4 “Strike at Little Falls”: Fighting for Labor Rights in the Era of Industrialization
"Strike at Little Falls" poster, 1912
In bold red letters, the poster declares “STRIKE AT LITTLE FALLS, N.Y.”. In October of 1912, a strike spontaneously began when textile workers, predominantly women who were recent immigrants from Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Austria, walked out of the Phoenix Knitting Mill in the small city of Little Falls in upstate New York. Known primarily for its thriving industries of dairy, bicycle, hammer and textile industries, the factories of Little Falls would soon garner national attention for more than the items they produced.
The poster demands “HELP IS NEEDED”. This poster is not meant to be seen only by other workers in the area to attract more strikers in unity with the textile workers of the Phoenix and later Gilbert Mills. It also speaks to the entire nation in an effort to attract witnesses to both the inhumanity of the working conditions as well as local law enforcement’s treatment of the strikers. Help is demanded beyond sympathies, seeking financial support for the strike. At the bottom of the poster, those who are inspired to help are directed to send contributions to Matilda Rabinowitz, the Secretary of the Little Falls Defense Committee, to a local P.O. Box in Little Falls.
The poster describes both visually and textually not the causes of the strike, but rather the strength and the magnitude of it—“a one-sided battle has been going on in this place between 1500 textile workers, mostly women and children and the power of the city made worse by the presence of the company’s hired thugs and detectives”. It also decries the police brutality that ensued and the infringement on the Constitution-protected freedoms of free speech and assembly. This poster demands that the greater public see the deplorable actions and hold the city of Little Falls accountable.
This strike poster representing the 1912 Little Falls Textile Strike embodies the intersection of many issues and trends occurring in Little Falls at the height of its industrialization: a large wave of immigration, predominantly from Southern and Eastern Europe; the peak of socialism in the United States; a rising level of unskilled workers fighting for labor rights with union help; women becoming more active not only in the work force but also in the political sphere; debate over the right for free speech and assembly; and an awareness of the power of organizing and class unity.
The 1912 Little Falls Textile Strike was a monumental event, revealing the tensions and abuses beneath the surface of industrialization. However, it also revealed the strength of a well-organized group and the power the disenfranchised can wield when they come together to protest and organize against inequality. The same forces that intersected in Little Falls in 1912 to inspire nearly three months of protest continue to exist today. This strike poster reminds us that although the strike may have ended over 100 years ago, perhaps help is still needed in the communities around us.
Immigration to the Rock City
Much of the history of Little Falls can be traced back to the unique geology of the locale, and the history of immigration in Little Falls is no different. As Helen Schloss, a tuberculosis nurse and later important figure in the 1912 strike, opens with in her first article about Little Falls published in The New York Call, “Little Falls is bounded on the west by huge rocks, on the north by huge rocks, and on the south and east by the same.”The town of Little Falls sprung up on the banks of the Mohawk River where people travelling down the river were forced to carry their boats along land to avoid the rough falls created by the surrounding rocks and boulders. Later the construction of the Little Falls Canal and Erie Canal would draw laborers during the late 1700s and early 1800s respectively to help construct this monumental bypass of the rocky section of the river. The laborers during this time were predominantly Irish, and while some stayed in Little Falls after working on the canal, many moved to other areas. As the 1800s drew to a close, railroad construction would draw a new wave of immigrants to Little Falls as well as the rise of factories powered by the readily accessible and abundant waterpower generated by the falls. The majority of immigrants coming to Little Falls this time were from Southern and Eastern Europe, primarily from Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine.
From 1900 to 1910, a record number of Southern and Eastern Europeans arrived in Little Falls. Between those years, the population of Little Falls increased by 18.2%. During this time, the native-born population in Little Falls declined, meaning that a growing immigrant population was almost solely responsible for the population increase of nearly 2,000 people.2
Life in Little Falls: a city divided
Life in Little Falls varied dramatically depending on one’s class and race. Most immigrants to Little Falls lived in tenements on the “South Side” of Little Falls where the majority of the factories and mills were located as well. Conditions in the South Side were so deplorable that they created concern even from the largely disinterested affluent members of the city of Little Falls. Tuberculosis outbreaks were on the rise, and fear over the disease crossing from the South Side of Little Falls into the homes of those on the north side of the Mohawk River led the Fortnightly Club, a social group of prominent local women, to hire Helen Schloss as a visiting tuberculosis nurse to help document and curb the spread of the disease in Little Falls.
