Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Red Sweater Girls of 1912

This article appeared in the Little Falls Evening Times on June 20, 2011 and served, in part, to generate local interest in last year’s series of events commemorating  the centennial of the  great textile strike. I was inspired to re-publish it on this site after finding several more photographs of the strikers in an article in the 1912 International Socialist Review.

The primary source for my article was a scrapbook of newspaper clippings on the strike kept by a teacher, Miss Hughes, who worked in the old Jefferson Street School. Miss Hughes scrapbook is now at the Herkimer County Historical Society. Other sources include Richard Buckley’s “Unique Place, Diverse People” (Little Falls Historical Society, 2008) and Robert Snyder’s “Women, Wobblies and Workers’Rights: The 1912 Textile Strike in Little Falls, NY (New York History LXI, 1979)

Nearly a hundred years ago, two thousand mostly female textile workers went on strike in Little Falls, and the leading radicals of the era soon arrived by train to urge them on to battle. And as they marched under the red banners of the International Workers of the World, some of the women also wore red sweaters or shawls, leading opponents to deride them as “the red sweater girls.” But in contrast to the many unsuccessful labor struggles of the years just before World War I, women took over the leadership of this strike and they won. 

Young women and children were the primary work force of the textile industry that had developed in Little Falls and similar northeastern towns during the latter part of the 19th century. Many workers had a story like that of my grandmother, Jenny McTiernan, who left school for the Gilbert knitting mill  at 13 when her father died, leaving behind a pregnant wife and  six younger children. Working conditions were abysmal and my grandmother was not shy in describing the ear-splitting noise of the machines and the sexual harassment practiced by male foremen in the mills. 

It was the death of 146 women in the Triangle Factory Fire in New York City in 1911 that finally got the New York state legislature moving on these horrendous conditions , but the reforms had 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, 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 very possibly  brutality toward the strikers by the owners and by the local police ignited a much larger walk-out, eventually including perhaps as many as a thousand workers from Phoenix and another thousand from the nearby Gilbert’s Mill.

At that time the Socialist party was quite strong in Schenectady, and party activists came by train on October 13. A number of them were immediately arrested for making speeches in Clinton Park adjacent to the Phoenix Mill on what is now Canal Place. George Lunn, the Socialist mayor of Schenectady, was arrested by Police Chief James “Dusty” Long just as he launched into a quote from Abraham Lincoln.

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 who were probably unaware of her earlier work with the Socialists in Malone, NY. When the Factory Investigating Committee, set up in response to the Triangle tragedy under the leadership of Al Smith and Robert Wagner, 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.

Local authorities actively opposed the strikers, most of whom were immigrants from southern or eastern Europe. Police Chief Long 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.”

Chief 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.

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 continued until a major clash occurred on October 30. Patrolmen and privately hired deputies, some on horseback, charged the largely unarmed pickets and many were beaten unconscious. The strikers fought back. One police officer was shot in the leg and a hired deputy was stabbed in the neck.

A running battle ensued, with the police and hired deputies 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.
Poster circulated on behalf of imprisoned strike leaders

Even though Ben Legere and the other male members of the Strike Committee had been arrested on October 30, and some were held for over a year, the strike continued.  Matilda Rabinowitz, a Russian-born IWW organizer, soon arrived and joined forces with Helen Schloss. Together, the two women had a largely female picket line up within a day of the mass arrests.

“Big Bill” Haywood, a founder of the IWW, arrived a 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.

As Christmas neared, the IWW 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.

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 victory was a transient one. The Phoenix Mills closed seven years later 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 has been closed for years.

And what became of the organizers and those they led to victory?

The radical organizers moved on to the next industrial battle, and there were plenty just before World War I. However, the IWW’s attempt to replicate its success in the larger textile town of Paterson, New Jersey a year later met with failure when the silk mill workers were starved into submission.  Bill Haywood, Carlo Tresca, Matilda Rabinowitz and other leading radicals of the age all tried to rally the workers but to no avail. Unlike the Little Falls conflict, there was no state board to step in and impose terms.

Considering its success, it is not surprising that Haywood, who later fled to the USSR, described the Little Falls strike in glowing terms in the pages of the International Socialist Review, where he provides details on the roles of Helen Schloss and Matilda Rabinowitz, as well as on the support provided by Helen Keller. In her unpublished memoir, however, Matilda Rabinowitz discounted Haywood as an unreliable grandstander.

Matilda (aka Matilda Robbins) went on to play a role in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti and was a UAW organizer. Her papers, including her memoir, are preserved in the Labor History archives at Wayne State University in Detroit. She and Ben Legere later had a child and their granddaughter Robbin Legere Henderson has been helpful with this article.

