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In the spring of 1919 thousands of textile workers in a small New Jersey town went on strike, demanding the eight-hour day. It was not their first walkout. What was unprecedented, however, was the participation of skilled workers. During the previous thirty years, these workers had sided with the millowners during industrial conflicts and had refused to join the action of their less skilled colleagues. In a radical shift in policy, the employers had now laid them off, leaving them with few alternatives but to join the struggle. The workers went to the union and asked “if they could join.” After stressing “that they have to come to us now,” the union accepted the new members.
Divisions between skilled and less skilled workers are not uncommon, but in Passaic, New Jersey, they acquired a particular twist. The worsted mills were owned by German entrepreneurs who had hired most of their skilled work force directly from Germany, while staffing the unskilled positions largely with eastern and southern European immigrants. This essay demonstrates how an alliance between German immigrant capital and German immigrant workers was successfully fostered through the preferential treatment of skilled workers and through the support of the German employees' religious, educational, and cultural institutions by the millowners. It analyzes the relationship between the social organization of migration, the making of ethnicity, and working-class formation and also attempts to understand the German immigrants' experience in relation to other migrant groups as well as the internal structure of the immigrant community itself.