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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

Organized Labor

Other interviewees talked about how their lives were inexorably changed by exposure to workers' strikes and, subsequently, by involvement with labor unions. Marianna Costa grew up in a neighborhood close to several weaving plants, and began working in a dye house in 1932. For her, the textile workers' strike of 1933 was galvanic. Here she describes how the energy of the strike mounted as more and more workers joined it, including Marianna herself, who knew practically nothing about organized labor:

Eighteen-year-old Marianna Costa (second from left) and other textile workers march, in Washington, D.C., in support of the adoption of federal standards for the silk industry.

I didn't understand when the girls in the department I was in said, "We're going to go out." The chanting outside of the window, that's my first recollection. There was chanting outside of our work windows, and a big group of people. I guess they initially started by the Wideman plant. . . . and in Riverside you start in one place and you go down [and] you weave in and out. It's all dye plants. So that if you made your run you would call these people out and they would join in that line. And they'd go to the next plant and there was a bigger line. And the line kept getting bigger and bigger. The crowd instead of being one hundred was two hundred. Two hundred would get three hundred. By the time they got to our plant half the street was just a crowd of people. And they'd say, "Come on out. Join us. We're going to strike. The president said we can. We're tired of this." And said to the people, "What's going on? I don't understand." They says, "Oh, they're having a strike." And I asked them, "And then do what?" [They said,] "Well, then, we'll see what the union does." I said, "And what's the union?" "Oh, that's an organization that will fight for us to get better protection." I didn't even get the full comprehension, but I went with them. I wasn't going to stay alone in the plant. I went with them and we walked from the Riverside section to the Turn Hall, which was quite a walk. . . . And, anyway, when we got there, there were organizers that were trying to establish an organization to speak to the crowd and say "You got to stay out. You have a right to organize. You can do better than what you're getting. And the idea is to be firm, stay together and we'll see what we can do for you."1

The strike was a turning point for Marianna. She saw the power of workers organized to improve working conditions, and was proud to participate in an action that forced factory owners to grant the strikers' demands: the establishment of a minimum wage, an eight-hour day and a forty-hour week; the right to union representation in the plants; and the rehiring of strikers without discrimination. Not long after the strike, Marianna, previously unaware of unions, was elected to an office in her union local—not a common thing for a woman to do at the time.

Exterior of Botto House with large sign in foreground.

Sol Stetin's first contact with strikes and unions was similar in many ways to Marianna Costa's, particularly with respect to his naivete about both, and the effect of his participation in a strike not long after he got a job in a dye house:

I got a job and [my new boss] put me in the shipping room. And then one time a strike breaks out. All the men walk out of the plant. And the super comes to me and says, "Listen, this has nothing to do with you. You're in the shipping room and the shipping room's not involved in the strike, just the production workers. So I didn't go out. . . . And they went out at twelve o'clock and I remember the word went around they were going to meet again at night. But it didn't affect me, so I didn't go out. Five o'clock I went home. . . . And in those days, at night, you'd hang around the candy store. You'd listen to Father Coughlin, the fascist. You remember, you heard about Father Coughlin? And they had a radio, I don't think we even had a radio in those days. And I see one of the fellows . . . and [he said], "I hear there's a strike on at your place." And I said, "Yes, but it has nothing to do with me." Well, when he got through with me he had me convinced that I had done a terrible, terrible thing. That very night, I ran across the bridge, I waited for the bus. I knew where the meeting was going to take place: 612 River Street, the Kallin Ballroom. I ran up those stairs and I asked for the floor and I apologized: "My place is with you guys." . . . To make a long story short, the next day I'm on the picket line.2


"Come on out. Join us. We're going to strike."

"I got a job and [my new boss] put me in the shipping room."

1. Interview, Marianna Costa, Haledon, New Jersey, by David Taylor, August 10, 1994. ( Return to Text )

2. Interview, Sol Stetin, Paterson, New Jersey, by David Taylor, August 4, 1994. ( Return to Text )