James P. Cannon

The United Front at Passaic

Written: June 1926
First Published: June, 1926, Labor Defender
Source: James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism. Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 © Spartacist Publishing Company, 1992. ISBN 0-9633828-1-0; Published by Spartacist Publishing Company, Box 1377 G.P.O. New York, NY 10116. Introductory material and notes by the Prometheus Research Library.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Prometheus Research Library
Copyright: Permission for on-line publication provided by Spartacist Publishing Company for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2005.

The following article by Cannon was published in the Labor Defender, monthly journal of the International Labor Defense. The strike of textile workers in Passaic, New Jersey had begun in January 1926. It was led by the United Front Committee of Textile Workers, organized by a young Workers Party member named Albert Weisbord. In August the official AFL union, the United Textile Workers, agreed to take over leadership of the strike, but only on condition that Weisbord withdraw from the strike leadership. The Workers Party agreed to these terms. The strike was settled four months later on terms that amounted to a defeat.

The Passaic strike started out as a local dispute between textile workers and the mill owners over a cut in wages, but it developed into a historic battle in the class struggle. Other issues of fundamental importance for all the workers of America came into the foreground and dominated the struggle, along with the issue of wages. Other forces besides those directly involved at the beginning were brought into play. Passaic became a battleground with the whole country looking on or taking part, according to their interests.

The 16,000 textile workers would have had the bosses licked long ago if it had been a simple fight between the two. But the mill bosses had powerful friends who came to their aid. They used the public authority on their side as though it were something they carried around in their pocket. This was an eye-opener for the workers, most of whom had been under the impression that America is a free country where a working man has got a chance and where the government belongs to the people.

The bosses, with the help of the public officials and the courts, would have crushed the strike by this time if the thing had stopped there. But something happened that the bosses and perhaps the bulk of the workers never figured on. The strikers also had found powerful friends who put protecting arms around them. Everything that is alive in the labor movement is taking a hand in Passaic. They can't starve out the strikers at Passaic because the workers throughout the country won't let them. Money and food flows into the strikers' relief committee in a steady stream. They can't suppress the rights of the strikers and railroad the leaders either; at least, not without a fight of such proportions as they never dreamed of when they started their reign of terror.

Passaic used to be a drab mill town, with workers unorganized and fearfully exploited. It is something infinitely bigger and better today.

When you say Passaic nowadays, everybody knows what you mean. Passaic means monstrous exploitation. Passaic means the public officials, the courts, the police and the governor of the state all lined up on the side of the bosses and giving everybody a blunt and simple answer to the question: Who owns the government? Passaic means armored cars, police clubs, gas bombs and injunctions. Passaic means the solidarity of the capitalists and control of the government by them.

But now there is another side to Passaic. Passaic also means heroic and determined struggle. It means the inexhaustible resources of courage and endurance that lie deep in the working class. It means admiration, sympathy and support from workers far and near. Passaic means the united front. It means union. It means leadership of integrity and skill. Passaic means Weisbord. It means the awakening solidarity of labor.

At the time this article is being written, the Passaic strike is entering its 17th week with ranks unbroken. It is no longer an isolated local affair. Large sections of the labor movement throughout the country have already taken a hand in it. The heroic struggle of the Passaic textile workers against heavy odds has impressed itself so strongly on the rank and file of the labor movement that it has become very difficult for anyone to oppose them. Even those who tried to do so at first—those who tried to disown it as an “outlaw” strike—had to change front. The Passaic strikers have fought so well and have been led so skillfully as to compel the admiration and support of the labor movement.

They have received help of a substantial kind already. But from the looks of things more and greater help will be needed, especially after the strike is settled and its dramatic incidents are no longer news items for the first page. For the bosses, through their political hirelings, are plotting to take revenge on the workers who have dealt them such a heavy blow. They are especially determined to “get” Albert Weisbord, the organizer of the strike and the soul of the movement. Three indictments have been brought against him, and they aim to railroad him to the penitentiary for a long term if they can put it over quietly.

