- Hell in New JerseyThe Passaic Textile Strike, Albert Weisbord, and the Communist Party
Passaic Textile Strike, Communist Party, Communism, Albert Weisbord, Northern New Jersey, Textile Industry, labor unions, United Textile Workers of America, American Federation of Labor, United Front Committee, Trade Union Educational League, Dual unionism, International Labor Defender, immigration, Bert Miller, Jay Lovestone, C.E. Ruthenberg, William Z. Foster, James P. Cannon, Hudson County, New Jersey, Passaic County, New Jersey
From January 1926 until March 1927, some 15,000 textile workers in Passaic, New Jersey, struck against a 10 percent wage cut and poor conditions and to defend the right to unionize. Amid the anti-labor Roaring Twenties, the strike captured the imagination of the workers’ movement and of many radicals and liberals, putting Communists in the center of the struggle to reenergize the labor movement. Although ultimately defeated, the Passaic workers’ struggle came to symbolize the entire working class in the 1920s. As Theodore Draper, historian of the Communist Party (CP) in the 1920s, put it: “The Passaic strike showed that, in a decade of ‘prosperity,’ cruelly exploited and violently downtrodden workers, abandoned by everyone else, would accept Communist leadership. The combination of underpaid immigrant workers, a moribund A.F. of L. union, and antediluvian employers created a vacuum which the Communists for a time filled with great success against tremendous odds.” The strike highlighted what would prove crucial for the growth in industrial unionism in the 1930s: left-wing organizers outside of the framework of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) using innovative methods such as mass picketing to overcome a hidebound craft-union leadership that refused to organize unskilled workers, often immigrants and women.1 [End Page 125]
This article analyzes how the CP came to play a leading role in this strike. First it briefly examines the conditions in the Passaic textile industry that left an opening for innovative leadership. Then it places the Passaic strike in the context of the CP’s internal political situation. Rather than an accident, Communist leadership of thousands of militant workers built upon the party’s previous work in the industry and region, tapping into decades of militancy and radicalism among workers in the area.
The Communist Party
The CP was born in the summer of 1919, after left-wing dissidents split (either voluntarily or by expulsion) from the Socialist Party. Largely concentrated in more than a dozen semiautonomous language federations, these left-wingers united to support the Bolshevik Revolution and oppose what they saw as the Socialist Party’s reformism. They were divided by political and ethnic background as well as political perspective; for several years there was no one CP, but several hostile underground groups, each claiming to be the real Communists in the United States. In this period, the authority of the Bolsheviks—who, amid the devastation of the First World War, had realized the first successful socialist revolution—recruited more people to communism than the activities of these groups. Altogether, the Communists counted tens of thousands of supporters. These included members of important unions like the garment trades in New York City or coal miners in Illinois and Pennsylvania, as well as nonunionized workers. However, incessant factionalism, Red Scare repression, and hostility by the trade-union bureaucracy devastated the membership of the Communists. Only at the insistence of the Bolshevikled Communist International (Comintern) did the competing groups form one united party in 1921 (officially called the Workers’ Party but referred to here as the CP). Soon after this, the CP emerged from the underground as the Red Scare receded.
The history of the CP in the 1920s is beyond the scope of this article.2 Although the Bolshevik Revolution was popular among much of the labor movement—including leaders like William Z. Foster, who joined the CP in the early 1920s—the party was often politically disoriented and increasingly isolated in the early and mid-1920s. After an attempt to tail [End Page 126] dissident Republican Senator Robert La Follette’s 1924 presidential bid was aborted by the Comintern, Communists became even more isolated.3 Nonetheless, despite a large turnover of members, the party’s membership stabilized. Reliable membership figures...