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When the Village Got a Case of the Wobblies

Imagine over a thousand workers arriving at Penn Station on a dedicated train, gathering at Union Square, and marching up Fifth Avenue toward Madison Square Garden (the Sanford White-designed one by Madison Square Park) as a band plays La Marseillaise and The Internationale. The Garden is bedecked with red banners and sashes; its tower aglow in red light. Volunteers are handing out radical literature, and charismatic speakers are rousing a crowd of 15,000 with anti-capitalist fulminations and militant songs. It would be enough to make an industrialist’s knees go wobbly, even if it weren’t only a show, as it was. And yet, it was not only a show; but the reenactment of a labor conflagration raging just a couple of dozen miles away. The spectacle behind the spectacle was the 1913 Paterson silk strike, a work stoppage organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (aka, the Wobblies), a radical international labor union, the New York City chapter of which had forged strong connections with Greenwich Village radical intellectuals. The pageant at Madison Square Garden was a culmination of the collaboration between these groups.

Madison Square Garden

The Wobblies were formed on June 27, 1905 at a Chicago gathering of anarchists, labor leaders, and socialists that included Eugene Debs, William “Big Bill” Haywood, and Mother Jones, among other radical luminaries. The purpose of the meeting was to establish “one big union” — an abiding ideal among trade unionists since the late 19th century — that would allow the working class as a whole to confront its capitalist oppressors. The convention resulted in a labor organization that forswore the craft-based structure of traditional unions in favor of one that spanned across industrial sectors and through each sector, including all workers, regardless of skill.

Big Bill Haywood

Despite the group’s aspirations, this never was one big happy union. Beset from the outset by internal dissension, the Wobblies endured numerous defections throughout its history. A very early and near-fatal split hinged on the group’s decision to embrace anarcho-syndicalism, which repudiated involvement in electoral politics and instead pursued through direct action the revolutionary goal of abolishing the wage system. In keeping with anarcho-syndicalist skepticism of centralized power, the Wobblies adopted a non-hierarchical organizational system that, unlike traditional unions, allowed a high degree of autonomy to rank-and-file members and to each union branch. One such chapter was located in New York City and headquartered in the East Village, at 115 East 10th St and at 27 East 4th Street.

The 1913 Paterson silk strike reinforced loose, pre-existing connections between Wobblie organizers and Village intellectuals. Several organizers, including Haywood himself, had contributed to the radical magazine The Masses, which was edited by “The Prince of Greenwich Village” writer Max Eastman.

Max Eastman

Wobbly Elizabeth Gurley Flynn frequented Heterodoxy a bi-monthly proto feminist debating club that counted among its founding members Max Eastman’s sister Crystal, with whom Gurley Flynn would go on to found the Americans Civil Liberties Union.

Crystal Eastman

And perhaps most crucially, both Wobblies and local artists and writers, including contributors to radical publications, were regulars at the Wednesday-night salons organized by wealthy socialite Mabel Dodge.

Mabel Dodge

In the months leading up to the Paterson strike, the local labor movements had taken a keen interest in a successful textile strike that had just taken place in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Drawing inspiration from that outcome, they began to mobilize with the goal of improving the wages and working conditions of silk workers in Patterson. In recent years, the introduction of women and children into the workforce had depressed industry wages, just as technological advances reduced the need for skilled labor. As a result, increases in worker productivity led neither to higher salaries nor a shorter workday.

Big Bill Haywood in Paterson

Wobblies did not have a strong presence in Paterson before the strike. As mobilization began, however, they sent in experienced organizers from out-of-town to assist in the development of strategy and to take the sort of vocal, public role that, by inviting retribution and arrest, might imperil the livelihood of local workers. These Wobbly veterans included founding member Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who, at twenty-two years of age, had already been a member for six years. Their role was not to lead, but to advise workers in organizing and in educating their colleagues so as to increase membership ranks and improve collective decision-making. Thanks to these efforts, the number of affiliated Wobblies in Paterson increased by 9,000 during this period. Different members had different gripes against their employers, depending on their position and skill-level. Ultimately, however, they settled on a common set of demands that included: minimum age restrictions, an eight-hour workday, and the elimination of multiple-loom systems.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

The backlash against the strikers was not long in coming. On the first day of the strike, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was arrested for inciting violence through speech. More arrests would follow, totaling over 2,200 by the time the strike concluded six months later. Among those arrested was Greenwich Village writer John Reed, who had been invited to meet the strikers by Haywood, a recent neighborhood acquaintance.

John Reed

Asked at the sentencing to state his profession, Reed replied “poet”— an answer that did not ward off incarceration. Although he only spent four days behind bars, Reed emerged committed to the strikers’ campaign. Three months on, the strike was suffering from lack of funding and publicity. The idea arose at one of Mabel Dodge’s salon gatherings to address these problems by holding a pageant. Reed took that idea and ran with it, both directing the pageant and writing its script.

Although the pageant lost money, it succeeded in attracting media attention and radicalizing audience members. Ultimately, however, it did not avert the defeat of the strike, which had spurred industrialists into setting aside their rivalry and banding together to face down the threat posed by the shut down. Some scholars credit this defeat for the Wobblies’ failure to gain further traction in the east part of the country. Still, the organization survived and continued to have a substantial impact out west. At its height, in the late 1910s, the union had about 150,000 members. In subsequent years, schisms weakened the group; and the first and second Red Scares all but crippled it. For their part, the Greenwich Village intellectuals who collaborated with the Wobblies gradually drift away from them. By the time they were done, however, they had left behind their own impressive list of progressive accomplishments. You can learn more about some of those here.

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