Schloss was a well-educated Russian-born immigrant who before coming to Little Falls had worked as the District Nurse in Malone, New York and a medical inspector for the New York City Department of Health. When she arrived in Little Falls in May of 1912, she began to work with the city to educate about tuberculosis and encourage direct action against it such as renovation and fumigation of the South Side tenements. In addition to the programs that she started, she also began documenting the living conditions in the tenements on the South Side and conducting interviews with the families there. What she found was beyond unsanitary living conditions that concerned her far beyond the threat of tuberculosis. Schloss found three to four families—upwards of 20 people—living in single-family homes, with beds shared in shifts and crammed into all empty spaces of the houses. Smoke from the trains that ran near the South Side made the air unclean and difficult to breathe. The construction of the houses was unsafe, with narrow staircases, crumbling walls, damp ceilings, and lack of proper and limited ventilation in many rooms. In addition to poor living conditions, Schloss also took note of the structural inequalities and racism that created these conditions. The property owners, many of whom were members of the Fortnightly Club, refused to invest in and take proper care of their tenements, arguing “Why, the Dagos, Slavs, and Polacks can live on almost nothing! They are dirty and filthy and will never amount to anything. There is no use in trying to fix their houses, as they will only dirty them again!”
As she shared these discoveries with the women of the Fortnightly Club, Schloss met resistance to her suggestions for change. It became readily apparent that the women’s concern ended at tuberculosis, not caring for the actual people who were dying from the disease nor the conditions that made them vulnerable to it.
The conditions in the textile mills mirrored the conditions in the South Side. The New York State Federal Investigating Commission that was appointed to examine health and safety standards in mills and factories following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire came to Little Falls in August of 1912. In their tour of the factories in the city, they found some of the worst conditions in the state, with children as young as five years old being employed and given work to complete in their homes, perhaps in order to hide it from state inspectors.
In response to these egregious conditions and on the recommendations of these state-wide investigations, New York State legislators passed a law in 1912 that reduced the number of hours women could legally work in a week from 60 to 54, capped the number of hours women could work in a day at 10, and stated that women were not allowed to work before 6 in the morning or after 9 at night. Like a similar law that passed in Massachusetts earlier, it did not include any regulations on wages. In Massachusetts, mill management still sought ways to avoid losses to their own profits and to continue to reap the greatest personal benefit from their laborers, and many mills lowered pay following the reduction in hours in order to recoup their losses in productivity. When mill workers found on their next paystub the reduction in pay corresponding to the reduction in work hours, it was met with strikes and walk outs at mills across the state of Massachusetts, most notably in Lawrence. With barely livable salaries to begin with, this pay decrease was intolerable and workers decided that “if they must starve, they would rather starve idle than working.”
On October 1, 1912, the new law protecting women workers went into effect in New York. This set the stage for the strike in Little Falls, where the Phoenix and Gilbert Knitting Mills would test the limits of their workers in a similar fashion to the mills in Massachusetts.
The Little Falls Textile Strike of 1912
The Little Falls Textile Strike began on October 9, 1912 after 80 women spontaneously walked out of work at the Phoenix Knitting Mill located in the heart of Little Falls, New York near Clinton Park. The women had just received their pay envelopes and found that they had been given less than their usual pay, accounting for the mandatory decrease in work hours. Later that week, 76 women from the nearby Gilbert Knitting Mill would also walk out of the factory, with approximately 600 workers in total eventually joining the strike—nearly matching the number of those still crossing the picket line to work. While the strike was spontaneous and unorganized at first, as word of the strike spread, sympathizers such as prominent socialist Reverend George R. Lunn, mayor of Schenectady, as well as representatives from both the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) descended into Little Falls to help organize the strike and advance the workers’ cause.
Socialist party members along with Mayor George Lunn arrived by train into Little Falls on October 13. The group of socialists began efforts to organize the original strikers as well as to persuade other workers to join the strike. However, the socialists met immediate opposition from the local police force, led by chief James “Dusty” Long, who arrested Mayor Lunn among others when they tried to address the strikers in Clinton Park. While freedom of speech and assembly were nationally protected by the Constitution, local ordinances in the Little Falls city charter placed tight restraints on how, when, and where the community could express these protected rights. These ordinances included restrictions such as requiring all people to receive a permit in order to hold a street meeting and forbidding over twenty people from congregating on the streets. While these laws were not regularly enforced, they were swiftly and aggressively put into effect in relation to the strike. In a written statement to a local newspaper, police chief Long revealed his reasoning behind the sudden enforcement: “We have a strike on our hands and a foreign element to deal with. We have in the past kept them in subjugation and we mean to continue to hold them where they belong. We will not allow anyone to attempt publicly to stir up a feeling which might cause serious trouble to this city, county, state … The city may have these local quarrels, but I will at all times object to butters-in.” In order to resist enforcement of these restrictions on freedom of speech and right to assembly, strikers and supporters employed tactics such as submitting to arrest in order to overcrowd jails and overwhelm the administration and the courts. Finally, support from the Governor of New York, John A. Dix helped secure the strikers’ right to assemble after he warned Little Falls Mayor Frank Shall and Herkimer County Sheriff James W. Moon that the people of the state of New York wished to see the rights guaranteed in the Constitution respected. By October 21, the socialists managed to assert their rights to freedom of speech and assembly and were able to demonstrate without arrest.
