Reminding the World Why the Labor Movement Still Matters

Reminding the World Why the Labor Movement Still Matters

Angelica Santomauro runs the only museum in the country dedicated to telling the story of the labor movement

Angelica Santomauro outside the American Labor Museum, a national landmark where 20,000 workers met during the historic 1913 Paterson Silk Mill Strike.
Photo: Andrea Alexander

Media Contact
Andrea Alexander

From a small house in Haledon that overlooks the historic Paterson silk mills – the scene of a pivotal labor strike in 1913 – Angelica Santomauro works to explain why the struggle of those workers more than 100 years ago is relevant today.

Santomauro, who holds a doctorate in education from Rutgers’ School of Graduate Studies, oversees the only museum in the country dedicated to telling the story of the labor movement. From a house that served as the meeting place for more than 20,000 silk mill workers during the strike – earning it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places – Santomauro spreads a message about the power of people to work collectively to bring change.

“It’s the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things – one that enables people to understand that it doesn’t take money to have power. It takes initiative, desire, courage, strength and unity,’’ said Santomauro, who has served as director of the American Labor Museum for 25 years.

Before Santomauro became involved in the museum, she was a middle school math teacher in Jersey City active in her local union. But after she was reassigned to teach social studies, Santomauro enrolled in a labor studies class at Rutgers that transformed her thinking, and eventually her career.

Santomauro went back to school to find some inspiration for her classroom. She was looking for lessons in history that her diverse group of students could identify with, something she felt was missing from the textbooks. And, as she listened to the professor, she realized that the story of the labor movement was the story of immigrants fighting to make their lives better.

“The course changed my life because it told a story that not only my students could relate to, it was a history that I myself as a descendant of Italian immigrants could relate to,’’ Santomauro said. “It opened my eyes to something that was being neglected, and I thought needed to be taught in the schools.’’

She returned to the school district and started infusing what she learned in the curriculum and encouraged other teachers to do the same. The music teacher introduced students to songs from the labor movement. The language arts teacher taught students how to write contract proposals. Santomauro even made headlines in The New York Times when she helped the middle schoolers unionize and enter into a collective bargaining agreement with teachers.

Although Santomauro made the leap from teacher to museum director 25 years ago, she is still filled with passion and enthusiasm for spreading a message about the importance of unions to protect workers’ rights.

She finds inspiration in current movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, Walmart employees who walked off their jobs to demand better working conditions and workers fighting for a $15 minimum wage.

The Botto family of Haledon opened their home as a meeting place for the Industrial Workers of the World during the 1913 Paterson Silk Mill strike.
Photo: Courtesy of the American Labor Museum
Through her job at the museum, Santomauro works to try to infuse the story of the labor movement into public education on a global scale. The museum, which has a staff of three employees and 14 volunteers, reaches 15,000 people a year through field trips, distance learning programs and free Saturday morning art class for children in grades 3-5, which currently has a waiting list. The museum’s annual Labor Day parade draws a crowd of about 10,000 people.

The museum offers a free public library dedicated to labor history and contemporary issues in labor and hosts traveling exhibits by nationally renowned artists. The permanent exhibit is dedicated to the Paterson Silk Mill Strike, which laid the groundwork for legislation that created the eight-hour workday, safer working conditions and the minimum wage.  

The strike offers a lesson in solidarity that still resonates, Santomauro said.

“Even though the Paterson silk mill workers came from nine different countries and spoke different languages, they knew the person sitting next to them was their brother and their sister and they had to respect one another to achieve their goals,’’ she said.

Instead of standing by as the mill owners brought in new more efficient looms that cost their co-workers jobs, the laborers in the silk mills walked out, she said.

“They had the perseverance, drive and understanding that they needed to sacrifice in order to achieve what is needed in the workplace and that is courageous,’’ Santomauro said.

That is the message she is trying to spread today.

“Teaching children about the importance of organizing, the strength of unity and solidarity teaches them to be empathetic and put themselves in the shoes of another person,’’ Santomauro said, “Then they will not grow up with an ‘I’, ‘me,’ ‘I just have to make money and not worry about my brothers and sisters’ mentality.’’

Media Contact
Andrea Alexander