Matt Ritter’s Batterson Park Redux

State Park Status Proposed To Bring Abandoned Recreation Area On Farmington-New Britain Line Back To Life

By John McNamara

Will Batterson Park, the abandoned recreation area and pond shared by New Britain and Farmington and owned by the City of Hartford, become Connecticut’s 91st state park?

Last week State House Speaker Matt Ritter of Hartford picked up the pieces on a stalled 2021 plan proposed and funded (Don Stacom, Hartford Courant) but never launched.

NB Politicus

Two years ago the General Assembly at Ritter’s behest approved $10 million to refurbish the park. That wasn’t enough, however, to bring the three communities together to jointly oversee the revival of an accessible recreational area that has mostly been a little used natural buffer between urban New Britain and affluent Farmington. On the New Britain side of the park are Batterson Drive waterfront homes. On the Farmington side is Batterson Park Road and Hartford’s Camp Courant, the 129-year-old day camp for Hartford youth established by the daily newspaper.

In a state of 169 cities and towns often doing things 169 different ways it was too much to ask. Sharing services and regional solutions are hard to achieve in the “two Connecticuts” where the socio-economic-racial divide is often enforced at the town level and cities like Hartford and New Britain govern in an unsustainable finance and tax system. That explains best why a tri-town plan to revitalize and then maintain the park was not going to work.

Credit Speaker Ritter for persistence. He’s starting over with the state park idea that means a sandy beach, concessions, boat launch and fresh air amenities may soon be accessible to all in central Connecticut. A state park will not be subject to any town-imposed restrictions on public use that shamefully are in force in some “Gold Coast” towns on the shoreline. According to Ritter no one will pay a fee to enter Batterson State Park. The state’s Passport for Park program ensures a free to all policy. Presumably the same $10 million appropriated in fiscal year 2022 is still available. With the passage of time, it may take more money that Governor Lamont and legislative leaders will have to work out as the state administration sits atop record surpluses. At his press conference on March 23rd Ritter said the addition of Batterson would be the first one of any significant size to the state park system in the last 15 years.

Closed Batterson Park bathhouse and facilities with overgrown weeds and shrubs on a once sandy beach. (J. McNamara)  

Last week Ritter spoke with the same passion for making the park a summer destination for Central Connecticut residents, including Hartford and New Britain residents, as he did two years ago when he proposed the original legislation:

“It is completely inappropriate. It is completely unacceptable that just a few miles from the city of Hartford or New Britain, where some of our poorest residents live, that we took an open space – dedicated in the 1920s to give families a chance, without driving to a beach an hour and a half a way, to come with their families and sit outside, to swim, to play basketball – that we let it get to this. I will use the power of my office in the time that I have in politics to right that wrong.”

Joining Ritter at his press conference were Farmington Town Council President J.R. Thomas, New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin. Not surprisingly all are on board with turning the open space into a state park that would absolve their governments of any shared costs and responsibilities. “What became abundantly clear,” said Ritter. “This isn’t a municipal asset. This is a state treasure.”

Batterson, located 10 miles from Hartford and once part of the capital city’s watershed, has been looked at as a lucrative asset for Hartford’s cash-strapped city government from time to time. Of the more than 600 original acres parcels have been sold off for the highway (I-84) and private development through the years but the 165-acre pond and remaining space is owned by Hartford. Ir remains readily adaptable to recreation.

If Matt Ritter’s new plan to correct what he called an “environmental injustice” succeeds, Batterson Park will finally get a new life for its intended uses.

(NB Politicus posts also appear in

NB Progressive Filled A Void In Local News in 2022

Alternative Online Paper Shares Its “Top 10” Stories Of The Year

In 2022 media coverage of government and politics in and around New Britain continued a decline in the pages and posts of the corporate-owned newspapers and on their online sites.

The Hartford Courant, owned by Alden Global Capital, and The New Britain Herald, purchased by Suburban Newspapers of Rhode Island last spring, showed less capacity to inform residents about what is going on at City Hall or what our elected officials at the State Capitol are up to.

This is no reflection on the good efforts of the folks who make up the skeleton crews at our dailies. In some respects, Greater New Britain is better off than other places in that we don’t live in a “news desert” entirely. You can still get the spot news, obits, announcements of good works, the high school sports scores and so forth that helps you stay connected. The online and nonprofit Connecticut Mirror is an accessible, statewide source for public affairs, opinion and investigative journalism. For the most part, however, The Herald and The Courant, those legacy sources for all things local, are now “ghost newspapers” with absentee ownerships and diminishing readerships. Gone are the reporters with experience, steady beats and management support for journalists to do their jobs. Gone is the daily dose of information that keeps our town government, businesses and institutions knowable, accountable and transparent.