IWW organizers Ben Légère and Filippo Bocchini arrived in Little Falls and began to establish a strike committee and set demands for the strike. With the conservative AFL hesitant to aid unskilled, immigrant workers, the IWW became the dominant union force in relation to the strike, and on October 24, 1912, the strikers voted to join the IWW and a charter was issued for the new National Industrial Union of Textile Workers of Little Falls.
The strike was notable for how peacefully it had begun, with workers simply walking out of the factory and not destroying machinery or other property. However, the police force incited brutal violence on October 30 after the picket line did not clear a path for the scabs to enter the mills. Special police and mounted patrolmen began to attack the strikers, beating members of the crowd—some to the point of unconsciousness. Injuries resulted on both sides of the conflict, with one policer officer getting shot in the leg and another getting stabbed. The violence extended beyond the site of the strike as police pursued fleeing strikers into the South Side neighborhood, where they stormed the strike headquarters at Slovak Hall, destroyed the instruments of the Slovak Society Band, and arrested strike committee members and supporters who had not even been at the front lines of the strike. IWW organizers Ben Légère and Filippo Bocchini were taken into police custody and would remain there for the remainder of the strike, being held without bail. This prompted the IWW to send in Matilda Rabinowitz, a young but talented member of the IWW, to organize her first strike.
Despite the brazen display of excessive violence by the police, an assembly of the mill management, merchants, local politicians, and clergy of Little Falls, among others, came together to wholeheartedly endorse the actions of local law enforcement. This made outside support necessary to garner a positive conclusion for the strikers. Additionally, the IWW could not financially support local strikes so bail funds, legal fees, wages for organizers, and money for food and supplies needed to be raised by the strike committee. Many strategies to help elevate this local strike to a national stage were taken, including the arrival of well-known IWW labor organizer Willian “Big Bill” Hayward. To this effect, the strike poster exposing the police brutality and terrible working conditions became an important tool for combating the press against the strike as well as earning the sympathy and financial support of those outside of Little Falls.
After nearly three months of striking and the dramatic sending away of the strikers’ children to safer towns in late December, the New York State Department of Labor finally responded to the strike and ordered an official probe by state inspectors. After hearing from the strikers and the mill management and touring the tenements of the South Side, the state mediators reached a settlement with the Phoenix and Gilbert Knitting Mills and delivered it to the strike committee. The agreement met the demands of the strikers nearly in full: individual strikers would not be discriminated against, all employees would be reinstated, workers would receive 60 hours of pay for 54 hours of work, and piece work rates would be adjusted to compensate for the reduction of time caused by the new 54-hour work week law.
These conditions were read to the strikers at a meeting presided over by Matilda Rabinowitz and interpreted in various languages for all strikers to understand. With great excitement, the workers unanimously voted to accept the conditions, ending the long-enduring strike after 89 days.
The Power of Print Media
The strike poster is an important piece of material culture representing the 1912 Little Falls Textile Strike because of the importance print media played in constructing the image of the strike to outsiders. The IWW had a long history of using the power of print media to garner support for their causes. While not directly linked to the IWW, this Little Falls strike poster uses language that was commonly used in other IWW media. In the poster, a woman is referred to as a “six dollar a week slave”, mirroring language seen throughout IWW propaganda where workers are referred to as slave laborers. The police are referred to as “the majesty of the law”, connecting the position as public officials to the ruling class. Like much of the IWW print media created during this time, people are defined by their class above all else, and class solidarity is framed as the key to ending the rule of the employing class over the working class.
The strike poster would had been distributed throughout the nation to raise awareness of the strikers’ cause as well as the abuses they faced fighting for reasonable claims. In the vacuum of Little Falls, few besides the strikers and socialist sympathizers were concerned by the police brutality and working conditions. The poster was important for making others outside of Little Falls aware of these conditions so that local officials, law enforcement, and the affluent community would be criticized into changing their behavior.
In addition to sympathetic support, the poster was also important for raising funds. Local strikes were self-supported, so organizers were faced not only with the task of arranging the strike but also raising funds. Posters like this would be seen not only by socialist supporters but also those outside of the socialist groups who might be sympathetic to the abuse and be inspired to donate money, if not to the socialist cause then directly to the strike itself.
Posters and proclamations created by the organizers were important to also combat the narrative the mill owners and mainstream new sources were creating about the strike. Prominent figures in the Little Falls community painted the strikers as ignorant fools being manipulated into violence by insidious outside socialists. Character defamation of the organizers was also used strategically to try to take away from the sympathy outsiders might feel for the strikers. This was the case in Little Falls when a spy operating on the inside of the strike for local officials intercepted letters Ben Légère and Matilda Rabinowitz were exchanging while Légère was in jail. Légère and Rabinowitz were lovers even though Légère had a wife and children. The letters not only included details about the strike, but also included sentimental declarations of love and intimacy. The private contents of these letters were published in full by the local newspaper during Légère’s trial in an attempt to defame his character and through that undermine the strike. Strike organizers produced their own stream of reporting on the strike and participants to create a narrative that was more sympathetic to the workers and focused on the abuses they met.