Carlo Tresca became an outspoken opponent of Mussolini and was assassinated in New York in 1943 by a Mafia gunman associated with the Fascists. Fillippo Bocchino followed another path and became one of Mussolini’s most ardent defenders in the Italian-American community in the years before World War II.

George Lunn’s political career continued in both the Socialist and the Democratic Parties. As a Socialist he was elected mayor of Schenectady, twice as a Socialist and once as a Democrat. He was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1917 and Lieutenant Governor in 1923. He later became friends with Chief Long and spoke at his retirement dinner in 1940.

As for the strikers themselves, many were certainly still living in Little Falls when I was growing up, as were their children and grandchildren. However, the story of the strike seems to have been an episode that no one really wanted to talk about. Perhaps, the later closing of the textile mills, made the whole strike something people just wanted to forget. And the nationwide witch hunt in 1917-1920 known as “the Red Scare” certainly made any past associations with socialists or anarchists something most people did not want to be reminded of.

Although lost to history, the textile strike in Little Falls was a major victory that brought together the Socialist Party, the IWW and a progressive state administration. And even more importantly, it was a strike by women and led by women in an era when men dominated the left as well as the right sides of American political life.

My novel based on the strike, as told in the voice of Helen Schloss, can be purchased on kindle for $2.99 or in paperback for $9.99.  The book is also available at the Little Falls Historical Society.

 Drawings from 1912

Several drawings  made in October and November, 1912  have recently come into my possession: The drawings depict the riot of October 30, the attack that same day on the Slovak Hall, and an arraignment of arrested strikers on November 15:

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Remington Arms: An Upstate New York Success Story

Remington Arms in Ilion, NY

When I was growing up in Little Falls, New York in the 1960s, the men who worked in Snyder’s  on East Main Street or at the Remington factory  in nearby Ilion had good jobs. The work was highly skilled and the pay gave their families a solid middle class life. And those men produced solid goods that stood the test of time. 

1927 Snyder bicycle

We owned the products of those factories. I had an ancient Snyder bicycle that took me anywhere I wanted to go. And one of my father’s proudest possessions was a Remington Springfield 30-06 bolt action rifle.  A standard US infantry weapon for World War I and the first part of World War II, the 30-06 was a reliable deer rifle even after a half century of use.
Remington's 1903 Springfield 30-06, made in Ilion NY

Although Snyder’s was closed decades ago, Remington Arms in nearby Ilion is humming with activity - the only major manufacturing firm left in a valley strewn with abandoned factories. The work at Remington is still highly skilled, much sought after, and still pays well. But the workers in Ilion built the Bushmaster .223 assault rifle used to kill the children of Newtown.

Understanding the different fates of these two firms is a window into what has gone wrong with America. 

The story of the Snyder Manufacturing Company is the simpler one.  Homer P. Snyder, a friend of my grandfather and later a congressman, came to Little Falls from nearby Amsterdam early in the 20th century and set out to meet the growing demand for bicycles. In both world wars, Snyder’s switched to defense production but when peace came, they returned to making the fine bicycles for which they were known.  In the face of much cheaper imports, made mostly in Taiwan, Homer’s grandson Bill sold out in the early 1970s to Mossberg, an arms manufacturer who eventually dropped bicycle production and closed the factory.

The Remington story begins way back in 1816 when Eliphalet Remington, a blacksmith, forged his own flintlock musket and, according to legend, won a local shooting contest. Neighbors admired its accuracy and ordered their own guns. By 1828 Eliphalet and his son Philo had built a factory in Ilion and were producing muzzle loaders using the new all-weather percussion caps. In 1847 the father and son invented a breech-loading carbine and sold it the U.S. Navy, their first military contract.  During the Civil War, the Remingtons supplied a large proportion of the small arms used by the Union forces. The Ilion plant and new factories elsewhere in New York and Ohio produced rifles during World Wars I and II.. Remington continued to make a variety of sporting rifles and shotguns – as well as typewriters and safety razors - but thanks to steady  military contracts, never experienced the kind of foreign competition that destroyed Snyders and countless other factories in the Mohawk Valley.

In 1886 Remington sold its typewriter business, and name rights for the typewriters,  to a company that eventually became Remington-Rand, an entity that lasted until 1958 and built early business machines and the first widely used computers, the giant UNIVACs. Its president, James Rand, also pioneered union-busting and boasted of his success in a pamphlet entitled “The MohawkValley Formula.," his playbook for union-busting, with heavy emphasis on misinformation and provoking violence. During World War II, Rem Rand produced .45 automatic psitols for the military, its only venture into making firearms.  In the 1950s the firm became Sperry Rand, a company that later morphed into Unisys, once a major computer manufacturer but now specializing in software services.

