Remembering the First Communist-Led U.S. Textile Strike, 92 Years On

Catherine A. Paul January 25, 2018

On January 25th, 1926, thousands of textile workers went on strike in Passaic, N.J. (The American Labor Museum/Botto House National Landmark Collection)

The 1926 Pas­sa­ic Tex­tile Strike began on Jan­u­ary 25th, 1926 and last­ed through March 1st, 1927. The work stop­page involved more than 15,000 wool and silk work­ers in and around Pas­sa­ic, New Jer­sey who mobi­lized in response to a 10 per­cent cut in their already mea­ger wages. The Pas­sa­ic Tex­tile Strike is notable for the use of force against the demon­stra­tors, the debates over free speech, the role of intel­lec­tu­als and intel­lec­tu­al­ism, and for being the Com­mu­nist Party’s first attempt to orga­nize a large-scale demon­stra­tion encom­pass­ing the region’s tex­tile industry.

Before the Pas­sa­ic Tex­tile Strike, the Unit­ed Tex­tile Work­ers (UTW), an affil­i­ate of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor (AFL), attempt­ed to orga­nize the tex­tile work­ers; how­ev­er, like in the Pater­son Silk Strike of 1913, the mill man­agers pur­pose­ly hired immi­grants from many dif­fer­ent coun­tries to pre­vent the work­ers from eas­i­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ing and orga­niz­ing. Thus, Albert Weis­bord, an active mem­ber of the Inter­na­tion­al Work­ers of the World (IWW) and com­mu­nist and social­ist par­ties, left New Eng­land for Pas­sa­ic to orga­nize the tex­tile work­ers. He cre­at­ed and led the Unit­ed Front Com­mit­tee (UFC), a com­mu­nist-affil­i­at­ed sub­group of the Trade Union Edu­ca­tion­al League (TUEL). With­in two months of his arrival, Weis­bord and the UFC enrolled approx­i­mate­ly 1,000 work­ers to union­ize the region’s tex­tile work­ers. UFC mem­bers artic­u­lat­ed the fol­low­ing goals: “(1) abo­li­tion of the wage cut and a 10 per­cent increase in wages over the old scale; (2) reim­burse­ment of the mon­ey tak­en from the work­ers by the wage cuts since the time the cuts were imposed; (3) time-and-a-half for over­time; (4) a forty-four-hour week; (5) decent san­i­tary work­ing con­di­tions; (6) no dis­crim­i­na­tion against union mem­bers, and (7) recog­ni­tion of the union.”

When UFC mem­bers asked only for an abo­li­tion of the wage cut, over­time wages, and non-dis­crim­i­na­tion of union mem­bers from Colonel F. H. John­son, the man­ag­er of the Botany Worsted Mills, he fired all 45 UFC mem­bers on the spot. With­in an hour, 4,000 Botany Mills work­ers had formed a pick­et line. By the end of the week, work­ers from Ger­al Mill, the Pas­sa­ic Worsted Spin­ning Mill, and the Garfield Worsted Mill had joined the strike, total­ing approx­i­mate­ly 8,000 strikers.

On Feb­ru­ary 9, 1926, strik­ing tex­tile work­ers, their fam­i­lies, and their sup­port­ers attempt­ed to cross the bridge from Pas­sa­ic into Clifton, NJ to shut down the Clifton Forstmann & Huff­man Mill. Police bru­tal­ly attacked the pick­eters and forced them to turn around; how­ev­er, the fol­low­ing day, the strik­ers ral­lied fur­ther sup­port and were able to break through the police lines. Two months into the strike, 15,000 strik­ers had been assem­bled. These indi­vid­u­als walked dai­ly in pick­et lines at their tar­get­ed mills, and a striker’s com­mit­tee, com­prised of work­ers from each mill, met each morn­ing at 9:00. Strik­ers gar­nered finan­cial sup­port from across the nation by cre­at­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing a sev­en-reel silent film about their efforts, called The Pas­sa­ic Tex­tile Strike.

The Pas­sa­ic City Coun­cil attempt­ed to out­law pick­et­ing and pub­lic meet­ings by intro­duc­ing a Riot Act on Feb­ru­ary 25th, 1926. Regard­less, on March 1, 2,000 strik­ers gath­ered in Pas­sa­ic. The fol­low­ing day, the police attacked the assem­bled group with clubs, tear gas, and high-pres­sure cold water from the fire depart­ment. This con­tin­ued into the fol­low­ing day. By March 3, pick­eters, their fam­i­lies, and the media came pre­pared with steel hel­mets, and the police con­tin­ued their attacks and arrests. On April 10, 5,000 child work­ers and school chil­dren marched in sup­port of the strike. They, too, were attacked by the police.

By the end of April, the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union (ACLU) had inter­vened, object­ing to the enforce­ment of the Riot Act and mar­tial law. Despite this, on July 26, Pas­sa­ic police chief, Richard Zober, ordered the police to attack the strik­ers with clubs once again. As a result, the Asso­ci­at­ed Soci­eties and Church­es of Pas­sa­ic, com­prised of Russ­ian, Pol­ish, Slo­va­kian, and Hun­gar­i­an immi­grants, gath­ered to medi­ate a set­tle­ment between mill man­age­ment and mill work­ers, and they ulti­mate­ly sided with the strik­ers, call­ing the com­pa­nies Kaiser-like.”

Albert Weis­bord and his com­mu­nist coun­ter­parts came under scruti­ny, cul­mi­nat­ing in the AFL’s insis­tence that com­mu­nist lead­er­ship of the UTW be dis­band­ed. In August 1926, the change in lead­er­ship occurred and the new, more con­ser­v­a­tive UTW Local 1603 took over. How­ev­er, the mill com­pa­nies still refused to nego­ti­ate. Unde­terred, the strik­ers estab­lished a Com­mit­tee of Five,” con­sist­ing of local res­i­dents and cler­gy­men. On Novem­ber 12, 1926, the Pas­sa­ic Worsted Com­pa­ny signed an agree­ment to the fol­low­ing terms: “(1) recog­ni­tion of the union; (2) the right of the work­ers to bar­gain col­lec­tive­ly; (3) no dis­crim­i­na­tion in rehir­ing; (4) arbi­tra­tion for fur­ther dis­putes, and (5) no out­side help to be engaged until all the strik­ers were reem­ployed.” Six hun­dred work­ers at the Worsted Mill met, vot­ed, and accept­ed the terms. The Botany Mills, Garfield Worsted Mill, and the Dundee Tex­tile Com­pa­ny fol­lowed suit. Oth­er mills refused to sign con­tracts with their work­ers, only offer­ing to endeav­or to re-employ as many of our for­mer work­ers as we pos­si­bly can, with­out demon­stra­tion.” By March 1st, all of the work­ers had vot­ed to end their strike.

After the strike, the mill com­pa­nies broke their agree­ments with their work­ers, fir­ing them only to rehire them at low­er wages. The UTW no longer had enough sup­port to object; with­in two years of the strike end­ing, UTW mem­ber­ship dwin­dled to less than 100 and com­plete­ly dis­ap­peared short­ly thereafter.

This sto­ry first appeared at the Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty Social Wel­fare His­to­ry Project.

Cather­ine Paul is cur­rent­ly a Mas­ter of Social Work Can­di­date at Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty (VCU), and she expects to grad­u­ate with her M.S.W. in May 2018.
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