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By Jim Shelton, Register Staff
NEW HAVEN — They’ve got their shoulders to the grindstone at the Greater New Haven Labor History Association these days.
Not that it’s ever been a walk in the park, generating buzz about the story of organized labor in the city, but lately it’s taken on something of a crisis management vibe.
Labor history is shifting by the minute. In Wisconsin, state officials recently sought to shut down certain collective bargaining rights for state workers. Legislators in other states are considering similar measures. Here in New Haven, there have been rallies, protests and an appearance by the Rev. Al Sharpton in response to the city’s negotiations with local labor unions.
Meanwhile, a surging chorus of politicians and taxpayers contends that labor unions are breaking the backs of state and local budgets.
What better time, then, to revisit the 1902 trolley workers’ strike, or the teachers’ strike of 1975?
“Younger people, even people in my generation, don’t understand how hard the struggle was in days gone by,” says Joan Cavanagh, archivist and director of the labor history organization. “Where did the five-day workweek come from? Where did the weekend come from? They didn’t just happen. People lost their lives to get them.”
Actually, Cavanagh’s group would be making its presence known anyway, even if the labor movement weren’t already at Threat-Level-Midnight.
Its traveling exhibit, “New Haven’s Garment Workers: An Elm City Story,” is currently on display at the New Haven Free Public Library; a second exhibit, focusing on workers at New Haven’s Winchester plant, is being readied for later this year. Self-guided tours of labor history landmarks in the city are available for download at the group’s website, www.laborhistory.org
In addition, the group launched a pilot program in which nearly 100 local students conducted oral interviews with adults in the labor force. There’s also a push to make labor history part of the history curriculum in Connecticut public schools.
“If we don’t watch out, kids will never know any of this,” says Nick Aiello, 86, president of the association and former business agent for Amalgamated Clothing Workers Local 125.
Aiello says he can’t recall a tougher time for putting out the word about labor history. Part of the problem, he speculates, is that organized labor has lost some of its punch and American workers are no longer united.
“It’s a bigger struggle today,” he says.
Of course, local labor history is full of struggles.
You had the printers strike of 1871, which included a 500-person rally on the Green; the Candee Rubber Co. walkouts of 1884, when an employer refused to open factory windows during a sweltering heat wave; and the Franklin Street fire of 1957, when dozens of workers were killed or injured in a blaze at a former carriage factory.
“Moments in New Haven Labor History,” a 2004 book written by Neil Hogan and published by the Greater New Haven Labor History Association, details those incidents and many others. For example, it notes the working conditions of garment workers in 1927:
“You went to work at seven, you got out at six, even on Saturday,” said 14-year-old Beatrice Bonafacio, who worked at Lerner’s Dress Shop. “And if you didn’t finish the work, you’d go in on Sunday, or you didn’t have a job on Monday. Sometimes you made $4 a week. Sometimes you made $5. There was no air conditioning, no fans, nothing of the sort. Filth. But you had to work.”
More recently, there was a six-month strike at the Olin Winchester Sporting Arms factory in 1979, and striking Yale University workers in 1984 drew national attention.
Aiello and several others founded the local labor history association in 1988, sensing that a vital link to labor’s past was fading from memory. The group’s first project was to organize a reunion of 300 garment industry workers and gather oral histories from them.
Since then, the group has created a labor almanac, organized a bus tour of labor history sites, gathered and inventoried nearly two dozen collections of labor history memorabilia and commissioned a labor history mural by Susan Bowen at Augusta Lewis Troup School.
“People seem to forget labor built this country,” says Lula White, a retired New Haven teacher who is a board member of the labor history group. She and her sister (and fellow board member), Dorothy Johnson of Hamden, have been collecting oral histories of former Winchester workers.