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Labor’s Schoolhouse


Around the time that Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee for president, my wife and I visited the American Labor Museum at the Botto House National Landmark, in Haledon, New Jersey. Several Muslim children, three whose parents came from Bangladesh and another whose parents came from Morocco, were tending the museum’s Immigrant Garden. Education director Evelyn Hershey worked beside them, highlighting the garden’s history, redirecting the hose. It was hard to watch her young helpers without wondering how fraught the words “immigrant” and “Muslim” might soon be for them.

The first people to plant here were Pietro and Maria Botto, who came to Ellis Island from Biella, Italy, in 1892. A skilled weaver from a region renowned for its weaving, Pietro was fleeing military conscription. (He’d already served a six-year stint in the Italian Army.) He was twenty-six years old; his wife, a bride at fifteen, was twenty-two. They had a one-year-old daughter. Like many of their fellow passengers, the Bottos carried most of their belongings in a trunk. Unlike many of the 43 million immigrants currently in the United States, they came with some reasonable assurance of a welcome.

Pietro’s skills made it easy for him to find work in New Jersey’s burgeoning textile industry. Maria worked at home, “picking silk” for imperfections and looking after the household, which soon included three more daughters. By 1907, the Bottos had managed to save enough money to purchase a plot of land in Haledon, a “trolley suburb” of Paterson. There they built the twelve-room, cement-block house that still bears their name.

Other Paterson workers were also finding their way to Haledon, some for recreation, some to put down roots. The trolley tracks made for a quick commute, and the rolling terrain reminded the Piedmontese immigrants of home. In addition to renting out their upstairs apartments, the enterprising Bottos supplemented their income by running a kind of workers’ weekend resort, cooking meals for as many as a hundred guests at a time. Not far from where my wife and I watched the children water the tomatoes stands the bocce court over which Pietro presided with a ball of measuring string he kept in his pocket. Farther away on the terraced lot, once the site of rabbit hutches and a chicken coop, is the grape arbor where the Bottos set up tables for their guests to play cards. Of course, they also made their own wine.

After the volunteer gardeners had gone home for the day, Hershey gave us a tour of the house, which includes a kitchen, a dining room, and a parlor with period furnishings, many once belonging to the Bottos. We saw their polenta pot, a hand-pumped vacuum cleaner, Maria’s black Victorian bathing costume, a mandolin, and cherished pictures of Piedmontese landscapes. A slender woman with dark hair and an amiable North Jersey accent, Hershey has worked at the museum since graduating from college in the late 1980s. She grew up hearing stories of how her grandmother, employed in a Pennsylvania hosiery mill, signed her first union card on a co-worker’s back, how she lay down in front of the factory gates before being arrested during a strike. I had the impression that Hershey feels very much at home here.

Upstairs is a meeting room with rotating exhibits and, through doors at one end of a central hall, a small balcony attached to the front of the house. Hershey seemed to know we wanted to stand there. Pointing over the rooftops of what is now a densely populated, lower-middle-class town measuring about a square mile and holding more than eight thousand people, many of them Latino, she invited us to imagine an undeveloped expanse of field cresting to form a natural amphitheater. It was from this balcony that, during six months of Sundays in 1913, speakers such as Upton Sinclair, John Reed, and Industrial Workers of the World organizers Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and “Big Bill” Haywood addressed crowds numbering from 3,000 to 25,000 people. Most were strikers from the silk mills of Paterson; a few were sympathetic artists and intellectuals from New York. Photographs show the spectators gathered in their Sunday best, several of them perched on the limbs of trees. A witness observed the crowds taking special care not to trample the Bottos’ front lawn.

Hershey told us that sometimes when school groups visit, a student will step onto the balcony and intone, “I have a dream.” Wrong speech, wrong era, but, to her thinking at least, the right idea. A dream had drawn the Bottos to Haledon, the chance of owning the “slice of the earth” promised in developers’ advertisements. The strikers had a dream as well, more than a little utopian for the times: an eight-hour workday (“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!” went the slogan); an end to child labor; and, as promulgated by the I.W.W. (or the Wobblies, as they were called), the formation of “one big union” that would be open to all. The Sunday gatherings of 1913 included nine nationalities, each moving to the front of the crowd at the sound of its own language.

“Regardless of their birthplaces,” proclaimed the I.W.W. newspaper Solidarity, the Paterson strikers of 1913 “ARE AMERICANS in the true sense of the term.” But when another strike broke out in Paterson, in 1924, the mayor, a politician depressingly ahead of his time, vowed to scrutinize the papers of everyone who’d been on a picket line, with an eye toward their deportation. The Bottos had not faced deportation for their part in the 1913 strike, though Pietro never worked in the mills again.

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Garret Keizer is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His most recent essay for the magazine, “Left of Bernie,” appeared in the February 2016 issue.

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