Melissa Bailey File Photo


Mary Johnson’s voice was heard.

The white-haired schoolteacher was always polite when she confronted politicians, business leaders, or anyone else standing in the way of social justice. She didn’t yell at them.

She did press her case. And she didn’t let up. She was a fixture of New Haven protest politics for a half century, back to her days demonstrating against the Vietnam War and getting jailed in the 1970 city teachers strike. Since then she has marched against foreign military interventions, for a nuclear freeze, against military contracting, for striking workers and union-organizing drives, and for racial justice and preserving downtown bus stops, among many other causes. (Click here and here to read about just two examples of her activism.)

Johnson died Aug. 13 at the age of 95.

Joan Cavanagh, who organized alongside her, submitted the following biographical sketch of Johnson, originally written for her 80th birthday and updated this week:

Mary Doherty Johnson was born on March 29, 1922, in Winsted, CT., the oldest of four children. Her parents were James Doherty and Ethel Constable Doherty. Her first residence was in West Haven, but the family moved to New Haven when Mary was seven.  Her father worked for the Associated Press for over 40 years.

Mary attended the New Haven State Teacher’s College from 1939 until 1943. She taught second grade at the Walnut Beach School in Milford for a year, then moved to the Cheshire Elementary School in 1944, where she received a raise of $300, “for a grand total of $1300” a year. She resigned in June 1949, marrying Carl Johnson on December 26th. The Johnsons lived at McConahey Terrace in New Haven for the duration of their marriage. They had three daughters, Mary Louise, Elizabeth, and Martha.

In 1965, Mary began substitute teaching, “mostly at the West Hills School” in New Haven. In 1967, she became a permanent substitute at the Sheridan Middle School, and decided to return to teaching on a full-time basis. She got a contract at Troup Middle School, where she taught until retirement in 1982.

The Johnsons separated in 1968 and their divorce was finalized in 1977, but they maintained ties of friendship and family, in later years sharing holidays together at Mr. Johnson’s home in Westerly, Rhode Island with their daughters and Mary’s sisters Jane Toles and the late Bernice Doherty, as well as Jane’s husband, children, and grandchildren. Carl Johnson passed away in 2001.

Mary Johnson’s family was an important part of her life, but an equally significant part was her ongoing labor, peace, civil rights and social justice activism and the relationships forged in the course of that work. One of her earliest experiences was as a neighborhood activist who initiated the formation of the West Hills Community Council in the mid-1950s. She described it as a group whose goal was “to make [neighborhood] life better, independent of politicians…to make politicians work for you on neighborhood issues.” The Council tackled standard issues such as baseball field renovation and installation of traffic lights, but Mary said that its “greatest achievement” occurred when a local social worker, Hugh Woodard, advised them that housing built in the area for arms workers during World War II and occupied ever since by their families was being sold by the federal government “to the highest bidder.” This involved over 300 units in the area. The Council went to each of them to inform them of the situation. After receiving pressure from the Council and the families occupying the units, the City of New Haven in turn put pressure on the federal government, which eventually relented and established priorities for the sale of the units: first priority would be given to people who already lived in them; second, to World War II veterans; third, to Korean War veterans; and fourth, to New Haven residents. 

Although she had been involved in some anti-nuclear arms race demonstrations in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mary said that the Vietnam War propelled her further into peace work.  During the 1960s and 1970s, hers was a familiar face on all-night bus rides from New Haven to Washington, D.C. for large anti-war demonstrations. In the 1980s, she continued to travel to Washington to protest United States intervention in Central America, and was arrested in April 1986 with others in the rotunda of the Capitol building for sitting in front of a bust of Martin Luther King and reading from the speech he made having decided that “the time had come” for him to publicly oppose the war in Vietnam. Periodically, they said in unison, “That time has come for us in relation to Nicaragua.” After a weeklong trial, charges were dismissed.

