By Maddie Orton
It’s a busy time of year for Angelica Santomauro. The director of the American Labor Museum and Botto House National Landmark fields questions and interview requests from all over about Labor Day. But her work is a year-round effort, commemorating the achievements of our country’s workforce.
“What we teach them here are the three P’s — the power of the pen, the power of the purse, and the power of the picket,” explains Santomauro.
Santomauro got her start in the working world as a math teacher. When she was asked to cover social studies, she boned up on the subject, taking a Labor Studies course, and then another, and then another.
“When I came back to my classroom, I was so enthusiastic about what I was learning, I was infusing it into the curriculum” through social studies, language arts, and music said Santomauro. “And the students were so turned on by the history, because it was their own history, that they organized their own student union.”
Her work in education continues. The American Labor Museum offers exhibits, lectures, a labor studies library and distance-learning classes.
In fact, the building itself has a special place in the Labor Movement’s history. Originally a three-family house, it was built and occupied by silk worker Pietro Botto and his family.
“In 1913, a big strike broke out,” said Santomauro. “It was in Paterson, New Jersey. 25,000 silk mill workers went out on strike.”
A mill owner had discovered new looms in Germany that were so efficient, he could cut his workforce in half.
“So, when the workers realized that there was the potential for half of their brothers and sisters to lose their jobs, they walked out,” Santomauro explains. “And word spread like wildfire from one mill to the other.”
Paterson, or “Silk City,” produced about 50 percent of the country’s silk at the time, and working conditions were terrible.
“If young girls were working in the mills, and they had long hair, sometimes their hair would actually be ripped right out of their scalp,” says Santomauro. “Young boys were expected to climb up on a loom to fix the threads, and sometimes their fingers would be cut off, their toes would be cut off.”
Santomauro says Paterson’s mayor at the time was supported by the mill owners. He had Paterson police clear the streets of protestors for fear the walk-out reflecting badly upon them, but the mayor of nearby Haledon was sympathetic to the mill workers’ cause. He invited protestors to his city and ensured them safety.
As a result, massive labor meetings were held here, at the Botto House.
“Because this house sat in the middle of a big field,” said Santomauro. “And we have a second floor balcony on which the labor leaders would speak in nine different languages.”
Santomauro says, despite high profile support, the strike fund eventually ran out of money and workers were ultimately forced to return to the job.
“Although it wasn’t considered successful as we know a strike, it did lay the groundwork for the future legislation to be passed for the eight-hour work day and better working conditions and safer working conditions,” she said.
Now, over 100 years later, the Botto House stands as a reminder of the Paterson silk strikers’ fight, and the American Labor Museum, as a resource for battles to come.
In honor of Labor Day, the museum opened a new photography exhibit. It’s called Workers and Their Parade.