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March 20: Boris Reinstein and the Passaic Weavers

March 19, 2015

Reinstein_BorisNewspapers reported on this date in 1912 that Boris Reinstein, an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer in Detroit, had taken command of the Passaic, New Jersey strike involving some 10,000 mill workers. Reinstein had fled Russia’s tsarist police in 1901 and settled with his obstetrician wife Anna in Buffalo, where he worked as a pharmacist. He was a Socialist Workers Party leader and fluent in English, Polish, German, Yiddish, and Russian, which equipped him well for leadership among the mulitlingual, multi-ethnic mill workers. The strike in Passaic never became industry-wide; at best, 40 percent of the millworkers struck at one time. Over the course of nearly three weeks, “a rally, presided over by an organizer such as Reinstein... would be held...,” writes Michael B. Ebner in The Labor History Reader. “Representatives of participating groups would exhort their countrymen, in their native tongue, to... refrain from violence against management.... The next morning, a delegation of workers would present the group’s demands to management; if it refused to accede, a strike began” (and management did not refrain from inflicting police violence on the strikers). The Passaic strikes were marred by an intense factional split in the IWW between moderates (Reinstein) and “direct action” radicals from Chicago (Big Bill Haywood). All told, it failed to achieve positive results, and many participants sat out the Paterson silk strike and other labor actions that shook the textile industry in New Jersey the following year. In 1917, Reinstein returned to revolutionary Russia and became an official in the Comintern. He died in 1947, age 81. To read more about Anna and Boris Reinstein and their offspring in contemporary Buffalo, click here.

“[I]t is the historic mission of the proletariat — the propertyless wage-earning class — to establish this new social order by transforming all means of production, distribution and exchange into joint property of the people.” —Boris Reinstein, “A TImely Lesson from History”