By BOB BUSSEL, U of O Labor Education and Research Center professor emeritus
Forty years ago, I helped create a labor history museum in northern New Jersey. One of the key people in this effort, Bunny Kuiken, passed away last month at the age of 92.
Bunny was the granddaughter of Pietro Botto, an immigrant from a textile center in northern Italy. Botto and his family built a home in the town of Haledon, New Jersey, a streetcar suburb of Paterson, a prominent industrial city. A man with strong union sympathies, Pietro Botto supported the epic 1913 strike of silk workers in Paterson led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). After Paterson authorities suppressed public gatherings, the socialist mayor of Haledon invited the strikers to meet in his city. Pietro Botto allowed the strikers to hold mass meetings on the open lots adjacent to his home. Huge crowds gathered there during the strike to hear speeches by IWW leaders such as Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Unfortunately, brutal repression by the mill owners and their allies defeated the strikers’ quest for unionization. However, their effort demonstrated the courage and solidarity of immigrant workers, and foreshadowed the CIO’s eventual organizing of Paterson textile workers in the 1930s.
For years, many in Paterson attempted to forget the strike and the fierce class conflict it unleashed. Indeed, fearing possible blacklisting, one of Pietro Botto’s daughters used an assumed name when she was seeking employment. A generation later, Bunny Kuiken, who was living in her grandparents’ home, dedicated herself to preserving the memory of her family and ensuring that their story be told. With help from the former head of the Textile Workers Union, a community banker, a museum professional, and local educators, she raised funds to turn her home into a labor museum. Like Bunny, many members of the group were proud of their ancestors and saw Botto House as testimony to their struggles and achievements.
On May 1, 1983, the effort succeeded with the opening of the American Labor Museum at the Botto House National Landmark. Bunny Kuiken moved to a home several blocks away, and for the next 30 years devoted herself to building the museum, welcoming visitors and telling the story of her immigrant forebears with passion and clarity.
Over the years, Botto House became a vibrant institution. Today, schoolchildren take field trips to the museum where they learn about the immigrant experience, the working class, and the labor movement. The museum hosts important labor events such as Workers Memorial Day, the annual Labor Day parade, and other union gatherings.
Speaking to a reporter in 1993, Bunny explained the message she wanted the American Labor Museum to transmit to visitors: “They believed in what they believed in, and they fought for it,” The same could also be said of Bunny Kuiken. Her example reminds us that the immigrant working class is an integral part of our history. And reflecting the spirit and determination of Bunny Kuiken, we must insist that this story be told.
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