1913 to 2023
A century later, the mills of Paterson sitting abandoned, their machines silent
Exactly 110 years ago today – on July 28, 1913 – Paterson silk mill workers voted to end their strike. Their strike had failed. But what has changed (or not) since then frames their historical struggle in the context of ongoing labor battles. The motivations of the strikers are as relevant in 2023 as they were in 1913: the fight for a living wage, for an eight-hour day, and – ultimately – for the right to work that feels meaningful.
The silk looms of Paterson required a high level of skill to operate: to draw the thin threads into delicate patterns, to weave the silk without breaking it, to never pull the threads too tightly that embroidered patterns curled up into themselves. Machines kept the rooms humid all year round – hot in summer, cold in winter – so that the silk threads remained damp, malleable, and less likely to tear from dryness. Workers suffered in the moisture; cases of asthma and lung diseases were common. Management was threatening to replace their skilled labor with machines. Whatever creativity and skill was still required to operate the looms was gradually being lost. Thousands in Paterson went on strike for five months from February to July 1913. They ultimately failed when management refused to concede to their demands and when workers in other mills refused to join in solidarity.
The machines in Paterson were powered first by water and wood, then coal, and finally electricity. The inventors of mill machines were scattered across the New York region. Factory machines needed to be close to the men who invented them and repaired them when, inevitably, these new inventions broke down. The investors in silk were on Wall Street and Lower Manhattan. The markets selling silk were department stores on Manhattan’s Ladies Mile, better known as Sixth Avenue. (Sixth Avenue was still largely residential.) A popular saying ran: 8th Street down the men are making it; 8th Street up the women are spending it.
The distance between markets and manufacturers was once measured in miles, the distance by train from Paterson to New York City or the distance by foot from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to Ladies Mile. This distance is now measured in thousands of miles. In the 19th century, Jacob Riis shocked the city’s elite with photos of Lower East Side tenements and factories located less than a mile from their Fifth Avenue homes. On June 7, 1913, the Paterson strikers brought the strike to the city. They boarded trains to Madison Square Garden and re-enacted their strike on stage for an audience in the thousands. Some strikers played on stage as police, others as management, and others as themselves. It was one of the the first times in American history that labor was transformed into a public pageant, into a public spectacle that hoped to make visible their struggle to New York City consumers. Pageants were traditionally military and state affairs that celebrated events like battle victories, elections, and fancy dress balls in theaters. To put on as large a public spectacle to celebrate striking and strikers was something new.
Fearful for their property and of socialists on their doorstep, Upper East Side residents organized their own unit of the National Guard based in a custom-built Park Avenue Avenue castle. Nicknamed the Silk Stocking Regiment for the wealth of its members, they paraded annually down Fifth Avenue in a display of wealth and force.
Over the 20th century, mill workers in Paterson, Lowell, and across New England fought and won union rights. In each instance, within years of their victories, the factories picked up shop and moved elsewhere. First to the American South in states with labor laws that favored the mill owners. Then to China and finally to India. In the 21st century, manufacturers move machines to wherever labor is cheapest. Transport by container ship is now cheaper, labor laws in America are now stronger than they were in the 1900s (but weaker than they were in the 1950s), and borders are no longer a problem for owners in a world woven together on strings of ocean-spanning fiber optic cables.
Today, that distance between sites of exploitation and places of profit is greater. The factories of management and the homes of laborers are no longer in walking distance of each other. On April 24, 2013 – on the centennial of the Paterson silk strike – the Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh. The mill was making fast fashion for Primark, Walmart, and other western brands, paying its workers cents on the hour for 10-hour days. Vibrations from the machinery caused the poorly built factory to collapse and kill 1,134 workers. Most victims were women and mothers. One hundred years earlier in 1913, most New Yorkers could have seen firsthand the strike, the violent response of factory owners to suppress it, and the damages of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. But in 2013, the violence of Rana Plaza was half a world away. After the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 killed 146 mostly women and children, management paid the family of each victim $75. After the Rana factory collapse, Primark paid each victim’s family $200. In neither disaster was any corporation punished. But while the Triangle fire was a key moment in labor history that galvanized public support for unions, the Rana factory collapse is a footnote.
