Monday, January 9, 2012

New book marks centennial of the great Little Falls Textile Strike of 1912

Over the past year I have been working on a novel set during the nearly forgotten strike which made a small upstate New York factory town the center of national attention a hundred years ago.  

The book, The Red Nurse, is now available  for $9.95 in paperback and as a download for $2.99 at Kindle  and Smashwords.

The story is told by Helen Schloss, a public health nurse and already an active Socialist when she came to Little Falls in May of 1912. The death of 146 garment workers in the Triangle Fire a year earlier  had led to a number of reforms in New York state, but none had yet taken effect. A radical spirit was in the air that year and a wave of strikes rolled across the country.

A new law was passed that summer in Albany, cutting the hourly maximum for women and children workers from 60 to 54 led to wage cuts. When garment workers at the Phoenix and Gilbert mills  in Little Falls  struck against these cuts, Helen was the first to step up in their support.  Over the next three months, Socialist and IWW activists  from around the country flocked to join the latest battle against the capitalist system.  But it was not the radical celebrities of the era who won the strike. It was the largely female, immigrant workers and the two women who led them: Helen Schloss and Matilda Rabinowitz.

Helen Schloss, at center, with arrested strikers in the Herkimer
 County jail, from the Int'l Socialist Review, 1913

Matilda went on to lead strikes across the country and was an active writer until very late in life. Helen, who organized medical care at the great Paterson and Ludlow strikes, vanishes from history after she went to Russia in 1921 to provide medical care for the Bolshevik army. In the novel I imagine her still in the USSR in 1969 and eager to tell her story to a young man from Little Falls.

Matilda Rabinowitz, 
courtesy Robbin Legere Henderson

The rivalry which I depict between Helen and Matilda cannot be proven, but was suggested to me by Matilda’s failure to mention Helen at all in her own memoir, despite the equal credit given to both women by Socialist and IWW leaders.  Helen’s feelings for the IWW organizer Ben Legere, by whom Matilda later had a child, is purely fictional, as are her relationships with the nationally known radicals Bill Haywood and Carlo Tresca.
Bill Bill Haywood

The real heroes of the story are the strikers, immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who were forced to work for starvation wages and to live in the unsanitary slums that once filled the South Side. I have created composite characters, like Susie Klimacek and Sam Malavasic, to represent the many unnamed and forgotten workers who risked so much for a better life.

The Phoenix Mill,circa 1912

In the novel, Helen testifies that a third of the youngest workers would die before the age of 25, which is supported by the known facts of that era. The overcrowding and poor sanitation on the South Side of Little Falls had led to a frightening rise in tuberculosis cases in the years leading up to 1912, and the well-to-do classes were clearly alarmed. The Fortnightly Club, a group of wealthy women, hired Helen to address the public health issues, little realizing that she would lead a strike against the economic system from which they profited.

Chief James Long at right,
from the Sesquicentennial History of Little Falls

In factory towns like Little Falls there was a gap, not just between the rich industrialists and their desperately poor workers, but also between the poorest of the workers and those just a little higher on the social ladder. Many in the emerging middle class were products of the Irish and German immigrations of the 1840s and 1850s. They held the better and more skilled factory jobs and dominated the civil service. Police Chief James Long, who was much vilified in the socialist press at the time, was from this background, as was his lifelong friend, and my grandfather, the Fire Chief Edward Cooney.  

George Lunn, Socialist mayor of Schenectady

The Socialist Party, which came to power in Schenectady in 1911, was just as supportive in reality as they are depicted in my book. George Lunn, the charismatic party leader and mayor, led a free speech battle that should be far better known in America’s annals of civil liberty. His fundamentally pragmatic nature, however, separated him from radicals like Helen, Matilda and certainly Big Bill Haywood. While Big Bill and Helen ended up in the Soviet Union, Lunn became lieutenant governor as a Democrat and spoke at Chief Long’s retirement dinner in 1940.

Al Smith

The resolution of the strike by a state board, in response to a well-planned publicity campaign by strike leaders, made the Little Falls struggle a true milestone in American labor history. Early progressives like Al Smith and Robert Wagner understood that the Triangle Fire of the previous year had changed the public mood, and that voters and their representatives were now ready to support the rights of workers to safe and healthy working conditions. The proactive role of the state made this strike very different from the two more famous IWW-led textile industry battles that preceded and followed it. In early 1912 the struggle in Lawrence was resolved only after a number of deaths and threats of even greater violence. The Paterson strike of 1913 led to defeat when the owners managed to starve the workers into submission, and the state of New Jersey failed to intervene.