As an alternative to the fading coverage of the dailies in 2022 The New Britain Progressive, a publication of the New Britain Independent, continued into a sixth year with reporting, opinions and stories of notable individuals and events in the community that otherwise would have been missed. Over the last 12 months more than 190 stories were produced locally from volunteer writers, photographers and contributors. That’s no substitute for what full-time news staffs used to provide but it’s a start at creating a reliable, citizen-run publication for anyone who hasn’t checked out on local affairs and wants to know more about where they live.

The Progressive is just one of many grassroots and upstart projects around the country that are responding to the demise of commercial weeklies and dailies. They will continue to emerge in 2023 to be a source of local news and information. If the New Britain Progressive has its way that will happen in New Britain.

Top New Britain Stories According To The New Britain Progressive

  1. Federal COVID Aid To City Boosts High Profile Projects
  2. Attorney Bill Rivera Is First Hispanic Elected To Probate Court
  3. Property Revaluation
  4. CCSU Honors DeFronzo’s Service To City And State
  5. Hayes, Other Democrats Win Big In New Britain
  6. More City Debt To Pay For Stewart Annual Budgets

For the rest of the Top 10 visit

Posts from NB Politicus appear regularly in the New Britain Progressive

Taking Sides on Charter Revision In New Britain

Mayor, Yes Committee To Hold “Education Session” Tuesday, October 18 at City Hall

by John McNamara

The Yes on Charter Revision Referendum Committee will hold an “educational session” on October 18th featuring members of the charter commission to promote passage of amendments that have far-reaching implications as to how city government will be governed. Tuesday’s session will be held in Room 504 at City Hall, 27 West Main Street, at 6:30 p.m.

Heading into the final stretch of the 2022 campaign, pros and cons are being raised in letters to the editor and campaign literature with absentee voting already underway. Mayor Stewart has been pushing approval in her monthly opinion column in the New Britain Herald. The New Britain League of Women Voters (NBLWV) has been circulating a fact sheet on referenda to appear on the ballot at its voter registration sessions. The New Britain Democratic Town Committee adopted a resolution opposing charter changes.

There are three questions on the November 8th ballot in New Britain.

Question 1 is a statewide referendum on a constitutional change to permit early voting in Connecticut, one of only four states that does not allow voting ahead of election day now. It appears to have broad-based support except for factions in the Republican Party who push the need for “election security” and oppose voter access reforms.

Questions 2 and 3 pertain to the City Charter amendments. In June, the Common Council condensed the separate recommendations into two questions, ignoring specific questions contained in the commission’s report.

Question 2 asks that at large (citywide) representation on the 15-member Common Council end to be replaced by three councilors to be elected under the minority representation law in five wards (council districts). Currently, five council members are elected at large and 10 are elected in the wards. The current hybrid make up of the Council was created after charter changes re-establishing ward representation that was led by Democrats.

Question 3 asks that the remainder of the changes be adopted including the proposed chief administrative officer to perform mayoral duties in January 2023 and appointing instead of electing the Tax Collector and Town and City Clerk in 2025. Another revision sensibly calls for a charter commission review every five years but it is lumped into the question with the more contentious changes.

Question 3 has led to objections from both proponents and opponents because it lumps major changes into a broad question that leaves out what voters are being asked to decide.

The Yes on Charter Committee will promote passage of changing the composition of the Common Council on one question and in a vaguely worded second question creating a chief administrative officer in the mayor’s office, ending the election of Town Clerk and Tax Collector and several other amendments.

The Council adhered to Mayor Stewart’s wishes and eliminated the ballot questions proposed by the charter commission that included:

  • Shall the positions of Revenue Collector and the Town and City Clerk be changed from elected to civil service, appointed positions?
  • Shall an appointed Chief Operations Officer, who shall report directly to the Mayor, be responsible for the daily management of certain City functions?
  • Shall the remainder of the changes to the Charter as recommended by the Charter Revision Commission be approved, which changes include a provision requiring periodic Charter review every five years at a minimum?

All of those questions haven been incorporated into “Shall the remainder of the changes to the City Charter, as recommended by the Charter Revision Commission, be approved?” Yes or No”. The rationale for consolidating questions is purportedly to keep all questions on a one-sided ballot.

