September–October 2016 Newsletter
A TIME OF TRANSITION FOR LHA
By Joan Cavanagh
As you know if you attended this year’s annual meeting and/or have been reading our last couple of newsletters, 2016 is a year of transition for the Labor History Association. As of the end of December, there will be no more funding available for my position, so LHA will return to its roots as an all volunteer organization, guided by the efforts of its Executive Board and membership.
To prepare for this change, I am in the process of organizing our archival holdings (including the historical records of LHA) for transfer to Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. They are establishing a Greater New Haven Labor History Association Collection. Our materials will thus be preserved in a climate controlled facility and made available to researchers by UConn’s archivists. Two collections, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America Local 125/ International Ladies Garment Workers Union Local 151 and the International Typographical Union Local No. 47 records, have already been delivered.
It’s been a privilege and a joy to work with the Board and members of the Labor History Association for the past 16 years. We brought LHA into the 21st century along with its mission to collect, preserve, share and celebrate the history, culture and traditions of working people and their unions in our community and beyond.
Moving forward, LHA will help continue to ensure that current and future generations understand the heritage and struggles of workers through the creation of a labor history curriculum for Connecticut’s public schools as well as by carrying out other projects spearheaded by the Board and our membership. Please, get involved. If you haven’t yet become a member, please do. If you’re already a member, please consider joining the Board or a project committee. And, if you have a special project you’ve always wanted to see the organization undertake, now’s the time!
Remember: We Are All Workers!
A FEW HIGHLIGHTS OF LHA’S WORK, 2000-2016
2000-2004 : Local union records inventories conducted throughout the region
2004 : Neil Hogan’s Moments in New Haven Labor History published
2005 : River Street Labor History Tour
2006 : Garment Workers exhibit opens at Ethnic Heritage Center, travels to 23 venues statewide
2007-2008 : Labor history mural and booklet about Augusta Lewis Troup produced for renovated Troup School
2009-2010 : Pilot projects in New Haven schools model oral history interviews with workers
2014-2016 : Winchester Workers exhibit opens at Gateway Community College in 2014 and continues to travel in 2016 and beyond!
2015 : After a five-year effort by LHA members, Governor Malloy signs the bill to teach labor history in the Connecticut public schools
OUR COMMUNITY AT WINCHESTER: AN ELM CITY STORY
TRAVELING EXHIBIT AT THE HAGAMAN LIBRARY THROUGH NOVEMBER 15th
Did you or someone you know work at the Olin-Winchester plant in New Haven?
We need your comments on the exhibit—please stop by the library and contribute your comments to our notebook.
The Olin-Winchester plant closed its doors and left New Haven in 2006. The stories of its workers throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries are told for the first time in this exhibit by the Greater New Haven Labor History Association, which opened in 2014 at Gateway Community College and continues to travel to new venues locally and throughout the state of Connecticut.
The stories of labor struggles, workers’ culture within the plant and the impact of the plant on the larger community are the basis of the exhibit.
The core of the exhibit comes from photographs and docu-ments from the International Association of Machinists Local 609 records now located at the Southern Labor Archives at Georgia State University, sup-plemented with oral history interviews of retired Winchester workers and their families. Local 609 represented workers at the plant from 1956 until its closure. Images from earlier years as well as from workers’ lives in the community are culled from personal memora-bilia, employee newsletters and a variety of other sources.
Exhibit researcher and curator: Joan Cavanagh Image Digitization: Cynthia Rubin and Jeanne Criscola
Exhibit design: Jeanne Criscola Exhibit web site: David Cirella
Oral history interviewers: Dorothy Johnson, Lula White, Mary Johnson
Videography: Bill Berndtson and Jim Hoffecker
PLEASE SIGN OUR GUESTBOOK AND TELL US WHAT YOU THINK OF THE EXHIBIT! AND CHECK OUT THE EXHIBIT IN ITS ENTIRETY ON LINE AT exhibits.winchesterworkers.gnhlha.org
LABOR HISTORY ASSOCIATION FILMS NOW AVAILABLE
AT BEST VIDEO
By Steve Kass President, Greater New Haven Labor History Association
Best Video Film & Cultural Center and the Greater New Haven Labor History Association have begun a new collaboration to make labor history films available to educators and the general public in an organized, convenient way. The films, located next to the political documentaries shelf, are available for a small fee at the store’s location at 1842 Whitney Avenue, Hamden.
