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:

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