As a dedicated arms manufacturing company,  Remington Arms itself has never faltered, as the company history posted on its website can attest. The latest corporate transformation has made it the centerpience of  the Freedom Group Family of Companies,  which bills itself as “one of the largest manufacturers in the world of firearms and ammunition, including Remington®, Bushmaster® Firearms, DPMS/Panther Arms™, Marlin®, H;R®, The Parker Gun™, Mountain Khakis®, Advanced Armament Corp. ®, ( whose specialty is silencers) Dakota Arms®, Para™ USA and Barnes® Bullets.”

And behind this giant is the even more gigantic Cerberus Capital Management, known for such major deals as buying and selling both Chrysler and GM's financial division in recent years – as well as for hosting Dan Quayle as its chairman of global investments and former treasury secretary John Snow as chairman of capital management.

But owning the company that made the .223 Bushmaster used at Newtown – no matter how profitable– proved to be an embarrassment for Quayle, Snow and  Cerberus founder Stephen Feinberg.  After a phone call from California, they knew they had to sell: 
“An official at the California teachers’ pension fund, which has $750 million invested with the private equity firm, Cerberus Capital Management, was on the line, raising questions about the firm’s ownership of the Freedom Group, the gun maker that made the rifle used in the Connecticut school shootings.”

The sale is simply cosmetic in nature and will have no effect on gun production. These are very lucrative companies and a buyer will not be a problem. In all likelihood, many of the same investors will continue to profit.

Although Quayle, Snow and Cerberus CEO Steven Feinberg take no responsibility for the weapon that killed 20 children, assault rifles like the Bushmaster .223 are central to Freedom Group’s profitability. Long ago, a bolt-action rifle could be sold to the army for 40 years and the same gun, or a version of it, did make sense as a hunting rifle that could be used for generations - as with my father's old 30-06.

But as technology accelerated, a company like Remington could no longer sell the same gun to the army for decades. Staying competitive required expensive research and continual re-tooling and if Remington lost out on military contracts, the company’s future would be at risk. That’s why it made good business sense to pitch virtually the same weapons to the civilian market – as a backup in case the military contract never came through and all that research money be wasted. 

Ready for the gun show

Successfully selling assault rifles  to the public requires Remington to offer a brand new product to gun owners who already have earlier models. The fact that much of the advertising burden is borne by ardent supporters of the Second Amendment is an extra bonus for Remington and other gun companies and adds a patriotic allure to the product. Volunteers provide what amounts to free advertising for Remington's new product lines. Naturally, Remington is happy to associate its brand with the NRA: "Remington Becomes 2011 Friends of NRA Sponsor"

The marketing goal is to convince potential buyers that they need to get the latest and most modern assault rifle – much like Iphone owners need to be motivated to buy the latest version - which can be very expensive. The new Bushmaster ACR, for example, offers an unprecedented ability to change calibers, barrel lengths and stocks with a typical price of $2000 to $2500. Panic over new gun control laws, fanned by the NRA and talk radio, is a particularly effective form of advertising.

At the same time, as the US enters the 11th year of the "war on terror,"  Remington is not losing out on very profitable Pentagon deals.  On April 20, 2012 the company won a $16 million contract for 70,000 to 100,000 M4A1 carbines, which are offer a fully automatic version of the standard infantry M4 – and a huge $180 million contract for yet- to-be developed future guns. 

Gun experts will quibble over the difference between military and civilian versions of these weapons. But the Remington/Bushmaster and other assault rifles on the civilian market differ from the guns used vs the Taliban only in that the trigger must be pulled for each shot. The difference is really very slight and for a madman intent on killing a large number of unarmed people, the way the Bushmasters operates is, frankly, ideal. The military versions which fire great bursts of bullets are more appropriate when someone is shooting back at you and there’s no time for taking careful aim.

The caliber is smaller but that also fits the needs of mass killers. According to Guns and Ammo magazine,  "The .223 caliber load is popular because it has better fragmentation upon impact, meaning it will deal a lot of damage with less chance of accidentally continuing through the target and endangering whoever's in the background."

Better fragmentation upon impact? That means horrendous damage to the human body and unimaginable damage to the bodies of small children. That means that the Bushmaster .223, made in Ilion by skilled American workers, is just about the best weapon a mass murderer could want.

The H.P. Snyder Manufacturing Company doesn’t make bicycles in Little Falls any more.Hand tools are no longer made in Utica. Slippers are no longer made in Dolgeville, Carpets are no longer made in Amsterdam. Televisions are no longer made in Schenectady.