Don DeFronzo, a former mayor, state senator and state DAS commissioner, called the wording of Question 3 “disrespectful, patronizing, and perhaps deceitful, in dealing with New Britain voters” in a September 26th Opinion published in the New Britain Herald.

DeFronzo wrote that Question 3 is “generic, non-specific” and “poorly worded question with no informational context.” He also disagreed with the amendment for a new chief administrative officer: “While not disputing the need for strong professional management, many students of public administration would see the retention of both a full-time mayor and a high-salaried COO as a duplicative expenditure, leading to more bureaucracy and a fragmentation of authority.” The charter change will retain both a full time Mayor with a current salary of $100,000 and, if approved, bring on as of next January a city manager (COO) with a likely salary well over $100,000. The appointment of a tax collector and town clerk would not take effect until 2025.

Text of an amendment to the City Charter creating a Chief Operations Officer

In an October 6th Herald letter to the editor, John Board, who has served as a city commissioner in the Stewart administration, urged a yes vote to “help New Britain adopt 21st-century public administration best practices.” Board, however, acknowledged transparency problems with a “catchall” Question 2: “A lot of the recent chatter I’ve heard around town has been related to the process of how the final questions are structured and presented — those discussions absolutely have merit. Personally, Treasurer Danny Salerno’s approach of considering that question two be separated into a third question or more detailed provided would have given the greatest level of transparency for voters.”

State law (Sec.9-369b) requires the Town and City Clerk to print and disseminate “concise explanatory texts or other printed material with respect to local proposals or questions approved for submission to the electors at a referendum.” Each explanatory text, says state law, shall specify the intent and purpose of each proposal or question. In the July 19th New Britain Herald the Town and City Clerk, in apparent conformance with the law, published the charter amendments and strike throughs (deletions) in a small-type, two-page spread without any “concise explanatory texts.”

Officials have made assurances that prior to November 8th the public will be officially informed about the content of all the charter changes with explanatory literature for voters at the polls and in public notices.

Attorney Geragosian Remembered As Passionate Defender, Advocate For Social Justice

Attorney Harold J. Geragosian, 94, whose “one-man general law office” served scores of New Britain clients and organizations from the 1950s to 2018, died on August 1.

Long before the creation of Neighborhood Legal Services Attorney Geragosian’s civil and criminal law office, located for many years on West Main Street, served public employees, churches, unions and other organizations with an unfailing and tenacious commitment to justice and helping those in need. “Harold was devoted to legal aid and represented countless individuals regardless of their means,” stated his obituary. Geragosian’s cases and appeals included representing clients on up to the Connecticut and United States Supreme Courts if necessary. Respected by his peers Attorney Geragosian was elected President of the New Britain Bar Association in the 1970s.

“Harold was a believer and a fighter,” wrote Attorney John King, formerly the City Corporation Counsel and former New Britain Democratic Town Chairman upon Geragosian’s passing. “He kept me up all night one more than one occasion during the Civil Service hearings nearly 40 years ago as he passionately defended his clients.”.

In the community Geragosian served on the boards of Connecticut Legal Services, New Britain EMS and supported progressive candidates and causes at local, state and national levels. Geragosian’s son, John, served the city’s 25th District in the Connecticut General Assembly and is the state Auditor of Public Accounts.

For Geragosian, alongside his wife, Realtor Harriet Geragosian, social and economic justice work have lasted a life time. In 1957 Geragosian, proud and recognized for his Armenian heritage, offered his law office as a meeting place to members of the city’s Puerto Rican community. In addition to helping Puerto Rican residents fight discrimination, Attorney Geragosian helped draft the charter to establish the Puerto Rican Society. His contributions to founding the group were honored in July 2007 when the Society marked its 50th anniversary.

Attorney Harold J. Geragosian and Realtor Harriet Geragosian at a 2011 campaign fundraiser for former Alderwoman Shirley Black. (courtesy of New Britain Democratic Town Committee)

On more than a few mornings Harold and his wife Harriet (Unique Realty) would start their work days as octogenarians with breakfast at New Britain Diner. If you were ever lucky to get a seat at his table Harold could regale you as he did me with stories of his days as a law student at Boston University, lawyering before city commissions and courts and offering wry takes on politics and politicians past and present.

Harold Geragosian, to borrow from a famous quote by the Methodist John Wesley, “did all the good he could, for all the people he could, in all the ways he could, for as long as he could” in his native city of New Britain. He was one of those extraordinary citizens and neighbors who made you a better person for having known him.