Mary also continued her peace activism more locally. She was a member of Spinsters Opposed to Nuclear Genocide (SONG), a New Haven based women’s affinity group, joining them in demonstrations at the local military recruiting station as well as at General Dynamics Corporation’s Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton.  During the 1992 Christmas shopping season, she was arrested with another activist at a Bradlees’ store in East Haven for placing stickers which read “Don’t Buy War Toys” on items such as G.I. Joe figures. This latter incident reveals much about Mary’s character. She and other participants managed to walk out of the store without being stopped. One member of the group, Stephen Kobasa, was, however, roughly apprehended. When Mary saw this, she returned, waiting for police to arrive. “The Bradlees Two” were initially charged with “criminal mischief in the first degree,” a felony, but the charges were reduced in court and the case was settled.

Mary joined the New Haven Federation of Teachers in 1967, and she was a member of the Executive Board until her retirement. In 1970 and again in 1975, teachers who were perceived as leaders were sent to jail for contempt of court for defying injunctions not to strike. In 1970, Mary was the only woman among the 14 jailed. In 1975, she was part of the teachers’ negotiating committee, whose members were first sent to jail on a Friday afternoon. They were held until 3 a.m. the next morning, and then released due to parent pressure. The teachers then negotiated with the school board all weekend, but were suddenly told “all bets were off” at 8 a.m. on Monday, when, exhausted, they were returned to jail. Although this was obviously a tactic by the school board to wear the teachers down and break the strike by removing the leadership at a crucial point, the Federation had anticipated such a possibility and had trained a second negotiating team. Other striking teachers were also arrested, but, because of the leaders’ foresight, the second team of negotiators continued the talks, and a contract favorable to the teachers was negotiated within the week.

Mary was active in the United Farmworkers’ Union movement as part of a New Haven committee that leafleted, picketed, and passed out information about the boycott of Gallo wine (made from grapes picked by non-union workers.) After UFW organizers were called back to California in the mid-1970s, she continued the local support committee, producing at her own expense a handwritten newsletter about the struggle, which she hand-delivered throughout New Haven. She continued the newsletter until 1980. A highlight of her work with the UFW was a trip across country by bus in 1976 to attend a union convention in Southern California. She “was twice the age of everyone else” on the trip.

Over the years, Mary was a prime mover in many other organizations such as the May Day Celebration Committee, the Coalition to Stop Trident, the Pledge of Resistance, and the New Haven Coalition Against War in the Gulf.  She marched and was arrested in support of Yale union Locals 34, 35, and GESO (the Graduate Employee Student Organization, now Local 33.) She was active in the movement to pressure Yale to divest its holdings from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.

In the 1990s, Mary worked with a group of citizens who were outraged that the City of New Haven, under pressure from a redeveloper, removed several key bus stops from the central downtown area to make that portion of the city more “attractive” to tourists visiting Yale. She was also an ongoing, active member of several groups including the Greater New Haven Central Labor Council, the New Haven Federation of Teachers Retirees Chapter, the Greater New Haven Labor History Association, the Coalition for People, the Middle East Crisis Committee, and People Against Injustice.

Despite her energy and vitality, Mary struggled with health problems for many years. She was diagnosed with melanoma in 1986, and underwent many procedures to arrest it. In 1989, she had major surgery for a tumor in her right lung. In 1991, she had surgery again for colon cancer. From 1991 until 1993, she took Ampligen as part of an experimental trial and was the only long-term survivor in the group. She was always a proactive and vocal participant in her own health care.

After a 15-year struggle, the City of New Haven returned all but one of the downtown bus stops, and, on Mary’s 85th birthday in 2007, many of her friends joined her at Mayor John DeStefano’s office to demand the return of the last one to Church and Chapel Streets. DeStefano complied.

Even as her health declined, Mary continued to help coordinate the work of the Coalition for People, the Progressive Action Roundtable newsletter, and the Labor History Association. In her last years and months, she still advocated vocally for single payer health care, making phone calls to elected officials and getting her friends to do the same. She passed away on August 13th, more than a year and a half after entering hospice care.