As two small non-profit organizations, LHA and Best Video hope to expand the collection through grants and donations. Let us know if you can help!
So far the films include:
Hank Hoffman from Best Video was instrumental in supporting this collaborative project.
THE EARLY YEARS
OF THE LABOR HISTORY ASSOCIATION
By Frank Annunziatio
(from his presentation at the Labor History Association Annual Conference and Meeting, Sunday, June 5, 2016)
“This town (New Haven) has picked up the reputation lately of having more strikes than any other city of its size. Very likely it deserves it; in any event the labor problem is in everyone’s mouth.”
NY Times, May 2, 1886
I found this quote when researching a paper for graduate school in 1978. I decided to follow it up and I learned there were 21 strikes here in 1886 in a city then with a population of 80,000.
The leading industry in New Haven in those days was the carriage industry, with shops all over the city. In the spring of 1886, the workers in the carriage industry conducted a general strike, shutting down stores all over the city. The strike lasted from March 17 until June 17. During 1886, women also struck at Strouse-Adler, as did blacksmiths in many shops, cigar makers, laborers, coal drivers, etc. Workers struck for higher wages, lower hours of work, against the hiring of non-union workers, reinstating fired workers, and in the cigar industry, supporting a progressive union over a company union. Which label would the cigars carry?
The Need to Document and Preserve New Haven’s Labor History
It was clear that a great deal of New Haven history had been forgotten. During the 1980s, I talked with Frank Carrano and Nick Aiello. Frank was president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers and the Greater New Haven Central Labor Council. Nick was of course the long serving general manager of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, Local 125. By that time, the amalgamated had all but disappeared. There may have been a few tailors left in men’s stores, and perhaps the Yale Coop was still unionized.
Nick persuaded Alice Bethea, the manager of Local 151 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to get involved with us. There was one ILGWU shop left in New Haven, Lee Beachware, on James and State.
From the beginning, we, the founders of the Greater New Haven Labor History Association, wanted to build and maintain a strong relationship with the Central Labor Council. Soon, we attracted important academic and labor scholars, David Montgomery and Jeremy Brecher. David brought along several of his graduate students. I remember Debbie Elkin and Steve Lassonde. There were others, whose names I have forgotten. (Debbie Elkin from the audience reminded me of Kathy Oberdeck.)
Jeremy Brecher was the author of the very popular and important book, Strike, from which we learned the importance of “history from below.” Jeremy helped us to win a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council to prepare a travelling exhibit about the Garment Workers Industry in New Haven.
We also received a great deal of support from the postal workers’ unions and their presidents, John Dirzius from New Haven and Fred Kaltenstein from Danbury. Bill Cahn and his wife Rhoda were early supporters of the Labor History Association, as well.
The Garment Workers Reunion
Our first project was to preserve what was left of the history of the garment workers in New Haven. To that end, we decided to hold a garment workers’ reunion. Both ACWA and ILGWU cooperated. The reunion was held at Bella Vista, where many retired garment workers lived. On that day, we collected oral histories on tape and videotape. Most of the oral histories were women, but there were some men, as well. I remember sitting down with Sal Barbara, who was a cutter in the shirt shops. (Later in retirement, Sal was hired by the shirt shops to help them program their computers.)
From all the oral histories, we put together a script for our garment workers’ exhibit and hired a designer to plan out the exhibit. I wrote an article about our work that was published in Labor History, the journal of the George Meany Labor Center. The famous picture of Nick’s sister at her sewing machine appeared on the front cover.
The Augusta Lewis Troup Award
We rediscovered the work of Augusta Lewis Troup. As you all know, she was a pioneer woman in the printing industry. She and her husband Alexander operated a union newspaper in town. Alexander was a state representative for New Haven, and helped the legislature pass many important pro-labor laws, including the establishment of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
We created the Pass It On Award, also known as the Troup Award, given annually to those individuals who had devoted their lives to labor and labor history. Our first recipients were Jenny Alfano from the Amalgamated and Amelia Spose from the ILGWU. You can grasp the politics of those choices. Jenny was Nick’s older sister and a key organizer of the battle to organize the shirt shops in 1933. I remember her singing to us, “We’ll hang Harry Lesnow from a sour apple tree.” (Harry Lesnow was one of the brothers who owned Lesnow’s Shirts, the largest shirt factory at that time. Soon after Lesnow was organized, the company moved to Northampton, Ma. and the Amalgamated went after them up there.)
