Mary Heaton Vorse

The Battle of Passaic

Published: New Masses, May, 1926.
Transcribed: for in January, 2002.

THERE was a battle in Passaic the first week in March. The Chief of Police, Richard Zober, threw tear gas bombs at peaceable workers who were picketing the Botany Mills and turned the streams of five hose companies on them. So many extraordinary things happened in Passaic at that time, one could write a play in ten shocks, a thrill in every shock called Chief Zober and the Picket Line. Chief of Police Richard O. Zober, and Commissioner of Public Safety Abram Preiskel, are the comedy characters of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. How large they loomed on March first and how ridiculous they were by the end of the week! Zober was abed sick with a warrant out for arrest: sick and raving at the pretty pictures that had been printed of him and his police, gassing and clubbing women.

From the first, the strike in Passaic burned with a clear flame. The fuel it fed on was leadership and hope. It had a leadership that had vision, and wisdom and daring. The organizer, Albert Weisbord, has a way of dealing with masses of workers that amounted to a genius of leadership. The workers in Passaic love him and trust him. They follow him. There was never a strike so well disciplined. That was why mass picketing was its feature and parades its habit. That was why picketing could go on at such a big scale. That was why thousands of people could stream down Passaic streets without disorder.

It was their orderly mass picketing and parading that swung the strike into public notice. No strike of this size ever had such parades. No strike of this size had ever had such picket lines. They sweep out the three strike halls two by two. They stream down the streets gathering volume as they go until there are thousands of people in the parade. As they go they sing and shout. Flags go with them. Women and children, young girls, old ladies, grandmothers, all shouting and singing together. Who will ever forget them who has seen them out on the picket line early in the morning in dark groups that look like swarming bees? The lines of pickets, the constant file of people was an exciting thing. It became contagious. Picketing became Passaic's favorite game. Children played at picketing. They picketed their schools. They picketed their homes. Children came out after school to go on the picket line.

The United Front Committee of Textile Workers started all this. They began organizing first in the Botany Mills after the 10% wage slash in October. On the 25th of January, Botany walked out. Others followed. Mill joined mill. Hope was in the air. The workers began to feel their strength. By the end of the fourth week the Forstmann-Huffman Mill, which hadn't as yet cut wages, came out with its four thousand workers. By March 1st there were over 10,000 out, and the picket line getting bigger all the time and the flame of hope leaping higher.

Then Chief of Police Zober got sick of crowds. He and Commissioner of Public Safety Abram Preiskel and Mayor John H. McGuire decided mass picketing must stop. In that remote period of March 1st these three comic jigging little figures were august and terrifying officials. To stop the picketing, the Mayor and the Commissioner and the police had said they were going to get out three hundred mounted police and ride down the crowds. All Sunday the air of Passaic was tense with anxiety. It isn't very pleasant to turn out at five o'clock on the picket line and be ridden down.

Monday began quietly. Instead of three hundred horses, only a few sorry hacks were there. Shouting "Ride 'em cowboy," the picket line swept past cheering. The suspense of Sunday was over, everyone breathed easier.

Tuesday afternoon it happened. The workers paraded past the Passaic plant of the Botany Mills. The streets were lined with police. Mounted police were strung along the street. They allowed the strikers to pass two by two between the horses. Suddenly the gap was filled, the line stopped. It wavered and bulged and overflowed into the street. Police and strikers faced each other.

The Zober went in for publicity. He wrote his name in history. He fished a shiny object from his pocket and threw it among the striking workers. It exploded with a mild report and the air was filled with smoke.

He had gassed the strikers.

Then the same Zober rang in a general call for the fire department and presently up came the firemen and streams of water were turned upon the crowd. Women and children, drenched and drowned, soaked to the skins, ran. The police ran after the strikers, clubbing them to the tune of clicking cameras. Every newspaper in New York had pictures of the Passaic policemen clubbing the women and children of Passaic. Everybody all over the country knew that the striking textile workers had been beaten, drenched, gassed and clubbed.

The next afternoon they went to the hall and listened to Albert Weisbord speak and they listened to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and they streamed from the halls. For the strikers of Passaic are not afraid of police or fire or water or gas. Out they went again two by two, thousands of them, and then Zober had an inspiration. He did not at all like these pictures that are filled with gas or the fire house playing on the crowds. He turned the police upon the camera men. They chased them, they smashed moving picture cameras. They beat up the press. It was a jolly lively party with the policemen jumping on the camera men and smashing clubs on the reporters' heads. What with tear gas and fire hose and beatings and clubbings, it was a merry little time in Passaic on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 4th.

Next day Passaic seemed like an embattled town. Passaic became a conflagration. The light in Passaic was seen all over the country. The strikers were busy. They went after the war veterans and got their gas masks and helmets and this time they had a procession of about 6,000, headed by people with gas masks. At their head there was a baby carriage. It was Barbara Miscolocsy who headed the victorious procession and her aunt. Elizabeth Kovacs, who pushed it, and behind the baby carriage and the boys in their helmets and gas masks and in uniform walked the procession waving and shouting. Thousands upon thousands strode, headed by the baby. They swept past the Botany Mills, laughing and cheering. And the great battle of Passaic was won.

The newspaper men came in armored cars; they came in airplanes and tanks. If the New York Times had come riding up on an elephant with hind quarters painted red, no one would have been surprised. That day there was a loud shout over Passaic--the gods on high Olympus were laughing. All the world got to know what the workers in Passaic were fighting about. These people in Passaic have nothing. Poverty inconceivable. Wretchedness incomparable. Their misery is doubled by the kind of houses they live in, if you can call them houses. You go into a hall black as a tunnel filled with stink. You open a door on to an equally black kitchen, back of which is a still blacker bedroom, all the light of which comes from the front room. Here live women, the mothers of many children, who work at night. These women have never rested. They do not know what an unburdened hour is. Five nights a week for ten hours they work with a quarter an hour at midnight. That one cannot forget. This is the dark background of the strike, and of the great battle week. The week-end was a fitting one.

They went and got out a warrant against the Chief of Police for brutality. Exactly one week after they had been gassed, they marched on Lodi where the great dye works are. Quietly two by two they marched, through the country roads. The procession a mile long and the police of Lodi received them without clubs. They marched past the Lodi works and wound across the fields, along curving lines of singing men and women. There was quiet, strength and purpose about this great procession.

The light that was lighted in Passaic is spreading; it has gone to Lodi and tied up the dye works. It has gone to East Paterson. The great dyeing plants that dye the silk of the country are striking.

Then the Paterson strikers marched on Washington. Frank P. Walsh, Joint Chairman of the War Labor Board, Chairman of the Industrial Relations Commission, is their counsel. They asked for a Congressional investigation of the textile industry. They went to the White House to ask for another industrial relations investigations, but the President would not see them. In the office of Secretary of labor James J. David, they reiterate their willingness to settle the strike and refused the terms offered by the mill owners, which meant breaking the strike, since the first step the mill owners demanded was that the workers return to work. Meantime, the workers in Paterson are stirring; the same workers in Paterson demanded wage increases. Lawrence and providence and the entire textile industry, look toward the flame that burns in Passaic.