The Paterson Silk Strike

Bill Sr.: From an original typed manuscript (possibly published at some time in a differently-edited format)


            The teaching function of the [Church League for Industrial Democracy] was but one aspect of its program.  It was pushed vigorously and we came in for a lot of criticism for it.  But people will stand a lot of talk just so long as you do nothing about it.  Developing the thesis of the House of Bishops about the need for a fundamental change in the economic system, before almost any group of church people would, inevitably, result in some kind lady inviting you to tea with ‘I do so want a number of my friends to meet you and hear what you have to say.’  Doing something about it was something else again and most of those in the League believed we should do more than talk.

            One of these was George Foster Peabody, a Wall Street broker of wealth who was a vestryman of Holy Trinity Church, Brooklyn, who exemplified the liberalism of this exceptional parish, which is maintained to this day (1955) under the inspirit lead of the Rev. J. Howard Melish and his son, William H. Melish.  At a meeting of the League held in the parish house of Grace Church, N.Y., on Oct. 9, 1924. Mr. Peabody offered the following resolution which was unanimously passed:   ‘A prolonged strike in an industrial center of the importance of Paterson, N.J., whose markets are national is a matter of public concern. The Church is vitally interested in industrial peace and the C.L.I.D. which seeks to promote peace by increased understanding and the spirit of fraternal cooperation in industry may appropriately make impartial investigations for the enlightenment of its members.  Therefore the Executive Secretary is instructed top prepare for the memebers of the League a report on conditions which have led to the strike, the present policy of the city government regarding public meetings organized by the strikers, and other pertinent facts which must be known if a just settlement is to be made.’

            My first call in Paterson was upon the Rev. D.S. Hamilton, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, a man who had served the community so well over a long period that he was generally considered Paterson’s “first citizen.”  I told him why I was there.  ‘I know nothing about these industrial disputes,’ he said.  ‘But I do know that they are ruining our city.  I shall be glad to appoint you a member of the staff of St. Paul’s;  so announce yourself when you see people;  keep me informed and if there is anything I can do to help you, call upon me.’

            With his letter in my pocket I set to work.  I attended meetings of  the strikers to get a feel of the situation.   I interviewed innumerable people:  Grace Hutchens, at the time a member of the League who was in Paterson to support the strikers and a frequent speaker at their meetings.  She had formerly been a missionary of the Church in China.  Roger Baldwin was there off and on to head up the ‘free speech’ fight which was a bloody one, with frequent arrests.  The Rev. C.E. Scudder, pastor of the 2nd Street Methodist Church and a supporter of the workers; officers of the union, the Associated Silk Workers;  Fred Hoeschler, secretary/treasurer;  Adolph Lessig, organizer;  Miss Kimball, a clerk in the union office;  Henry Marelli, attorney for the union;  Mayor Colin M. McLean;  Dr. Christie, the police commissioner of the city;  H. S. Prince [?], in charge of the federal employment office in Paterson;  Frank Wood, a secretary of the local Y.M.C.A.  and a large number of employers:  Irving Roth of the National Silk Mill;  Joseph Whitehead of Pelgram & Myers Co;  Morris Goldy and L.H. Goldy of Goldy Co.; the manager of Belmont Silk Co., who refused to give his name; and Louise C. Odener, employment manager of Smith and Kaufman, Inc.


      After some days i could put the pieces together for the picture.  Paterson had been a center of unrest with many contributing causes.  The season aspect of the business made for insecurity and unemployment.  The decrees of ‘fashion’ made for instability.  The chief cause for unrest however, in the opinion of every person, was the preponderance of small shops.  The annual year book of the industry listed over 700 firms as manufacturers of silk in Paterson. Many of them were house affairs , with members of a family as the operators, sometimes with one or two other employees.  Frequently these shops were set-up with second-hand looms, without guards of any sort.  The owner would take the late afternoon train to New York with a bolt of silk under his arm.  If he marketed the silk the shop operated the next day.  If he didn’t, the shop was closed until he did.

            There was no unity of action among the manufacturers.  There was an association dominated by a manufacturer who had once been a leader of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World).  He went into business for himself, was successful, and had arrived at that stage in life when he did not propose to allow the workers he formerly lead have any say in his business.  The association was militantly ‘open shop’ and existed for the sole purpose of fighting any efforts to organize unions.

            Another group of manufacturers, including some of the large firms, were taking a detached attitude in the strike.  They had no use for the ‘association’ and professed to be willing to deal with organized labor “providing they will sign and live up to their agreement.”

            The third group, numerically by far the largest, were the back-room little fellows, despised by eveyone for cutting prices and making wage scales next to impossible since they exploited members of their own families.  They were scornfully referred to as “cockroach manufacturers.”

            The Associated Silk Workers was purely local and was attempting to organize on an industrial basis.  There were the usual charges of ‘communist dominated’ which nobody could substantiate.  My belief was that it was honestly led but by leaders who had no previous experience in strikes and their blunders were those of innocence rather than viciousness.

            This 1924 strike was called on August 15 when the workers were called upon to leave all the shops in the broad silk industry.  Their demands we the abolition of speed-up [multiple looms], the eight-hour day, a wage increase.  Practically all of the shops went out with one notable exception, Smith and Kaufman, which had a signed agreement with its employees.  Union leaders admitted that they pulled shops where there was no grievances but that it was necessary in order that the strike might be a general one.