The Labor Almanac
Since we knew about the 1899 Illustrated history of the trades’ council, and then discovered the 1939 Labor Digest, published by the then Central Labor Council, AFL, we decided to replicate and update those two efforts.
In 1995 we published the Labor Almanac, which was a massive effort. I was the editor, Bill Carey was the Managing Editor because he was from the printing industry, and as usual Nick Aiello helped to raise the funds.
We dedicated the Labor Almanac to Vincent Sirabella, the long serving president of the Central Labor Council and the Business Manager of Local 35, the Yale service and maintenance union. John Wilhelm, later the President of UNITE-HERE, wrote an essay on Vinny’s life.
We sent the Labor Almanac to public libraries in the greater New Haven area and to schools, colleges and universities. Our hope was that future history would not forget or ignore what working people accomplished in the second half of the twentieth century.
Professor David Montgomery wrote a brilliant essay that analyzed the totality of New Haven labor history, “One Hundred Sixty Years of Labor’s Struggles for a Better New Haven.” I urge you all to read it. David concluded his piece with the following:
“Even though a ruthless pursuit of private profit has pushed the city into economic decline, only the sense of community that the labor movement has cultivated in New Haven’s work places and neighborhoods can provide the hope and vision for a better future.”
I am delighted that the GNHLHA continues to do great work in preserving and disseminating the history of New Haven’s working people. Nick Aiello, more than anyone else, would be delighted to witness this.
Frank Annunziato was the co-founder and first president of the Greater New Haven Labor History Association. He has recently retired from his long time position as executive director of the University of Rhode Island chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
THE LEGACY OF NICK AIELLO
By Anthony Riccio
(from his presentation at the Labor History Association Annual Conference and Meeting June 5, 2016)
The nearly-forgotten story of New Haven’s needle trades came back to life the day I met Nick Aiello at his home in Fair Haven in 2002. Seated at Nick’s kitchen table was his old friend Frank Annunziato, who had conducted important research on New Haven’s garment industry. With my tape recorder running, I sat spellbound as Nick wove fascinating stories about the union movement, his experiences living in the epicenter of the New Haven’s shirt and dress industry, and his career as a union business agent. Speaking in a matter-of-fact tone, retaining his unique Aielloian grin, Nick reconstructed New Haven’s social and working history from the late 1920s in great detail: the exploitation of young Italian American girls barely out of grammar school in New Haven’s barbaric sweatshops at the hands of ruthless owners, the daily struggle of the working poor to provide for their large families during tough times, the fear of immigrant parents whose children risked losing desperately needed jobs at the height of the Depression, and the undocumented role of many courageous Italian American women who rallied the female neighborhood network to organize, protest, and finally win union contracts for better work conditions and wages in the early 1930s.
Nick was, like many elders of his fading generation, a natural storyteller, the quintessential local historian who could recreate the mood and drama of his times through the oral tradition. As a young boy who tagged along with his firebrand sister Jennie, he witnessed factory walkouts and work shutdowns, watched brave young women face physical violence walking picket lines and holding union rallies, and observed the establishment of the Amalgamated 125 of the Shirt-makers Union and ILGWU Local 151.
For more than a decade I had the blessing of Nick’s friendship, and often asked him questions about New Haven’s history that had never been recorded in any great detail. One conversation stands out. He defined himself, saying, “I’m a capitalist with socialistic intentions,” and went on to describe the golden age of unions before their decline, an era when his role as a union business agent was to help workers: “We had sewing and bowling clubs, we went to the World’s Fair, we made sure you had good health care, we made sure you got good legal advice – it was an outlet for people who didn’t have anything to be united in one cause.”
Maybe Nick’s finest hour – a moment that captured the spirit of his times -- came after the dust settled and workers had won guaranteed union contracts. As a union business agent armed with a binding contract, Nick once settled a work dispute with an oppressive owner who had employed his sisters prior to unionization. During the meeting, the owner mentioned to Nick, “Oh, I had your sister.” Nick’s response represented the protective voice for fairness for thousands of men and women employed in the garment industry: “Yeah, you had my sister and I know what you did to my sister.” Nick Aiello spent his life fighting for justice in the workplace, never hesitating to confront the powerful. He leaves behind the legacy of a humble man who found empowerment in the union movement, spending his life in the service of others until the very end.
IMPORTANT: OFFICE TELEPHONE NUMBER
The old office telephone number is not operational. Messages left there cannot and will not be retrieved. Please contact the Labor History Association by email at email@example.com.