A Great Patersonian: Lautenberg’s Century

by John Lawrence

U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg’s 89 years spanned a century of change and challenge for his country and his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, both of which he admirably served.  He died on June 3, four days short of the centennial of an extraordinary event in the city’s history – the Pageant of the Paterson silk strike held at Madison Square Garden. 

The Paterson in which Lautenberg was born was still a manufacturing center of national significance.  Alexander Hamilton founded the city in the early 1790s as the first planned industrial city in the largely agrarian United States.  He (and George Washington) were attracted by the massive Great Falls of the Passaic River, a 77 foot maelstrom through which churned the second highest volume of water of any waterfall in the eastern United States (after Niagara).   Eager to develop domestic manufacturing in the largely agrarian country, Hamilton enlisted Pierre L’Enfant (planner of Washington, D.C.) to design the city, including a complex water raceway scheme to power the mills and looms whose industrial output would free Americans from dependence on costly British imports.

By the early 20th century, Paterson was an industrial powerhouse, producing Colt pistols, early submarines, aircraft engines and locomotives, but mainly famous as the “Lyons of America” for its voluminous silk production.   The workers in the Paterson mills were an eclectic mixture of first and second-generation immigrants (as were most of the owners), and they prided themselves on the skill they brought to the manufacturing process.  In fact, by 1913, over three-quarters of Paterson’s population were either first or second-generation immigrants, heavily Jews and Italians. 

As with most manufacturing, improved technology began to undermine the craft trades, and increasingly, women and children were hired to work in the mills.  One observer described “tired, pallid, and languid-looking children … puny, stunted bod[ies]” laboring long hours “in a room filled with clouds of steam, … barefooted in pools of water twisting coils of wet hemp.”  Many of the workers developed debilitating occupational diseases, primarily silicosis, from inhaling dust and fibers. One of the workers who became ill and died at an young age was Frank Lautenberg’s father, and the senator told me (and many others) that he blamed the atrocious working conditions for his father’s death.  The experience of his father’s death, and the hazardous working conditions in the Paterson mills, played a major role in the senator’s long legislative focus on industrial pollution and respiratory disease.

I occasionally spoke with Lautenberg during the decades we both worked on Capitol Hill, and Paterson was always a subject of the conversation.  For reasons that are difficult to explain, those raised in this gritty city – regardless of their circumstances – often share an indelible sentiment for their home town that mystifies outsiders.  As a young physician, my father, also a Paterson native, treated the senior Lautenberg as well as young Frank, which the senator remembered well.  My last conversation with him was a couple of years ago when we both attended the dedication ceremony for the Paterson Great Falls National Park, the creation of which was a major objective for Lautenberg over the past decade. @www.nps.gov/pagr/index.htm

As we remember Frank Lautenberg, it is also timely to recall that one hundred years ago this very week, Paterson’s silk workers and owners were locked in the fourth month of a bitter labor dispute.  The mill owners had demanded that some workers double the number of looms they tended from two to four, and the simmering resentment exploded.  On February 25, 1913, the silk weavers went on strike, joined by the dyers and other silk workers.

Strike leaders invited the legendary Industrial Workers of the World, the fabled “Wobblies,” to come to Paterson. Largely active in Western mines and timber mills, and with a rumored penchant for violence, the radical Wobblies had had played a key role in the successful conclusion of the “Bread and Roses” textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts only the year before. Its colorful leadership, including “Big Bill” Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Carlo Tresca, advocated the unification of all workers regardless of skill, ethnicity, race or religion – a far cry from the conservative, craft exclusivity practiced by many of the nation’s early unions.

The IWW’s strike tactics were notable on a number of counts, not the least being the successful coordination of different nationalities that previously had been unable to collaborate.  Labor historians note such developments as evidence of the emergence of a sense of class consciousness that superseded the affiliations determined by ethnicity and religion on which early fraternal organizations were based.  Women, under the leadership of the charismatic 23-year old Flynn, played a major role in the strike, a highly unusual development in the male-dominated world of early trades unionism.

The strike culminated in the massive rally of 15,000 at Madison Square Garden on June 7th, 1913.  The Pageant of the Paterson Strike, produced by the radical labor propagandist John Reed, was intended to raise money and sympathy for the strikers, 1,200 of whom participated in the melodramatic representation of the strike. While it won the support of Greenwich Village radicals and other labor sympathizers, the Pageant ended up losing money; within a few weeks, the strike itself collapsed as well, ending the IWW’s effort to extend its organizing activity into the factory towns of the industrial East.  

The N.Y. Tribune described the Pageant as possessing “a startling touch of ultra modernity—or rather of futurism,” and so it did.  Many of the key issues in the strike resonate through our current political and policy discourse: the reliance on low-income immigrant labor; the proper role of labor unions in a changing economy; the need to restore domestic manufacturing capacity in a rapidly changing, globalized economy. But the experience of the Pageant and the Paterson strike also demonstrate the enormous difficulty unions face in countering inexorable economic forces that are grinding out changes in traditional manufacturing and employment at the expense of America’s workers.

Paterson was never the same after the strike and its Pageant.  Although the silk industry expanded in the very short-term, manufacturing, commercial activity and eventually most of the middle class fled the city leaving a shell of Hamilton’s bold vision for a planned manufacturing center.   While the city continues its decades-long struggle at revival, centering its effort around a newly created national park at the Great Falls, the long spiral downward sends a warning signal to America about the need for innovative manufacturing, labor and trade strategies to avoid the fate of Paterson and its silk workers.

The best tribute to the memory of Frank Lautenberg would be for Patersonians to unite around efforts to plan and build a vibrant Great Falls National Park, one that tells the story of both the ecological and historical heritage of the area.  Those planning efforts are currently underway with the National Park Service and local residents.  Frank Lautenberg understood the uniqueness and significance of the Great Falls district, and he returned there frequently for lunch at the nearby Libby’s Lunch on McBride Avenue, always ordering a hot dog with mustard, onions and special sauce.  Sounds like a good idea. 

Thanks, senator.