Labor Day 2015: When “The Saturday Night Club” Remembered The Rise of New Britain Unions

 By John McNamara

The New Britain Saturday Night Club, founded in the 19th century,  is an organization of professionals, industrialists, educators and the civic-minded whose members regularly gathered for some home-grown culture and education. None other than the “Learned Blacksmith” Elihu Burritt was a member starting in 1875 .  The longstanding group is kind of a Rotary Club gathering regularly  for  social and intellectual discourse.  The Club is still in business and members meet half a dozen times a year to continue the tradition. The Community Foundation of Greater New Britain still maintains a New Britain Saturday Night Club Fund “to support a legacy for culture, education and economic development.”  

Bill Weber, a prominent attorney and civic leader in the city for more than 50 years, and member of The Saturday Night Club,  shared with NB Politicus  a labor history paper presented  at the Club in 200.   A brief history of unions, Weber’s observations trace the city’s labor movement back to the 19th century and on to the build up and decline of those unions and the people who made it happen.

Labor Day 2015 is not a time to be nostalgic about the struggles of the last century to organize factory floors that turned New Britain into a “union town” with its many  thousands of factory jobs.

On this Labor Day the union movement is gearing up with 21st century strategies to fight right-wing attacks, organize white- and blue-collar workplaces with unionization in the private sector at single-digits. Income inequality,  thanks to new union organizing,  the Presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and the leadership of Elizabeth Warren, may be moving the political debate in the direction it needs to go.

It’s not nostalgia, however, to make labor history a prominent part of what a new generation should know about New Britain’s past and what grandparents and great grandparents did and fought for to make decent livings and attain income security.

This year a new Connecticut law was enacted to make  the labor movement a part of what school districts should consider in setting social studies and history curriculums.  “Without the contribution of organized labor and the sacrifice and courage of union activists, the average worker, even the average non-union worker, would have many fewer rights and benefits in employment,” Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney (D-New Haven) said last May when the bill passed. “We owe it to the children of Connecticut to teach them about these extraordinary contributions so that they might have an understanding of this critical component in American history.”  It’s the kind of curriculum that’s needed in the city for school kids to appreciate where they live.

Attorney Bill Weber’s Saturday Night discourse, “The Excitement of The Times” back in 1991 barely scratches the surface of this epic time in labor history. But Weber knowledgeably recounts who some of the key players were — a “greatest generation” of New Britain union organizers mainly from the militant and trailblazing United Electrical & Radio Machine Workers (UE) who shop by shop fought resisting employers and turned the city into a “union town.”

Detail from Taylor Map.
Detail from Taylor Map.

The build up of New Britain’s labor movement and the start of industrial unions go back 83 years to FDR’s New Deal.  The UE, the United Auto Workers (UAW) of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the International Association of Machinists (IAM)  of the old guard American Federation of Labor would at their post World War II peak  represent many  thousands of workers in the shops of Landers, Frary & Clark, Stanley Works, American Hardware’s Russell & Erwin, Corbin Screw, P & F Corbin and Corbin Lock divisions and Fafnir Bearing.

Attorney  Weber went further  back to the 19th century when the Saturday Night Club was just getting started to trace  the city labor movement’s beginnings.

Two dueling preachers, engaging in some class warfare from the pulpits, may have fueled the  struggle for good wages and working conditions in the 19th century. Weber recalled a chat with the Rev. Jim Simpson, a  former pastor of First Church, who speculated  “the beginnings of labor unrest and organization in New Britain hark back to the split of the South Church from the First Church. He suggested that the sermons of the Reverend Smalley were often directed at the industrialists of that time for their treatment of their workers and the conditions in their factories. Smalley’s efforts on behalf of the workers together with his opposition to slavery precipitated the industrialists leaving the First Church to form their own Church, today’s South Church.”  A case of class warfare in the pews.