            The strike was a typical American strike —no better, no worse!  There were denials of free speech;  workers were prevented from holding meetings;  heads were busted;  police broke up mass picketing but allowed the less effective sort, but even so Mr. Marilli, the attorney for the union, who had previous experience in strikes, told me that the police had been fairly decent.

            Numerous efforts were made to settle the strike.  A representative of the federal labor department left the city in disgust when he could not get the members of the association to meet with him.  Then Mayor McLean organized a citizens’ committee (workers, manufacturers, public) but again this failed for the association memvgers would not play ball.  Dr. Scudder and Dr. Hamilton, the two ministers who had shown concern, likewise were turned down repeatedly by the same group.  On Oct. 21 the union announced that over 160 firms had signed an agreement.  It didn’t take one long to find out that these 160 were ‘cockroaches’ who figured that the curtailment of production due to the strike gave them a golden opportunity.  Everyone knew than an agreement with such a bunch was meaningless.

            A few days later he larger shops, not members of the association, started operating following agreements with their workers, independently of the union.  I was not long before the strike petered out –union members went back to their shops without gaining anything whatever. Only one tangible thing has resulted; some manufacturers, disgusted with Paterson, packed their machines on big trucks and ran off to Pennsylvania “to get away from labor trouble.”

            After things had quieted down I returned to Paterson for a session with Dr. Hamilton and the Methodist minister, Dr. Scudder, both of who had grappled with a difficult situation most effectively –and were, incidentally, the only two ministers in the city to consider the strike any of their business. They agreed that something had to be done to bring order out of chaos or there would be chronic dissatisfaction and unrest.  They agreed too that it could be most effectively done through an association of those manufacturers who were willing to deal collectively with their workers.  It was their judgement that ‘the interested parties’ could be persuaded to attend a meeting a bit later.  So at the invitation of these two ministers and Mr. Marilli, the union attorney, I returned to Paterson and spent several days, as Dr. Hamilton’s representative, in calling upon manufacturers, union officials and public figures, all of whom have previously been sent the League’s printed report on the Paterson situation.

            On January 2nd, after great efforts on the part of all of us, a grup met for luncheon at the Hamilton Club, Paterson.  Present:  five manufacturers, representing large companies;  four union officials, representing competing unions, the Association and the United Textile Workers (AF of L); three clergymen and a lawyer.  But we had hardly expected even that and it has taken a great deal of tact on the part of the two local parsons to get even that number around a common table.  Dr. Hamilton was the host.  We ate good food;  we told stories, some not so good;  we smoked each others cigars.  No serious talk…just radio, shows, football.  After the meal, however, Dr. Hamilton charged the group, as men interested in the well-being of the community, to strive for peace.  He then asked me to tell the story of the agreement in the Chicago industry.  I tried to make them realize that this agreement, looked upon by industrial experts as a model, had its beginning in a small way, under conditions very similar to those prevailing in Paterson. I tried to show them the benefits under such an agreement that would come to both workers and manufacturers.  I outlined the plan of impartial machinery —that is, I told the Chicago story and, of course, proposed the same set-up for Paterson.

            This was followed by an hour or more of discussion at the end of which the group unanimously agreed to the appointment of a committee, headed by Dr. Hamilton and consisting of representatives of the three groups present — manufacturers, unions, public — to study the situation further with an idea of establishing a similar agreement in the city.

            With that the CLID withdrew.  The sequel is rather typical of American industrial life.  Dr. Hamilton, already elderly at the time of the strike, became infirm and not long after died.  Dr. Scudder went to ‘larger fields of usefulness’ by being moved to another parish.  The manufactuerers began making money again in spite of the continued activities of the ‘cockroaches’.  The rival unions continued to battle each other, as they do to this day.

            Paterson, that is, returned to normalcy!


 Bill Jr.:  In Dad’s files were letters to Vida Scudder praising the work that the executive secretary had done in this particular situation.  Among them, a letter from the Mayor of Paterson praising Dad’s objectivity and sensitivity in the matters of negotiation between ‘warring’ sides and interests.  With this success, the focus of the CLID secretary’s work changed somewhat, i.e. he became more of an investigator, correspondent and stimulator of issues in strike situations.  Passaic, N.J.,  Marion County, Ky., Gastonia, N.C., among other spots, called him into action.  He got a lot of hostility and accusations but, according to the reports he wrote for the League and, not only for THE WITNESS, but for THE CHURCHMAN and other magazines, he was respected as a ‘force’, agree with him or not.  The League Board, at least, were pleased.

            On a personal note, I remember visiting the retreat home of Roger Baldwin on the Hackensack River and going ‘birding’ in a canoe with him.  After Dad died in 1972, I wrote the ‘star’ of the A.C.L.U., then in his 90’s, asking for some remembrances of Dad.  In my letter, I recalled the thrill of the day on the river and that, as a inter-mountain westerner, I did some recreation in canoes and on rivers a bit more turbulent than the Hackensack.  He replied most graciously in re. WBS, Sr., but said that he didn’t any longer canoe the Hackensack but he still had his bird-glasses and watched them over the Jersey and other swamps.