A memorial gathering for Mary Johnson will be held in New Haven in early October. Details will be announced as soon as plans are finalized.


  There will be a memorial gathering for Mary at the Aldermanic Chambers at City Hall on Sunday, October 1st, 2-5 pm.


  • LOUIS W. (“Bill”) BERNDTSON, JR., February 18, 1934-July 31, 2017
    By Joan Cavanagh, Former Archivist/ Director, Greater New Haven Labor History Association 
    Louis W. Berndtson, Jr., the beloved immediate past president of the Greater New Haven Labor
    History Association, passed away on Monday, July 31 2017 at Yale New Haven Hospital from
    complications of pancreatic cancer.


    Bill received the Association’s Augusta Lewis Troup “Pass It On” Award at our Annual
    Conference and Meeting in May of 2009, and when I presented it to him, I began by saying that
    “Persistence is one of his middle names. So are courage, dedication and fortitude.”
    At the Greater New Haven Labor History Association, we knew all those things and more about
    Bill. A member of the Executive Board from 2000 until his retirement in 2016, for many years he
    played multiple roles with dedication, enthusiasm, and skill: treasurer, web master, “go-to guy”
    for all crises, and self-described “I.T. Geek.”  In 2011, he accepted an additional role, that of
    President, succeeding the late Nicholas Aiello. He provided strong leadership in the Association’s
    work to facilitate production of the labor history mural that now graces the entryway to the
    newly renovated Troup School, and worked with me to co-edit and write an award-winning
    booklet which describes the life of the school’s (and our award’s) namesake.
    He also contributed strongly to the successful efforts of Labor History Association members,
    spearheaded by then-Vice President Steve Kass, to legislate a curriculum of labor and working-
    class history in Connecticut’s public schools. (The bill passed and was signed by Governor
    Dannel Malloy in July 2015.) As a board member and throughout his presidency, Bill contributed
    both leadership and never-ending hands-on toil to every endeavor of our organization.
    Bill’s parents were Swedish and Norwegian immigrants. One of his grandfathers worked at
    Yale’s Sloan Laboratory while his grandmother baked pastries for Charles Seymour’s teas. His
    father, the eldest of six children, left school after fourth grade to help support the family and
    worked for the railway as a brakeman and in a variety of other jobs, holding every office at
    various times in the local of his union, the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen.
    Bill grew up in the area known at the time as “Goatville,” the Cottage/ Lawrence Street area of
    New Haven, attended Hooker School and graduated from Commercial (soon to become Wilbur
    Cross) High School. One of his teachers at Cross (a proud member of the American Federation
    of Teachers) declared that he was “too bright” not to go to college, and insisted on driving him to
    what was then Southern Connecticut State Teachers’ College to personally enroll him in 1952.
    He took both general and education courses there but eventually left school, although, as he said
    later, he didn’t actually “quit,” he just took a long sabbatical, returning to get his degree in
    Psychology with a specialization in Mental Health at age 65.
    Bill served in the army in 1956, for a total of 10 months and twelve days. He became a disabled
    veteran in a rather unique way, tearing the cartilage in his knee during Basic Training. Once
    honorably discharged, he held various jobs and, in 1959, went to work as a lab technician at the
    Department of Preventive Medicine (which became Epidemiology and Public Health) at the Yale




