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The Passaic Textile Strike
Premiere in Passaic, New Jersey: Oct 1926
Duration (in reels):
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A prologue tells the following story: In 1907, in the growing textile city of Passaic, New Jersey, Stefan Breznac, a Polish immigrant worker, gets a fifty cent a week raise and writes to his sweetheart Kada in the Polish farmlands to come share his new prosperity. When she sees the Statue of Liberty from the deck of her crowded boat, Kada thinks she has reached the land of liberty and riches at last. As the years go by and their family increases, they find the courage to face their growing problems. When Stefan gets another wage cut, he suggests that their fourteen-year-old daughter Vera go to work to make up for the cut. Although Kada would like Vera to stay in school, Vera boasts she is strong and tells her not to worry. When Mulius, the "big boss," sees Vera, he invites her to his office, and soon she gets a raise. One day, he offers to drive her home and then takes her for a ride. They stop after awhile, and the chauffeur says they are out of gas. Mulius sends him to get some, and as the chauffeur smokes a cigarette by a tree, Mulius attacks Vera. Two months later, Vera learns that Mulius is married. When she questions him about it, Mulius sends a foreman with a note saying she is fired. Stefan increases his hours to sixty-six a week and plans to try seventy-two despite Kada's warning and the concern of fellow workers that he'll kill himself. Breaking under the strain, he is reduced from a weaver to a transporter at less pay. As he pushes a bin, he falters, and though a foreman tells him to get back to work, another worker brings him home. Although a doctor prescribes that he rest for at least two weeks, Stefan goes back to work the next morning. When his friend sees him struggling, the friend suggests to other workers that they form a union. Two days later, Kada tries to wake Stefan for breakfast, but she finds her husband dead. With no time to mourn, she gets a mill job working the night shift, and at home sits in despair.
In the film's main section, entitled
, the Passaic Strike of 1926 is described as "part of the great undertaking of American Labor to organize the unorganized, to set up a 'United Front of the Workers Against the United Front of the Bosses.'" It is stated that only four million out of twenty-nine million workers in the U.S. are organized into unions. The meager wages of textile mill workers only allow the workers to live in dark, crowded areas. Lint and dust of the mills harm the health of the workers. The death rate from tuberculosis is 100% above normal. The mansions of the owners are shown to contrast with the shacks of the workers. Talk begins of forming a union following the wage-cut of October 1925. When a worker confronts his boss to get the cut revoked, he is fired, and others decide that the only way to talk to bosses is with a union. Albert Weisbord begins to quietly organize workers. When Mulius sees Gus Deak meeting with other workers, he offers him a better job, but Deak tears up the new contract rather than take the bribe. On January 24, 1926, Weisbord tells a meeting of delegates that they will present the boss with their demands on the following day. Although there is a risk of a strike, the group decides to go ahead. On the next day, those who demand a withdrawal of the wage-cut are fired. The strike begins, and the union assembles masses of workers to picket. Police allow mill workers to cross the lines, as a man on the picket lines exhorts those crossing to join the picket. Within three days, the mill is tied up. Pickets spread to the mills of neighboring Clifton, Garfield and Lodi, and soon workers from eight mills present new demands, including an increase in wages of 10% above the rate prior to the latest wage-cut; payment of money that workers did not get due to the wage-cut; time and one-half for overtime; a forty-four hour work week; decent and sanitary work conditions; no discrimination against union workers; and recognition of the union. Under the leadership of Weisbord, a small group of organizers set up an office for the United Front Committee of Textile Workers of Passaic and Vicinity, and 12,000 strikers join. They send the "Textile Strike Bulletin" to the American Labor Movement. The workers, coming from many countries and ethnic groups, include Hungarians, Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Germans, Czechoslovakians, Jews, Spanish, Polish, Italians, African Americans, Mexicans, Bohemians and English. Forty-seven church organizations parade to demonstrate their support. Police, responding to the owners, arrest 560 strikers, but they are bailed out immediately and get back to the lines. Police soon begin to club the strikers, and bandaged, beaten men and women are shown. Throngs fill the street where the casket of a martyred striker, Frank Dido, is moved from a house to a hearse. Though police smash movie cameras, shots taken from a roof show police clubbing strikers. Gas bombs are used to disperse crowds, but strikers learn to wear gas masks. Alfred Wagenknecht, director of working class relief campaigns, opens an office for relief work, and 125 strikers are assigned to it. An appeal goes out to the labor movement, and a picture book about the strike is sent out. The strikers receive contributions from the American Labor Movement, and caravans of trucks bring relief supplies. Relief stores distribute food and supplies to strikers with food cards. In union meetings, the goal of joining the A.F. of L. is announced, so that with a union, the workers can fix their own hours and wages. Visiting representatives of unions speak to the workers. After the sheriff of Bergen County illegally establishes martial law, issuing a proclamation that orders those assembled to disperse, a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union is thrown in jail for questioning its legality. The strikers' halls are closed and meetings are forbidden. A.C.L.U. attorneys get an injunction against the sheriff, and the halls are reopened and daily meetings resumed. Weisbord is arrested on charges of sedition and inciting to riot, but other leaders step forward to take his place.
