Highlights in the History of Unionism

Points of Interest in the History of Unionism

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Remembers the Paterson Strike of 1913

The following account of the strike assemblies at the home of Maria Botto and the women's meetings during the 1913 Paterson silk strike is by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a leader in the Industrial Workers of the World and leader of the Paterson strike.

Flynn was 22 years old at the time of the strike. Her career as a radical began in 1906 when she was 16 and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Flynn was especially popular among the women, for whom she held regular weekly meetings.

Source: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography (New York, 1955), 165-166. 

The life of a strike depends upon constant activities. In Paterson, as in all IWW strikes, there were mass picketing, daily mass meetings, children’s meetings, the sending of many children to New York and New Jersey cities, and the unique Sunday gatherings. These were held in the afternoon in the little town of Haledon, just over the city line from Paterson. The mayor was a Socialist who welcomed us. A striker’s family lived there in a two-story house. There was a balcony on the second floor, facing the street, opposite a large green field. It was a natural platform and amphitheatre. Sunday after Sunday, as the days became pleasanter, we spoke there to enormous crowds of thousands of people–the strikers and their families, workers from other Paterson industries, people from nearby New Jersey cities, delegations from New York of trade unionists, students and others. Visitors came from all over America and from foreign countries. People who saw these Haledon meetings never forgot them....

A touching episode occurred in one of our children’s meetings. I was speaking in simple language about the conditions of silk workers–why their parents had to strike. I spoke of how little they were paid for weaving the beautiful silk, like the Lawrence workers who made the fine warm woolen cloth. Yet the textile workers do not wear either woolen or silk, while the rich people wear both. I asked: "Do you wear silk?" They answered in a lively chorus. "No!" I asked: Does your mother wear silk?" Again there was a loud "No!" But a child’s voice interrupted, making a statement. This is what he said: "My mother has a silk dress. My father spoiled the cloth and had to bring it home." The silk worker had to pay for the piece he spoiled and only then did his wife get a silk dress!

We had a woman’s meeting, too, in Paterson at which Haywood, Tresca and I spoke. When I told this story to the women clad in shoddy cotton dresses, there were murmurs of approval which confirmed that the child was right–all the silk they ever saw outside the mill was spoiled goods. Tresca made some remarks about shorter hours, people being less tired, more time to spend together and jokingly he said: "More babies." The women did not look amused. When Haywood interrupted and said: "No Carlo, we believe in birth control–a few babies, well cared for!" they burst into laughter and applause. They gladly agreed to sending the children to other cities and, chastened by the Lawrence experience, the police did not interfere this time.

Conservatism and Unionism

Are conservatism and unionism opposed? Not always.

DisraeliBenjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) was one of the founders of modern British conservatism. A successful novelist, Disraeli was also interested in politics. He was first elected to Parliament in 1837. He was "a progressive Tory" and advocated triennial parliaments and the secret ballot. He was sympathetic to Chartism (a movement established and controlled by working men in 1836 to achieve parliamentary democracy as a step towards social and economic reforms).

For Disraeli, "the rights of labour are as sacred as the rights of property."

Fighting the image of the Conservative Party of that time as an anti-reform party, Disraeli in 1867 proposed and saw through Parliament a new Reform Act expanding democracy in England.

Disraeli served as Prime Minister twice, once for a brief time in 1868 and again from 1874 to 1880. During his second Ministry, Disraeli was finally able to implement ideas that he had formulated when he was leader of the Young England group in the 1840s. Social reforms passed by the Disraeli government included the Artisans Dwellings Act (1875), the Public Health Act (1875), the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1875), and the Education Act (1876).

Disraeli also introduced measures to protect workers such as the 1874 Factory Act and the Climbing Boys Act (1875). Disraeli also kept his promise to improve the legal position of trade unions. The Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act (1875) allowed peaceful picketing, and the Employers and Workmen Act (1878) enabled workers to sue employers in the civil courts if they broke legally agreed contracts.

- Adapted from a Spartacus Educational article. 

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