But guns are still made in Ilion. Guns like the Bushmaster .223.

(A slightly different versions of this post has been published at firedoglake)


A reader has called my attention to an August 23 New York Times article on Remington Arms right after the Aurora, Colorado murders: Call to stiffen gun laws worries town:

     "Ilion, which now has about 8,000 residents, developed around the plant, and the Remington name is ubiquitous here. Students at Remington Elementary School can see the factory from their playground; even the doormat on the front steps at the Ilion police station notes, “Home of Remington.” (Free gun locks are available inside.)
    The company is a rare economic bright spot in this part of the Mohawk Valley. The area has lost over 11,000 of its manufacturing jobs since 1990, or more than half, according to the State Labor Department. But Remington has added positions in recent years as its parent company consolidated production of other gun brands, like Bushmaster and Marlin, in Ilion.
   “Not only have they stayed, but they’ve grown,” said John Scarano, the executive director of the Herkimer County Chamber of Commerce. He added that the jobs at the plant were “not minimum-wage jobs — they’re good jobs,” and, indeed, many of the job postings on Remington’s Web site recently were for skilled engineering positions."

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Bakken Oil Flows Through Upstate New York

For several months long trains of rail cars full of crude oil can be seen inching along, or stopped altogther, beside I-787 in downtown Albany. Other tankers fill the rail yards off I-90 not far from the SUNY campus.  All are waiting to offload into the tank farm at the Port of Albany for transfer onto barges for transport down the Hudson River to the New York harbor, and from there to Philadelphia and other East Coast refineries. There is simply so much oil pouring through Albany  these days that the limited number of holding tanks, and the relatively small size of the river-going tankers, can just barely manage it.

The trains, up to 80 tankers each, originate in the growing Bakken oil fields of Dakota and Montana and have traveled over a series of states and down the old NY Central tracks through the Mohawk Valley without attracting much notice – in stark contrast to the huge political and public relations battle over the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada into Texas. 

In “Rail It On Over To Albany – Moving Bakken East,” energy consultant Rusty Braziel describes the vast infrastructure in North Dakota sending out the Bakken oil across the country. Buckeye and Global Partners, the two companies active at the port, have maintained a very low profile about their role in transporting the crude from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and Montana. A couple of workers from the port told me recently that so few local jobs have been produced that the companies see no value in publicizing their heavy investment in the Port. 

According to an October 27 article by Brian Nearing in the AlbanyTimes Union, neither the state Department of Environmental Conservation nor the Coast Guard have seen a need to update plans for containing any possible oil spill resulting from the increased traffic. And these kind of shipments are unprecedented in this area, according to port manager Richard Hendrick, who said,” "I am not aware that a drop of crude was ever shipped out of the port until the Bakken oil showed up this year.” Nearing goes on to write:

"Between Houston-based Buckeye Partners and Global Partners, located in Waltham, Mass., up to 395,000 barrels of oil a day could come into Albany on rail cars, and then move 150 miles down the river on tankers and barges to the Atlantic.  That is nearly 16.6 million gallons of oil a day, nearly half the potential output of a massive field thousands of miles away that is estimated to hold more than two billion barrels of oil, or even more, making it one of the largest oil reserves in the country. Locked in shale rock formations, the oil became reachable only after new rock-fracturing drilling technology was developed in 2008." 

As with so many environmental issues, public reactions are intensely local, no matter what the global effects. Drilling for natural gas is the issue in New York, not the oil that is passing quietly through our state – even though the same  hydraulic fracturing technology produces both kinds of fossil fuel. The difference, of course, is that the profits and problems of potentially rich Marcellus shale gas fields under much of this state  are right in front of us– and the oil is being pumped far way.

Andrew Cuomo, who has long held the line on fracking for natural gas in this state, appears to be moving toward approval.  In response, A protest rally at the State Capitol has been called  by New Yorkers Against Fracking for January 9, to coincide with the Governor’s State of the State message – but thus far there’s no public anxiety over the risk of oil tankers on the Hudson

But maybe there should be, given the casualness with which state and federal authorities have reacted to the millions of gallons of crude oil passing through our region. After all, in 1989 a tiny crack in the hull of one tanker bringing oil upriver released a mere thousand gallons near Coxsackie and that took weeks to clean up.

And maybe, just maybe, it makes no sense to break up layers of shale hundreds of millions years old just to provide ourselves with a few more decades of fossil fuel that is wrecking the climate anyway. 


And maybe we can learn something about long term survival from the prehistoric Iroquois who built their village on this shale hill in Montgomery County.

(Slightly different versions and of this post can be found on  Fire Dog Lake and on Daily Kos.)