  • Medical School. Thus began his career as a hard-working union organizer who never actually got
    to work in a union job.
    “My father [Louis W. Berndtson, Sr.] was an officer in the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen
    Local #936, serving the New York-New Haven and Hartford and Harlem River Lines,” Bill
    wrote. “When there was trouble in the ‘Yard’ or the local, they came looking for ‘Louie.’
    Someone’s in trouble: ‘Get Louie!’ Something’s wrong: ‘Get Louie.’ The phone could ring any
    time of the day or night.
    “Phrases like ‘Pull the pin’(strike), ‘Never let them have more men in the room than you do!’
    (grievance or negotiations): this is what I grew up with. So no surprise when in 1965, with a wife
    and small child at home and no real support from Yale, I decided to go Union.” The effort begun
    with “a few meetings with Vincent Sirabella led to 20 years of organizing and a victory for Local
    34 FUE. [Federation of University Employees.]”
    It was a long and winding road to achieve that victory, and Bill’s efforts led him to leave Yale
    and go to work first for Local 153 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union,
    which discontinued their organizing efforts at Yale due to lack of success. The campaign of the
    United Autoworkers Union, for which Bill later worked, also was short-lived. The rest is history:
    Local 34 of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers finally mounted the ultimately successful drive.
    Bill’s union organizing days had ended by the time that victory was achieved, but his
    commitment to economic and social justice continued. He became active in the Democratic
    Party, and he got a job with the Unemployed Workers Council of the Greater New Haven Central
    Labor Council for about a year after the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United
    States. While much of this job involved “talking people off the ledge,” the organization also held
    job fairs, organized against foreclosures, held public meetings, organized free food distributions
    and offered counseling sessions.
    Eight years ago, when he accepted the Augusta Lewis Troup Award, Bill said that he had begun
    to do the work of organizing because he was trying to raise and care for his own family, but soon
    he became a magnet for all the stories of other workers and their stories became part of his own.
    This was the kind of empathy and insight that guided his life.
    Thank you, Bill Berndtson, for passing it on.
    A memorial service for Bill will be held on Sunday, August 13th at First Congregational
    Church of Stratford, 2301 Main Street, beginning at 1 pm. In lieu of flowers, the family has
    asked that donations be made in his memory to the Greater New Haven Labor History
    Association (GNHLHA, 267 Chapel Street, New Haven CT 06513.)
















LOUIS W. (“Bill”) BERNDTSON, JR., February 18, 1934-July 31, 2017By Joan Cavanagh, Former Archivist/ Director, Greater New Haven Labor History Association