S. B. Russack
International Workers Aid
Strikes and lockouts
American Civil Liberties Union
American Federation of Labor
Gases, Asphyxiating and poisonous
Statue of Liberty National Monument (New York City)
The opening credits read: "
The Passaic Textile Strike
. The Battle for Life of the Workers who make the cloth that clothes you. Begun: January 25, 1926. To End: When Victory is Won. An International Workers Aid Picture. This is the story of 16,000 unorganized workers who went on strike against merciless wage cuts--and found their strength in the Union they built to carry them on to Victory." The Prologue is introduced with the following statements: "To show the life they live, the Passaic strikers have played for you this simple story of the Breznac Family [which is any family of textile workers], who came to America, the Land of Promise, only to find industrial oppression and bitter struggle. The players lay no claim to art, except as art is compounded of simple truth. The incidents are just the common facts of the textile workers' lives, empty perhaps of those flaming passions seen so often on the screen, but full of the actual tragedy of deadening labor and despairing struggle."
International Workers Aid was associated with the Communist organization Workers' International Relief, which organized the relief effort during the strike. Labor leaders and other personages who appear in the film include, Albert Weisbord, Gustav Deak, Clarence Miller, Leona Smith, George Ashkenudse, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Alfred Wagenknecht, John J. Ballam, J. O. Bentall, Mother Bloor, P. P. Cosgrove, Leo Krzycki, Ellen Wilkinson, Robert Dunn, Norman Thomas, Jack Rubinstein, Thomas DeFazio, Joseph Magliacano, Lena Chernenko and Martin Winkler.
According to an interview with Gustav Deak, who plays himself in the film, the film's first director (whose name has not been determined) was hired from an independent film company by the Relief Committee, headed by Alfred Wagenknecht, who also appears in the film. This director did not sympathize with the strike and eventually was fired. Cameraman Sam Brody states that Sam Russak, a professional still photographer who had done some work with motion pictures, finished the direction, and that Brody and Lester Balog, both of whom later founded the Film and Photo League, shot the film. (NYSA records list the manufacturer's name as S. B. Russack.) A third director may have worked on the film before Russak. Subtitles were written by Margaret Larkin. The film was shown during the strike and was used to raise money for relief efforts. It had its first showings to strikers in Sep 1926 at Belmont Park, NJ, and was shown to the public beginning in Oct 1926 at Passaic.
The film toured the country accompanied by Communist activist speaker Ella Reeve "Mother" Bloor, who appears in it. The strike ended in Feb 1927, with the strikers failing to get the wage-cut withdrawn, but winning the right to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor and a promise of no discrimination against strikers seeking reemployment. Existing prints are missing two reels of the seven that were originally shown in 1926. [According to NYSA records, in 1926, the film was 6,263 ft. in length following eliminations ordered by the New York State censors.] In a book about the strike, Albert Weisbord, one of the strike's organizers, noted that the mills in the Passaic area were owned for the most part by Germans, who hired immigrants from numerous nationalities to avoid worker solidarity.
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