Historians describe the Vietnam War as America’s first “television war,” images flashed across the screen of napalm attacks, carpet bombings, and the nine-year-old girl running toward the film cameras from her burning village. The violence feels distant: workers thousands of miles away, a separate lived reality, violence transformed into a product as passive to consume as the evening news. The violence of textile production also feels intimate: as intimate as the clothes we wear and as intimate as seeing violence from the intimacy of the bedroom television. But, intimate or distant, labor struggle is a reality millions of middle class Americans can now choose to see or ignore.
The technologies of surveillance have changed the face of labor. Laborers are now not only more physically distant from the markets their products are sold. They are also distant from the homes of their corporate bosses. They are more physically distant from each other. Algorithms guide Amazon workers on the paths they must navigate through the fulfillment center to retrieve items. The software allegedly guides them on paths that limit face-to-face contact and thus reduces the chances to socialize and organize themselves at the workplace.
The geography of the American city has also changed. In the early 20th century, most mill workers walked to work, travelled by trolley, or assembled in the public street. Main streets and public parks were open spaces for labor to assemble, protest, and make their voices heard. Immigrant laborers clustered in tight-knit and physically dense communities united along lines of race, religion, and language. The geography of the city invited social interaction and the human relations essential to any organized movement.
Today, more New Jersey residents live in suburbs than in cities, and more travel to work on private cars than on public transit. Highways isolate each commuter in their own car; a public good is privatized. The fabric of daily life has turned inward. What was once a culture of public spectacles and public entertainment – in theaters, in city streets, at church, and on public transportation – has been replaced with the television, internet streaming, and each person’s private communion with the phone screen. If the falling number of Americans who attend church, go to live performances, and participate in local elections is any indication, human needs that once required social interaction in public are now met through communion with technology in private. The ease of driving in a privatized suburban environment isolates us from each other and from the kind of urban environments conducive to organized protest.
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, philosopher Michel Foucault described in 1971 earlier society as the “culture of spectacle” and modern society as a “carceral culture.” Public space has become privatized: from shopping malls on private property patrolled by mall cops, to Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse as a virtual town square, to Amazon as a virtual marketplace that replaces the activities of a physical Main Street America. In each private space, the user is tracked, monitored, and marketed. Revolution is averted.
The nature of labor also is different. The image of a 19th century factory is the assembly line, industrial labor in physically demanding jobs. Today, those jobs have either been automated or largely exiled beyond American borders. The trend since mid-century has moved the sites of work – factories, offices, and logistics centers – from cities to suburban areas, to office parks and industrial parks where the employer has more control. The gig economy of delivery drivers, truckers, restaurants, and service workers has largely replaced an urban industrial economy of blue-collar laborers. Labor is not less demanding or demeaning, but it is different – more atomized, more isolated, more suburban, and more closely monitored.
For all the ways the suburban built environment makes labor organizing more difficult, one thing has improved in the past century: the access of laborers to consumer goods. Paterson strikers largely lived in tenements, in boarding houses, and homes usually without hot running water and electricity. Most could afford only a few pairs of clothes. Bread riots were frequent in 19th-century cities, for the simple fact that most workers lived paycheck to paycheck; bread was a staple food and a large percentage of a family’s weekly budget. Today, the American working class is not usually lacking for material goods: fast fashion, fast food, cell phones, and low-cost products made by laborers in foreign lands paid even less than them. Even the homeless, thanks to government programs, have access to the internet on their low-cost smart phones. Henry Ford advocated for the cheap mass-produced car as tool of social stability. The moment the laborer becomes car owner and later homeowner, Ford claimed in newsletters to employees, he would no longer advocate for revolution. Consumerism will pacify revolution. Revolution is averted.
In the 1910s, economists and socialists predicted that American society would be so wealthy, so thoroughly mechanized, and so rich in affordable consumer products that most people would no longer have to work. Laborers would be free to live a meaningful life surrounded by high quality machine-made goods. However rich modern western society is in consumer products, it is still lacking in the cultural fabric of families and the social fabric of anti-poverty institutions. The cruel irony is that the average American worker can afford a six-foot wide flat screen TV but not the home to put it in or health insurance. That century-old dream of industrial utopia now feels more attainable than anytime in human history, and yet somehow more distant. Perhaps, if the Paterson silk mills were still in operation and their workers again on strike, management could offer to buy them televisions and a subscription to Amazon Prime.