  • Louis W. Berndtson, Jr., the beloved immediate past president of the Greater New Haven Labor
    History Association, passed away on Monday, July 31
    st
    , 2017 at Yale New Haven Hospital from
    complications of pancreatic cancer.
    Bill received the Association’s Augusta Lewis Troup “Pass It On” Award at our Annual
    Conference and Meeting in May of 2009, and when I presented it to him, I began by saying that
    “Persistence is one of his middle names. So are courage, dedication and fortitude.”
    At the Greater New Haven Labor History Association, we knew all those things and more about
    Bill. A member of the Executive Board from 2000 until his retirement in 2016, for many years he
    played multiple roles with dedication, enthusiasm, and skill: treasurer, web master, “go-to guy”
    for all crises, and self-described “I.T. Geek.” In 2011, he accepted an additional role, that of
    President, succeeding the late Nicholas Aiello. He provided strong leadership in the Association’s
    work to facilitate production of the labor history mural that now graces the entryway to the
    newly renovated Troup School, and worked with me to co-edit and write an award-winning
    booklet which describes the life of the school’s (and our award’s) namesake.
    He also contributed strongly to the successful efforts of Labor History Association members,
    spearheaded by then-Vice President Steve Kass, to legislate a curriculum of labor and working-
    class history in Connecticut’s public schools. (The bill passed and was signed by Governor
    Dannel Malloy in July 2015.) As a board member and throughout his presidency, Bill contributed
    both leadership and never-ending hands-on toil to every endeavor of our organization.
    Bill’s parents were Swedish and Norwegian immigrants. One of his grandfathers worked at
    Yale’s Sloan Laboratory while his grandmother baked pastries for Charles Seymour’s teas. His
    father, the eldest of six children, left school after fourth grade to help support the family and
    worked for the railway as a brakeman and in a variety of other jobs, holding every office at
    various times in the local of his union, the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen.
    Bill grew up in the area known at the time as “Goatville,” the Cottage/ Lawrence Street area of
    New Haven, attended Hooker School and graduated from Commercial (soon to become Wilbur
    Cross) High School. One of his teachers at Cross (a proud member of the American Federation
    of Teachers) declared that he was “too bright” not to go to college, and insisted on driving him to
    what was then Southern Connecticut State Teachers’ College to personally enroll him in 1952.
    He took both general and education courses there but eventually left school, although, as he said
    later, he didn’t actually “quit,” he just took a long sabbatical, returning to get his degree in
    Psychology with a specialization in Mental Health at age 65.
    Bill served in the army in 1956, for a total of 10 months and twelve days. He became a disabled
    veteran in a rather unique way, tearing the cartilage in his knee during Basic Training. Once
    honorably discharged, he held various jobs and, in 1959, went to work as a lab technician at the
    Department of Preventive Medicine (which became Epidemiology and Public Health) at the Yale
  • Medical School. Thus began his career as a hard-working union organizer who never actually got
    to work in a union job.
    “My father [Louis W. Berndtson, Sr.] was an officer in the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen
    Local #936, serving the New York-New Haven and Hartford and Harlem River Lines,” Bill
    wrote. “When there was trouble in the ‘Yard’ or the local, they came looking for ‘Louie.’
    Someone’s in trouble: ‘Get Louie!’ Something’s wrong: ‘Get Louie.’ The phone could ring any
    time of the day or night.
    “Phrases like ‘Pull the pin’(strike), ‘Never let them have more men in the room than you do!’
    (grievance or negotiations): this is what I grew up with. So no surprise when in 1965, with a wife
    and small child at home and no real support from Yale, I decided to go Union.” The effort begun
    with “a few meetings with Vincent Sirabella led to 20 years of organizing and a victory for Local
    34 FUE. [Federation of University Employees.]”
    It was a long and winding road to achieve that victory, and Bill’s efforts led him to leave Yale
    and go to work first for Local 153 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union,
    which discontinued their organizing efforts at Yale due to lack of success. The campaign of the
    United Autoworkers Union, for which Bill later worked, also was short-lived. The rest is history:
    Local 34 of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers finally mounted the ultimately successful drive.
    Bill’s union organizing days had ended by the time that victory was achieved, but his
    commitment to economic and social justice continued. He became active in the Democratic
    Party, and he got a job with the Unemployed Workers Council of the Greater New Haven Central
    Labor Council for about a year after the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United
    States. While much of this job involved “talking people off the ledge,” the organization also held
    job fairs, organized against foreclosures, held public meetings, organized free food distributions
    and offered counseling sessions.
    Eight years ago, when he accepted the Augusta Lewis Troup Award, Bill said that he had begun
    to do the work of organizing because he was trying to raise and care for his own family, but soon
    he became a magnet for all the stories of other workers and their stories became part of his own.
    This was the kind of empathy and insight that guided his life.
    Thank you, Bill Berndtson, for passing it on.
    A memorial service for Bill will be held on Sunday, August 13
    th
    at First Congregational
    Church of Stratford, 2301 Main Street, beginning at 1 pm. In lieu of flowers, the family has
    asked that donations be made in his memory to the Greater New Haven Labor History
    Association (GNHLHA, 267 Chapel Street, New Haven CT 06513.



Our Community at Winchester

Exhibit at UConn, Stevens Gallery, that
“evokes an era of union and community solidarity”

Opening Reception/Talk: 

Monday, April 18 2016, 4-6 pm

Read More >


2016 Annual Conference and Meeting

Sunday, June 5, 1:30-4:30 pm

267 Chapel Street, New Haven

LABOR HISTORY:
LOOKING BACK, MOVING FORWARD

Read More >

In loving memory
Nicholas Aiello
C0-Founder and President Emeritus who passed away on November 5, 2015


A LONG TIME COMING!

