917-1919 Red Scare and fled the country, ending his days unhappily in the USSR.  Interestingly, the 1917 Espionage Act used to silence the socialists and anarcho-syndicalists is the same law being considered by the Obama administration for the prosecution of  Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Helen Schloss' rationality and feminism  is evident in  letters to the New York Times, published four years before her arrival in Little Falls.  A correspondent informed us that the following information on Helen Schloss had been posted by Bob Albrecht of Little Falls on Ancestry.com.

“Helen Schloss was born in Vilna, Russia, was the daughter of a rabbi, attended the Rand School (NYC), was a public health nurse in NYC, Malone, and Little Falls, NY. She was a Socialist, friend of Helen Keller. She was a union supporter and worked with Matilda Rabinowicz and Big Bill Haywood. Her arrest record follows her across the country. She also was a speaker at a NYC Suffrage Rally in NYC. She set up medic tents at strikes in Colorado and traveled to Russia with the Friends Service Committee around 1920. There she served as a nurse to those in the midst of the civil war. And then… her trail fades until her death in 1965. I can connect her to no one. Any help out there?”

 Matilda Rabinowitz (later known as Matilda Robbins) went on to play a role in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti and was a UAW organizer.

 Matilda Rabinowitz


After publishing this article I heard from Matilda's granddaughter Robbin Legere Henderson who shared the above  photo of Matilda and told me the following:

I think this photograph  is fairly contemporaneous with the period of the strike, but I think it might have been taken as much as 5 years later, because she writes that one of the reasons she was not identified as an organizer by the police and the private detectives  when she entered Little Falls, was because she was taken for a child. She was only 25 when she organized the strike, and she appears older in this photo. My mother, Vita, was born in 1919, and I think this photo was taken well before that, because by then my grandmother had even shorter hair. You can see that she was quite beautiful, and not the least dowdy. She was also very small, only 4'10".

One of the few mementos I inherited from my grandmother is a golden locket presented to her on her birthday, January 9, 1913. It is inscribed "To Matilda from Little Falls Strikers, 1-9-13". Inside is a baby photo of my mother and a lock of her hair--very Victorian.

Little Falls was her organizing debut, and she doesn't say so, but I think she may have accepted the role, in order to be closer to Ben, with whom she was in love. There were love letters between them that were intercepted and printed in the local newspaper. My grandfather was very pleased with the exposure of his affair with Matilda and gave me copies of those letters nearly 50 years ago.


Robbin also told me that her grandmother's memoir, photographs and papers are in the archives of the Walter P. Reuther Library of labor history at Wayne State University in Detroit. The papers of her grandfather Ben Legere are also in the Reuther Library.

 Ben Legere  remained in jail until 1913


As for Carlo Tresca, he remained an ardent radical but unlike Bill Haywood and  some of the other IWW activists, he opposed  Russian communism. He also became an outspoken opponent of Mussolini and was assassinated in New York in 1943. Both communists and fascists were suspected and Dorothy Gallagher does a good job in unraveling the mystery in her 1989 book, Who Killed Carlo Tresca?

And George Lunn’s political career continued in both the Socialist and the Democratic Parties. As a Socialist he was twice elected mayor of Schenectady , and then to a third term as a Democrat. He was also elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1917 and Lieutenant Governor in 1923. He later became friends with Chief Long and with my grandfather Edward Cooney , the town Fire Chief from 1900-1947,  and spoke at  Long's retirement dinner in 1940. (According to a family legend, my grandfather set free on his own authority several of the jailed strikers of 1912)


A version of this article was published in the Little Falls Times June 20, 2011.
       (Print edition only)





UPDATE: My novel on the 1912 strike, Red Nurse, was published in January 2012 and is now available in paperback and Kindle formats. The story is told through the eyes of Helen Schloss and includes a chapter on the strike from the unpublished memoir of Matilda Rabinowitz. Thanks to her granddaughter Robbin Legere Henderson for permission to publish the chapter.

3 comments:

  1. That's my research on Helen Schloss that you've included. I have discovered what she did for the first half of her life; after that her trail is still a mystery. Glad you found it useful.
    Bob Albrecht, Little Falls NY

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  2. The photo labeled "Matilda Rabinowitz" is not a picture of my grandmother, Matilda Rabinowitz (Robbins)one of the leaders of the Little Falls strike. She was much smaller and more delicate than the subject on the right and much younger than the person on the left. Also she didn't wear clothes like either of the women in the picture. I have much better pictures of her. Also, there are photos in the Matilda Robbins collection of the Labor Archives at the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University.

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  3. Thank you for this research. It serves as a helpful balance to the recent Strike Story play. Did not know some of the more positive aspects of Chief Long. He sort of comes across as a complete jerk in the play.

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