Solidarity and 75 cents

ImageIt started out as a dispute over seventy-five cents and ended up as a test of wills between hundreds of Hartford construction workers and their employer.

Decades before working people won the legal right to unionize, 700 bricklayers, masons and carpenters had forged unions in Hartford to protect their wages and working conditions.  An important aspect of those protections was the right to have a “walking delegate” who could represent workers in disputes with their supervisors at a worksite.

One such representative was George Butler. In August, 1904, Delegate Butler was informed he was being let go due to lack of work.  He and several other workers, who had been employed at a tobacco warehouse construction site, went to find the boss, Major Andrus, for an explanation.  Butler was told that there was no work for him and he was laid off.  When he asked for his pay, he was told to go to the contractor’s office.  He refused and the money was finally brought to him.  When it arrived, Butler reckoned he had been shortchanged by 75 cents.  Andrus refused to pay him the difference and, in response,  Butler’s co-workers walked off their jobs.

A newspaper account laid the blame on Butler, maintaining that he failed to go to the firm’s office to collect his pay in a timely manner.  But a more likely scenario is that the company simply thought it could get away with cheating Butler.  The Union charged that when Butler was let go, two other workers were hired immediately afterwards in his place. In addition, being paid at the worksite was the common practice.  As even one building contractor publicly admitted, it was the employer’s responsibility to bring the wages to a worker and not the other way around.

The strike affected a variety of union construction sites and building repairs, including the First Methodist Church, the Wadsworth Street school, Brown Thomson and Company, Sage Allen, St. Mary’s Home in West Hartford, and the local poorhouse.  Major Andrus argued that the strike was unnecessary, since his men could always talk to him when they had a problem.  He blamed Butler for “forcing” a strike vote by the Union.  He claimed that most workers didn’t attend the union meetings anyway and only joined because they had to.

In fact, from all accounts, it was Major Andrus who ended up looking like the unreasonable party.  Andrus’ refusal to re-employ Butler smelled like blacklisting to the union, a common tactic to keep union activists off the payroll. Andrus also used heavy-handed tactics to force other builders to lock out their workers, reluctantly dragging them into the dispute.  He threatened to turn Hartford into an “Open Shop”  (that is, non-union) town.  And when the Union agreed to continue work on a south end grammar school so that children wouldn’t miss the first day of school, he refused to let them on the worksite. In addition, Andrus instigated a lawsuit against Butler and the Bricklayers Union, charging that they had extorted money from a Windsor brick maker–three years earlier!  In fact, the Union had fined the brick maker for selling to non-union construction sites including the Swedish Lutheran Church on Capitol Avenue and Hungerford Street.

Finally, one pro-union contractor broke ranks with Andrus.  William O’Neil  valued his relationship with his union workers and refused to lock them out.   Several other contractors then supported O’Neil. The strike was taking its toll on all local contractors once the tradesmen started looking for work elsewhere and were issued “travelling cards” by their unions so they could leave the state for other union jobs.

In the spirit of the union slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all,” 700 workers had stayed off the job in support of the delegate.  As each day passed, Butler and his co-workers upped the ante.  By the time Andrus gave in, the amount it took to get the union construction workers back on the job was a $10.00 bill.Butler offered to burn the money to show that the issue was one of union principle.  He didn’t need to.  In the end, the union was stronger, and Butler was $10 richer.

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