New Orleans Matilda Rabinowitz was a little heralded organizer for the International Workers of the World over 100 years ago. She became an active Socialist while doing factory work in Bridgeport, Connecticut beginning at 14 years old, and migrated to the IWW, as many Socialists did, as they became more active and visible in pioneering a unique organizing style on one hand and the belief in industrial, rather than craft unionization on the other hand.
The most famous women organizers connected to the IWW were Mother Jones, one of its co-founders, and a legendary figure particularly in coal country when coal was king, enslaving many workers, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, known for her prominent role in the biggest of the IWW strikes in the mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts and Paterson, New Jersey. Matilda Rabinowitz hasn’t shared the front-page-news of labor and organizing history, but her story of five years as an organizer behind the scenes at the backbone of the movement and its organization is a story that could be told thousands of times by workaday organizers that are the soldiers of the peoples’ army, even if not the generals.
Matilda was unfamiliar to me until I had the opportunity to read a labor of love in a book of her memoirs, Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman: A Memoir from the Early Twentieth Century, with commentary and illustrations by Robbin Legere Henderson, her granddaughter, who I also spoke with on Wade’s World. We covered the highlights of her organizing experience when she was called by the IWW to cover the Little Falls, New York strike, and later even more difficult organizing in Greenville, North Carolina. Her biggest accomplishment may have been helping run the strike at Studebaker Auto in Detroit, perhaps the first union-based wildcat strike that many in the city believe forced Henry Ford to institute his famous $5 per day wage to prevent unionization at least for a time in his giant plants.
What really struck me about Matilda’s memoirs where several passages that spoke deeply to the life experiences of organizers, generation after generation.
She spoke of her weeks supporting the strike in Little Falls this way,
“For me the days and nights were crowded with work. The picket line at six in the morning. Coffee, break, and perhaps some stewed fruit after that at the commissary. The daily meeting with the strike committee in the forenoon with a report on the response to appeals, funds, developments. Correspondence and bookkeeping: details of the office. A general meeting was held for all strikers every night at Sokol Hall, and once a week a social get-together with a fiddle or a harmonium for dancing and singing.”
Substitute the stewed fruit and the harmonium, and welcome to strikes for one-hundred years and counting.
Matilda was powered by her politics and her commitment, but like so many organizers, found life’s details dragging far behind. Her later comments also echoed universal organizing experiences:
“From Little Falls I carried away an increased sense of responsibility to the IWW, but I had a great reluctance at the same time to becoming a professional organizer. Some money was coming in, and I kept the accounts and was charged with the running expenditures of the strike, but there was no financial arrangement between me and the organization. I went to Little Falls at my own expense and had about forty dollars when I got there. When this was gone I didn’t know how I was going to get along. I paid room rent to the striker’s family where I was living, ate at least one meal in a restaurant, and there were incidental personal expenses: laundry and carfare, for example. I received no money from the national office and I did not know that the local organization was meant to assume my expenses while I was there.”
Big Bill Haywood set her straight on that account when he passed through, and she was a national organizer for the IWW for several years as she traveled later, but concluded that the organizing life was not for her when she decided to become a single mother.
Nonetheless it is clear from her memoir that her organizing time was a defining moment that gave meaning to her life, as it has for so many. She may have gotten off of the organizing track, but her politics and commitment to justice and equality never faltered. Her granddaughter, Robbin Henderson told me that a half-written column for the Socialist newspaper in Los Angeles was in her typewriter when she died in her mid-70s.
What a life and what a contribution!