Attorney Weber’s brief history noted the formation of The Molders Union in 1860 and following the Civil War the “10 Hour League” as tradesmen won a shorter work day at Russell & Erwin.  “As the manufacturers moved from skilled labor to mass production with semi-skilled and unskilled labor, the labor movement gradually died out and the Molders Union disbanded.” Not until 1915 did “low wages” and “long hours” spur  the IAM into action and the drive for unions was on again only to be slowed by “red raids” by state police arresting organizers from the “Communist Labor Party” in a first wave of redbaiting that would ultimately damage and divide organized labor.

“Everything changed with the Depression,” observed Weber of the watershed year 1932. ” Healthy young men who wanted to work could find no work. One person explained that he was at the top of his class at New Britain High School and believed himself to be far brighter than those of his classmates whose families could afford to send their children to college. But for him there was neither college nor a job. With the election of Franklin Roosevelt and with the advent of the New Deal, the passage in 1933 of the National Industrial Recovery Act (or NIRA) and the passage in 1935 of the Wagner Act, the strength of law backed a worker’s efforts to organize a labor union. “Many of the individuals that I interviewed and who were involved in the early labor movement in New Britain, stated that (and I quote them) “the excitement of the times in Washington was felt in New Britain,” according to Weber.

In 1934, federal law protecting the right to organize,  the first industrial union of the Depression formed at Landers, Frary & Clark. Collective bargaining began for semi-skilled and unskilled workers as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) took off in many factory towns. That “Landers Independent  Union” would go on to affiliate with the UE and Local 207 was born in 1936. Recounted Weber: “This marked the beginning of an effort to organize all of the industries in New Britain. It is interesting that this drive was carried out by New Britain’s own home-grown cadre of organizers most of whom were under 25 years of age and many of whom were members of the Communist party.”

Early on, the chief organizer for the UE in New Britain was Mike Petanovich who faced beatings from company “goons” and went on to fight in WWII never to return to the labor movement after the war.  Others — familiar to many retirees — followed including Nick Tomasetti who would go on to be elected to the Legislature  Other UE organizers noted by Weber included Joseph Salwocki, James Wilson, Dan Dragone, Ira Shyer, Robert Barrows and Laddie Michalowski.

“The local UE leadership developed a plan to start organizing all of New Britain’s industries on a factory by factory basis. It was decided to organize the factories out of the Landers local including the remaining divisions of Landers. The organizers went to the various industrial plants in New Britain and handed out leaflets calling for workers to attend a meeting. Six to twenty people showed up from most plants with the exception of Stanley and New Britain Machine. Stanley and New Britain Machine were particularly difficult for the leadership to get workers to become involved in organization efforts because Stanley and New Britain Machine were friendly with their workers and had better working conditions than the other employers.”

The UE’s organizing drive continued to be stymied at Stanley and eventually the American Federation of Labor’s  IAM led by Jack Aguzzi won the first contracts at Stanley that remains a global hardware brand where just about every product line is manufactured somewhere else. “Organizing efforts at Stanley were not successful until May, 1945 when the International Association of Machinists was recognized as the employee bargaining unit” and Frank Rocco became “the youngest elected president of an IAM local” after his military service in the war.

The other CIO union,  the United Auto Workers, broke through in 1943 with a bargaining unit at  Fafnir Bearing Company. The UAW’s Tony Bracha credited Marty Greenberg as one of the organizers who organized workers forcing Fafnir to finally recognize the union.

Just as federal labor law during the New Deal empowered the UE to organize the factories, the post-war  Taft Hartley provisions of the Wagner Act and the travesty of red baiting took out the UE as the union for most of the city’s  industrial workers.  The union that turned New Britain and other towns in New England  into  “union towns” gave way to  the UAW and IAM,  both of which maintained a strong and militant labor movement for better wages and working conditions in the post-war era.

By 1991 when Attorney Weber gave his Saturday Night Club talk he noted the toll taken by industries going global for cheaper labor and offshore plants saying the city “has become a town of union retirees.”

But unions and the labor movement still figure prominently in the life of the city not only among retirees, but among the thousands of residents who still belong to a union and appreciate how important organized labor is to the city’s heritage.  Happy Labor Day.