But we confidently believe they will fail in this conspiracy just as they have failed to break the strike by means of terrorism and suppression. All their brutalities in the strike have reacted against them and produced a contrary effect to the one they counted on. The police terrorism did not break the spirit of the strikers; it only made them more stubborn and determined. It educated them as to the actual role of the government. Moreover, it aroused ever wider and deeper strata of other workers and brought them into active solidarity with the strikers of Passaic and with all that their struggle stands for.

If we realize the issues involved, the frame-up against the strike leaders will have the same result. It must be our aim to accomplish this result and frustrate the conspiracy. Our ILD, which has already played its part in the strike, will have the main responsibility of organizing the protest movement.

The Passaic strike marks a milestone in the development of the American working class. It is a mighty and inspiring spectacle. This is the verdict of all who have seen it in action. It incorporates all the best traditions of the militant movement. It embodies all the old and tried methods of industrial struggle welded together with many ideas that are new and great. The mass picketing, the singing, the militancy and the industrial form of organization which characterized the great strikes led by the IWW in the textile industry are used in Passaic. Together with these go the new ideas of the united front, the flexible tactics, the establishment of connections with all labor and sympathizing elements, and the constant effort to broaden the base of support and to make room for all who really want to help.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is there, representing in her person the experience and militancy of the old fights and pouring it all freely into the strike. Bob Dunn, one of the leaders of the great organization attempt of 1919, Norman Thomas helping in the fight to maintain free speech and assemblage for the strikers, Esther Lowell of the Federated Press, and many others of various political views are part of the united front at Passaic.

Weisbord and a group of others like him, Jack Rubenstein, Lena Chernenko, Nancy Sandowsky, the new and young ones, knit the whole body together and dominate it with their spirit. America has never before seen a strike like Passaic. The best of the old and the new are fused together there.

Courage and militancy of the rank and file; flexibility, skill and integrity of the leadership—that is Passaic. The bosses have been outmaneuvered at every turn.

The Passaic strike teaches over again in a most impressive manner an old lesson well known to experienced militants. That lesson is the part played by the state authority in conflicts between workers and bosses. The experiences at Passaic are also demonstrating the absolute necessity for a permanently organized and always ready non-partisan labor defense organization which we had in mind when we founded the ILD last June. The ILD has played its part in Passaic and will play a yet bigger one before the fight is over.

Any worker who has learned the ABC of the class struggle can tell you that the state authorities—the courts, police, etc.—side with the bosses in time of struggle. This is a settled and correct theory which has been confirmed a thousand times in practice. But it is not often that they do it so brazenly and ferociously and in such open defiance of their own laws as they have done it in Passaic.

The picket line, the living symbol of the power of the strike and its greatest weapon, was the first target of the “impartial servants of the people.” Streams of ice cold water were turned on the picketers one bitter winter day. Men, women and children were knocked down by policemen's clubs without even a pretext of legal justification. Tear gas bombs were thrown into crowds of strikers, and in the confusion and panic that followed they were ridden down by mounted police. Oh, some great lessons in “democratic government” were taught at Passaic!

Two hundred sixty-four strikers were arrested on various charges, most of them for peaceful picketing, in cynical disregard of a state law recently passed which expressly legalizes it. Lena Chernenko and Nancy Sandowsky, two of the moving spirits of the picket line, together with a number of others were arrested and rearrested as fast as bail could be provided. Jack Rubenstein, one of the most active militants, was arrested, beaten up, indicted and held on $10,000 bail. One striker died as a result of a police clubbing.