Condolences to Harriet, his son, John (Audrey) Geragosian, his granddaughter, Molly, and his grandniece, Terra Michalowski and the many friends of the Geragosian family Services and Obituary

Donations in Harold’s memory may be made to Connecticut Legal Services, 62 Washington Street, 4th Floor, Middletown, CT 06457.

John McNamara

Landlord Group’s “cage fight between Lamont & Zherka” remark stumps the press, brings apology to Governor

There’s No Mystery About Who Sam Zherka Is In New Britain

By John McNamara

West Hartford-based Connecticut Coalition of Property Owners (CCOPO) had to issue a quick apology on May 19th over its first version of a press release opposing an eviction moratorium and use of $400 million in federal pandemic aid to landlords and tenants, according to a Hartford Courant story by Daniela Altamari.

“The governor needs his ass-kicked,” stated the initial release sent to the Capitol press corps announcing a press conference later in the week, “and we set up a celebratory cage fight between Lamont & Zherka to raise funds for orphaned children.” The “bizarre” statement was followed by CCOPO’s condemnation of the Unite Connecticut program that is meant to provide both tenants and landlords with help paying bills in the recovery from the pandemic.

The January 13, 2013 front page of the now defunct New Britain City Journal that was backed by notorious landlord Sam Zherka at the height of a housing controversy in New Britain.

The reference to “Zherka” left reporters and editors who received the press statement puzzled. At first, news stories speculated that it referred to Jon Zherka, a controversial and banned social media streamer.

But in New Britain there is no mystery as to who CCOPO was referring to in its provocative public statement.

The name Zherka brings back memories of a well organized mob descending on City Hall in 2012 over a proposal to assess fees on absentee landlords to pay for code enforcement. The issue led to scurrilous, months’ long attacks and threats against the Democratic Mayor and City Council during the 2013 municipal campaign. It was a dark money political attack aided and abetted by the Waterbury-based CT Property Owners Alliance and Selim “Sam” Zherka, an absentee landlord who would later be indicted and jailed for mail fraud in New York.

Nine years ago Zherka owned a large apartment complex in New Britain and lent heavy support to the now defunct New Britain City Journal which carried unfounded accusations and personal attacks on Democrats in a well-financed direct mail, free circulation campaign supported by Zherka and out of town landlords, who pledged a $100,000 off the books fund to defeat Democrats. The New Britain Republican Town Committee and Erin Stewart were quick to embrace Zherka and absentee landlord support in her first, successful campaign for Mayor and she’s never looked back.

To clean up the “cage fight between Lamont & Zherka” statement this month, Publicist Ann Baldwin did her best at damage control for the CCOPO, which had also stridently taken issue with the Unite Connecticut program by saying “the people that are not paying never intended to pay so there is no reason for them to apply for the funds, these tenants are most of the 19,000 that try to live for free annually in CT.”

Baldwin’s revision softened the group’s position, according to press reports, by saying the landlords’ goal is just to “keep good people living in their homes” and calling for the Lamont administration to “fully fund” the eviction moratorium.” CCOPO President John Souza backtracked further in an apology saying “I would never condone violence against the Governor or anyone else, even in jest.”

In response to the first CCOPO release the CT Fair Housing Center’s blog responded: “This attitude illustrates both the need for a Right to Counsel for tenants facing eviction as well as why the Governor and/or Connecticut legislature should require landlords to participate in Unite CT. Tenants must be protected from the landlords who believe that the Governor “needs his ass-kicked” because he dared to protect vulnerable Connecticut residents. Please join us as we work to ensure that tenants are protected from the landlords who believe tenants deserve to be punished for being poor.”

The flap over a press release shows that it’s never an easy task for government to fairly balance the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. The pandemic has caused hardships on all sides and made evictions a serious threat to thousands of rentpayers. While the Governor extended an eviction moratorium until July 20, the administration is ramping up the Unite Connecticut program that enables both landlords and tenants to get pandemic aid for their losses.

CCOPO describes itself as a “constructive voice for responsible landlords” for “mom and pop” business people who presumably could benefit from the Unite CT program while keeping tenants in their homes.