Recent view of the old Gilberts Knitting Mill

But life for working people in Little Falls changed for the better in the decades following the strike. Manufacturing remained strong into the 1960s and a thriving middle class came to include the children and grandchildren of the once-despised immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Strong AFL-CIO unions assured a good life for working people and the great industrial families like the Burrells, the Snyders and the Gilberts remained pillars of the community.  

The most complete record of the strike is in unpublished material at the Herkimer County Historical Society.  The Red Phoenix is a Boston College Senior Thesis composed by Patrick Bennison while he was an intern at the Society in 1986. Bennison based his work on a scrapbook of newspaper articles kept by  Miss Hughes, a teacher at the Jefferson Street School during the strike.  A copy of the scrapbook was made with the permission of its owner, Elizabeth Bower of Ilion, and is kept at the Society.

I am indebted to Robert Albrecht for biographical information on Helen Schloss, in particular her date and place of birth, the strikes in which she was involved after Little Falls,  and her disappearance around 1920. It was he who pointed out that Helen seems to have vanished after going to Soviet Russia around 1920, and this mystery became central to the structure of my novel.

The strike was covered by the local and national press. “The Strike at Little Falls” by Philips Russell in The International Socialist Review, December 1912, goes into more detail than other papers on the work of Helen Schloss and Matilida Rabinowitz, giving them equal credit as leaders.

The New York Times archives contains several letters which Helen wrote as a public health nurse in New York City. The letters, which appear to be her only writings to have survived, demonstrate Helen's advanced thinking not only in medicine but in women’s rights. There is also a 1906 article detailing her first arrest in the company of Elisabeth Gurley Flynn, the “rebel girl” of Joe Hill’s famous song and later a leader of the Communist Party.

Richard Buckley’s history of Little Falls, Unique Place, Diverse People (Little Falls Historical Society, 2008) contains a very through description of the strike, drawing on numerous sources, including the Journal & Courier and The Evening Times. Buckley points out that the newspaper record has major gaps for the period of the strike and this is true of the microfilm collections both at the Little Falls Public Library and at the State Library in Albany.

There is also a 1968 college thesis on the strike composed by Little Falls native Schuyler Van Horn. I believe a copy of the thesis can be reviewed at the Little Falls Historical Society

The New York State Library at Albany contains copies of the multi-volume report of the Factory Investigating Committee and the 1913 State Labor Department Report, “The Little Falls Textile Workers’ Dispute.”

The strike has been badly neglected by historians and I have found only a single scholarly study: “Women, Wobblies, and Workers’ Rights: The 1912 Textile Strike in Little Falls, New York" by Robert E. Snyder (New York History, January 1979)

The  excerpt from the unpublished memoir of Matilda Rabinowitz,  included in Red Nurse courtesy of her granddaughter Robbin Legere Henderson, is a rare first person look at the strike. Robbin has been a valuable source of insights on the strike leaders and is currently preparing the entire memoir for publication. A copy is in the Matilda Robbins collection in the Labor History Archives at Wayne State University, Detroit. The papers of Ben Legere are also at Wayne State.



  1. Michael,

    This is fantastic. Thanks for the informative research. I look forward to reading your book. I, too, am from Little Falls (graduated in 1975) and, incidentally, my mother was a Malavasic. I look forward to reading your Blog.

    All the best,

    Paul Warren

  2. Hi Michael,
    Congradulations from one of your Classmates,
    SMA 1964!!
    Looking forward to reading your book(s) since I too am very interested in the history of the Mohawk Valley, in particular LF. It started when we did a Girl Scout Badge about the early history of LF--your Dad helped us with that.
    All the best to you and yours,

  3. Lorraine, How nice to hear from you after these many ages! It does seem like only yesterday we were at the Thruway restaurant, the classiest place in town back then. Hope to see you in Little Falls, Mike

  4. Hi Michael - Back when I was a reporter for The Evening Times, I did a history piece in three parts on the Knitting Mill Strike. It may not add anything to your obviously extensive knowledge but, if you want, I can e-mail you a copy. Mat Rapacz