The police terrorists made no political discrimination. It didn't matter what one's political or other opinions might be, if he was in the strike or for the strike, he fell afoul of the “law” at Passaic. Norman Thomas was arrested and indicted for attempting to speak at a meeting in a free speech test. Robert W. Dunn of the Civil Liberties Union got the same treatment for walking on the picket line after an ignorant sheriff had read the “riot act” and proclaimed what he called “martial law.” Esther Lowell of the Federated Press helped a woman to her feet after she had been knocked down by a policeman's club. She went to jail for it. Injunctions were issued forbidding practically everything.

To cap the climax of the reign of terror, Weisbord was arrested. Three indictments were quickly brought against him and it took $30,000 and a great deal of outside pressure to get him out on bail pending trial.

Our ILD is on the job at Passaic. Not a single striker went into court without our lawyer to defend him. There was not a single conviction that was not appealed. Nobody had to remain in jail more than a few days for lack of bail. The New York Emergency Strike Relief Committee, with Mrs. Michaelson as secretary, took charge of this end of the work and collected bail to the amount of $83,150. The American Civil Liberties Union harassed the power-drunk authorities with “free speech” tests and tried hard to blow the breath of life into the half-dead body of “civil liberty.” A great wave of protest spread through the labor movement and even the most conservative labor leaders were compelled to give expression to it. This powerful and many-sided support of the embattled strikers had its effect and the authorities were compelled to beat a retreat, at least for the time being.

But there cannot be the least doubt that they are determining at all costs to get revenge on comrade Weisbord, “the outside agitator” who is “responsible for all the trouble,” and put him safely away for a long term in prison. Nothing short of a powerful, nationwide and united defense and protest movement will be able to save him for the great and necessary work he is doing and has yet to do.

We realized from the first moment the tremendous importance for the militant labor movement of the Weisbord case. And we understood fully that a narrow, limited or partisan defense would not avail against the powerful forces that are determined to get him out of the way. Therefore, the International Labor Defense in its first manifesto called for a united front of all sections of the labor movement for the defense of Weisbord, Thomas, Dunn, Lowell, Rubenstein and all the others arrested in the strike.

The most gratifying success has already been achieved in this project. Unity of action and coordination of effort of all forces directly involved in the Passaic fight was accomplished at a conference held in New York City on April 22, of representatives of the United Front Committee of Textile Workers, the International Labor Defense, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League for Industrial Democracy, the Emergency Strike Relief Committee of New York, the Passaic Strikers' Relief Committee and the Federated Press.

At this conference a Joint Committee was formed to coordinate the work of the various participating organizations and to ensure complete unity of action. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was elected secretary of the Joint Committee and the other members are Albert Weisbord, Forrest Bailley, Norman Thomas, James P. Cannon, Mrs. Michaelson, Alfred Wagenknecht, Art Shields and Robert W. Dunn.

By decision of the conference the International Labor Defense will conduct the defense of all the arrested strikers, strike leaders and pickets, while the American Civil Liberties Union will have charge of all cases directly involving the issues of free speech and civil liberties. The International Labor Defense will collect a defense fund by authority of the Joint Committee and will be responsible for all expenses involved in the defense. Each organization represented at the conference agreed to give moral and financial support to the tasks undertaken by both the ILD and the American Civil Liberties Union.

As a demonstration of the unification of forces in the common fight, a mass meeting under the auspices of the Joint Committee was held in the New Star Casino, New York, on April 28, with Albert Weisbord, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Robert W. Dunn, Norman Thomas and James P. Cannon as the speakers. It was an enthusiastic but deeply serious demonstration, a united front in the real sense of the word, and a most promising beginning of what must and will be developed into a broad and powerful protest movement in behalf of comrade Weisbord and those who stand in jeopardy with him.

The Passaic fighters are worthy of such a movement. They are the representatives of the new life and spirit which are beginning to manifest themselves in the labor movement of America. They will stand up in the court as the symbols of the right of the workers to organize and fight for better and freer lives. They signify the mighty idea of the united front not merely in theory, but in practice. “They crammed the doctrine into deed.” Let us do likewise in our fight for them.