But invoking the Zherka name as unintentional as it was shows that some members of the landlord group may not be interested in fairness or playing by the rules at all. Nobody knows that better than folks in New Britain who lived through the Zherka-led, local assault on democracy here that bears a striking resemblance to the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th of this year

Looking Ahead: Stanley Quarter Park Makeover, New Playground Take Shape For Spring

The early days of Spring require all of us to practice social distancing and avoid gatherings in public places in the effort to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic.  But there are things to look forward to with warm weather ahead including a visit to the city’s parks when it is safe to do so.  Stanley Quarter Park, one of the city’s gems, will be be even better in 2020.  Improvements to the city’s popular Stanley Quarter Park at Blake Road and Stanley Street near the Central CT State University campus are nearing completion in time for spring and warm weather months.

The $1.2 million Parks & Recreation Project, approved by the Common Council in August 2019,  adds family and child friendly features: a new picnic area with grills, waterside exercise equipment and games and a gazebo overlooking the park.

Notably the project replaces a poorly landscaped and aging playground near the Boulevard entrance and adds a new parking lot next to existing basketball courts.


For decades Stanley Quarter Park has hosted the city’s Great American Boom, a regionally attended July 4th celebration. It has also been a site for CCSU’s men’s and women’s track & field teams. In the 1960s and through the 1970s the city even operated a ski slope along Blake Road with a rope tow and night lighting that made it popular in the winter.


A newly-landscaped playground is one of the major improvements at Stanley Quarter Park that will be heavily used by children and families when the playground is completed.

View from a newly constructed gazebo overlooking the pond at Stanley Quarter Park.

by John McNamara

New Britain’s Bond Rating Drops From Stable To Negative: Huge Spike In Debt Through 2021 Cited By Moody’s

By John McNamara

Republican incumbent Mayor Erin Stewart, in her re-election campaign this year and throughout her second term, has touted improving municipal bond ratings for New Britain’s fiscal solvency, claiming credit for budget surpluses of $15 million and pushing spending up at City Hall with no need for an election year tax increase.

Fiscal stability is the cornerstone of her platform and a main talking point in her aspirations to leave the mayor’s job for statewide office. Her campaign’s website points to New Britain “gracing the cover of the Bond Buyer, a trade publication covering the municipal bond market, “not once but twice. The city under her management is a shining example for how to make a financial turnaround work during a difficult economy.”

The November 2nd edition of Bond Buyerhowever, paints a different picture for the city’s finances in the  latest analysis, portending a difficult road ahead for the city’s budget over the next four years.  Moody’s Investor Services, which along with Standard & Poor’s, assesses the borrowing ability and fiscal health of cities in the municipal bond market, has downgraded general obligation borrowing to Baa2 from Baa1. “Moody’s cited New Britain’s reliance on nonrecurring revenues to stabilize its financial position in recent years. The rating agency also revised its outlook on the 73,000-population city to negative from stable,” Bond Buyer’s Paul Burton reported. “The rating also incorporates the city’s elevated debt profile with rapidly escalating debt service and its modest pension liability,’ the rating agency said Tuesday.”

In contrast to Moody’s downgrade four months into the 2018 fiscal year, Standard & Poor’s has previously affirmed  a more favorable A-plus rating for New Britain after upgrading the city four notches through two upgrades.   Moody’s last assessment came in 2014.

According to the Bond Buyer story:

Moody’s said the negative outlook reflects the short-term challenge New Britain will face to match recurring revenues with recurring expenditures while managing its debt service pegged to spike through fiscal 2021. New Britain, said Moody’s, could earn an upgrade through a sustained trend of structurally balanced operations without one-shots, a material reduction in debt burden, growth in its tax base or an improved resident wealth and income profile.  By contrast, continuing reliance on nonrecurring revenues, erosion of its financial position, taking on more debt or deterioration of New Britain’s tax base or wealth profile could lead to a downgrade.

The Moody’s downgrade may be related to action taken by the Common Council prior to the end of the 2017 fiscal year at the behest of the Stewart administration when debt payments were deferred in the last fiscal year pushing the debt into this year and succeeding years when interest rates on the city’s borrowing will be accelerating.

GOP Alderman Hits School Board On Salaries But Rubber Stamps Pay Hikes, More Spending At City Hall


By John McNamara

The sometimes fragile relations between City Hall  and the Board of Education took a backward step this week over complaints from Ward 2 Republican Alderman Kristian Rosado appearing in the New Britain City Journal.

Rosado, in a front-page story in the City Journal , derided a unanimous BOE move on salary increases for three administrators,  pitting Rosado against BOE President and fellow Republican Nick Mercier.

unnamedRosado was joined by two BOE members, Sharon Beloin-Saavedra and Miriam Geraci, who either half-heartedly voted for the increases or didn’t stick around long enough to vote on the matter at a July 24th meeting.  Geraci, absent for the vote, objected because of uncertainty over the amount of Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) funds the city will receive in the unresolved state budget.  In a City Journal editorial, Editor Robin Vinci, often a mouthpiece for the Stewart administration on many issues, sided with Rosado.

