"One Big Union" in Paterson: Italian Anarchism, the IWW, and the Silk Strike of 1913 Reexamined

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 9:10 AM
Chicago Ballroom D (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Kenyon W. Zimmer, University of Texas at Arlington
More than sixty years ago Fred Thompson noted, “A persistent myth about the IWW is that it plunged into strikes without previous organization…then deserted the workers to repeat the process elsewhere.” The prevailing narrative of the famous 1913 silk strike in Paterson, New Jersey, is emblematic of this myth. However, as this paper will demonstrate, the Italian (and, to a lesser extent, German) silk workers of Paterson, led by an influential local group of anarchists, had a long history of militant labor organization, including interethnic and industrial unionism, that dated back to the 1890s, and these same Italian anarchists played a leading--but now forgotten--role in the 1913 strike. Indeed, within Paterson, anarchism and the IWW became virtually synonymous. By linking the local history of the IWW in Paterson to the transnational history of Italian American anarchism, this paper reveals three decades of uninterrupted labor organization and the creation of a vibrant and resilient working-class counterculture guided by anarchists, many of who had backgrounds in working-class struggles in Northern Italy. Rather than a spontaneous event in which the IWW intervened from the outside, the 1913 strike was in fact the outgrowth of local activity and cannot be understood outside of the context of Paterson’s radical Italian community. This perspective further allows us to see that the 1913 strike was not an unmitigated defeat for the IWW, nor did it lead to a collapse of local IWW or anarchist activity, which was deeply rooted in local working-class life and institutions and continued in a variety of forms into the 1930s.
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