Empowering Students to Learn the Lessons 
of Labor History AFT Connecticut

Ceremonial Bill Signing for Public Act 15-17

An Act Concerning a Labor and Free Market Capitalism Curriculum

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Second from the left is GNHLHA Vice President Steve Kass. Forth from left is President Bill Berndtson.

 2015 Annual Meeting 

Revision of GNLHA By-Laws Up For Member Vote at Annual Meeting

Read the proposed changes

Labor History Association to Give Troup Awards to Rick Wolff, Mike Dennehy

June 7, 2015
Annual Conference 
and Meeting

Click here for more information about the conference.

Thanks to the work of our dedicated member, David Cirella, "Our Community at Winchester: An Elm City Story" can now be viewed here in its entirety. Click the image above. Please enjoy and post the link widely!

Our Community at Winchester: An Elm City Story

Our traveling exhibit about workers at the U.S. Repeating Arms Company in New Haven in the 20th century, has moved to the Stetson Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, 200 Dixwell Avenue, where it will be on display through February 28th. The library is located in the heart of the Dixwell-Newhallville Community, where many of the company's employees and their families lived.

If you haven't yet seen the exhibit, this is an excellent opportunity! There is ample free parking at the back of the library.

For more information, contact joan@laborhistory.org.

Winchester Workers Exhibit showing at
Wells Fargo



Nov. 4, 2014 – Jan. 5, 2015

Wells Fargo Bank Lobby

Corner of Elm and Church Streets
New Haven


Sen. Looney to Join Labor History Association Members to Accept Historic New England Preservation Grant


Check Presentation Event to be held Monday, August 25th at
3 pm in the Atrium of New Haven’s City Hall, 165 Church Street


Here come the Wobblies!


Japanese Trade Unionists Visit New Haven, Join May Day Rally and Take a New Haven Labor History Tour 
Read more

Above: Members of Zenroren view the labor history mural at the Augusta Lewis Troup Middle School in New Haven. Photo: Aaron Goode

Exhibit News

“Our Community at Winchester: An Elm City Story
Now on display at the Council Teachers Building.

“New Haven’s Garment Workers: An Elm City Story”
completes three months on display at the American Labor Museum/ Botto House National Landmark in Haledon, New Jersey.


Read more

Link to full article in the New Haven Register

0


Work and Working People 
in Connecticut
Association for the Study of
Connecticut History
Fall Conference

November 1, 2014

CAPITAL COMMUNITY COLLEGE, HARTFORD

Find out how to register

Learn More >

The Greater New Haven Labor History Association Receives a $1,000 Historic New England 2014 Community Preservation Grant 

The grant will help fund the expansion of its current traveling exhibit, “Our Community at Winchester: An Elm City Story”. 

Read all about it in the New Haven Independent


The check was presented to the organization by Historic New England Executive Vice President Diane Viera on August 25 in New Haven’s City Hall where the exhibit was showing. Pictured above are, left to right: LHA Board members Mary Johnson and Dorothy Johnson; Historic New England Executive Vice President Diane Viera; LHA President Bill Berndtson; Exhibit Curator and LHA Director Joan Cavanagh; State Senator Martin J. Looney; and LHA Board member Lula White.

The photograph was taken by Jeanne Criscola, who designed the exhibit panels.


NEWS FROM

Western Massachusetts
Jobs with Justice

Join Us!


You’re invited to the
2014 Annual Meeting
and Conference

Sunday, April 27th, 2014
1:30–4:30 pm 


__________________________________


Labor History in the Schools gathers momentum in CT
Click here to learn more>>  
Sign Me Up for Labor History in the Schools Updates!






GNHLHA members moved forward with a legislative initiative in 2012, called Labor History in the Schools, with endorsement by John Olsen and the CT AFL-CIO Executive Board. The bill came close to being brought to the floor in 2013 and will be coming up again in 2014. Stayed tuned!

GNHLHA in the News
New Haven Register, Jim Shelton, Register Staff
April 10, 2011




Greater New Haven Labor History Association  •  267 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT 06513 •  info@laborhistory.org •

* * *
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