The BOE, however,  unanimously approved three salary increases — a revenue neutral move, according to Mercier, because of a $49,000 cut in Assistant Superintendent Paul Salina’s compensation.  Receiving salary hikes were Chief Financial Officer Kevin Kane, Talent Officer Dr. Shuana Tucker and Assistant Talent Officer, Dr. Nicole Sanders, the principal of the North End School, who was promoted to the position.


City Journal Editor Robin Vinci, apparently confusing Dr. Sanders with someone else, falsely reported that Sanders is a member of the BOE.  By law, school employees cannot serve on the elected board.

Mercier, quoted in the City Journal, said “the chief financial officer is taking over as head of three departments, that warranted the salary increase. In terms of the talent office it was partially due to an increase in duties and responsibilities”  and making the salaries “competitive.” Mercier said the move is saving $20,000 in central office spending this year and will reduce administrative costs by $90,000 next year.

But Rosado lambasted the salary levels  as “outrageous and insulting considering that the average resident of New Britain makes under $40,000 a year,” saying more money should be going to classroom support.

By contrast, Rosado, in his capacity as a member of the Common Council, has been a reliable rubber stamp for Mayor’s office salary hikes and major budget increases on the municipal side of the ledger.  He supported Mayor Stewart’s budget that denied a very small increase for city schools.

No one questions Alderman Rosado nor the City Journal for casting a critical eye on how tax dollars are spent. But their critical eyes appear to be only wide open at the Board of Education. They are closed shut when it comes to salary hikes, increasing debt interest and all manner of discretionary spending by the Stewart administration.







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.




Inside City Hall: Stewart’s Civil Service Commission Abuses Power, Violates Charter

The Civil Service Commission’s  efforts to remove from office and impose fines on Council President Pro Tem Suzanne Bielinski over the Council’s hiring of her niece, Jessica   Gerratana.  as the Common Council secretary,  is a costly misuse of government for partisan purposes.

Ignoring  the City Charter , the Commission voted last  October 6th for the ouster of the long-serving  Bielinski  and  for a $2,500 fine on the alderwoman after  Commission members agreed to take up  a complaint and the unsubstantiated accusations of  Ward 5 Republican Ald. Louis Salvio.  The Commission’s latest gambit came last week when, upon advice of lawyers from  Murtha Cullina, it backed away from recommendations for  a $2,500 fine and the removal of Bielinski , referring the matter “informally”  to the Common Council for action, but still insisting on a $250 penalty.

Civil Service Commissioners, acting without a shred of legal standing  and with the tacit approval of the Stewart Administration and its Corporation Counsel,  attempted to set  itself up as judge and jury of Alderwoman Bielinski’s conduct. Despite high-paid legal advice to back off, the commission continued to double down on its illegitimate actions.

Nearly forgotten in this charade of an “investigation”  and abuse of power by the commission is the earlier decision by the city’s ethics commission to throw out Salvio’s complaint for insufficient evidence.  By charter and ordinance,   the ethics commission is the only municipal body sanctioned to consider conflicts of interest by the Mayor and Council members.

By retaining an outside firm to avoid any “conflict of interest” in advising the Civil Service Commission,   Corporation Counsel  Gennaro Bizzarro side-stepped his non-partisan responsibilities in favor of rewarding political friends.

His choice of a law firm reinforces the partisan nature of the Civil Service Commission’s actions against Bielinski.  Murtha Cullina’s partners are Republican-leaning, having represented New Britain Republicans in the Ward 5 ballot case in 2013 and serving as “observers” on Election Day last November in an intrusive attempt to challenge Democratic voters at the polls.

Attorney Bizzarro knows very well that one of the city’s full-time staff attorneys could have interpreted the City Charter and rendered  an opinion in a heartbeat.  The City Charter could not be clearer on this issue. A commission in the executive branch of government has no role in the censuring or removal of a Council member.

With litigation and a grievance pending Ald, Salvio and the Republicans are heading for the exits and doing damage control. The immediate and unfortunate result, however, is that legal costs to the city are likely to escalate by the tens of thousands of dollars because of the partisan use of government  by New Britain Republicans. It’s budget time and not a good time to be playing politics on the taxpayer’s dime