Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
Will the union vote count on election day? For the last one hundred years it has, in Hartford and around the country. And every politician knows it, even if the established political brokers dismiss the power of organized working people as a “special interest.”
American workers and their organizations are usually reliable allies of the Democrats. But historically, working people have also built organizations of their own to exert electoral power. Since the 19th century, and right to the present time, Hartford workers have engaged in the political arena. Their legacy is powerful proof of organized labor’s clout and its impact on society:
As far back as 1867, Hartford residents who identified themselves as union members advocated for better lives through politics. One coachmaker wrote to a newspaper called the Liberty Bell and Workingmen’s Advocate about the need to reject the local “copperheads,” northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War. Having been a veteran of that war, he still resented copperhead efforts to stop soldiers from voting while serving on the front. “We workingmen, if we should endorse that party we would cut our own throats,” he wrote.
The Knights of Labor, the progressive and innovative national labor union with widespread state support, succeeded in restricting child labor and enforcing workplace safety during the 1885-1886 General Assembly. A number of Knights ran and won state office, not by creating their own political arm but by capturing both the Democratic and Republican Party nominations. “The laborer will learn to cast his vote for his own interests and not for a political party,” one Knight said during a convention in Middletown. As many as 37 Knights served in the Connecticut legislature over time.
Ignatius A. Sullivan worked in a paper mill as a ten-year old. He joined the Knights, became a Hartford union organizer for retail clerks and served as head of the state labor federation. He won fame for aiding a successful Machinists’ strike in 1901 which achieved the nine-hour day. The next year Sullivan ran for Hartford mayor and won, crediting the trade union-backed Economic League which promoted radical ideas like the eight-hour day and free school books. His victory parade through Hartford’s streets demonstrated, according to one observer, “workingmen honoring one of their own number.”
Hartford had many city fathers, but it’s “city mother” was Josephine Bennett, who took the lead in forming a Hartford branch of the American Labor Party in 1919. A longtime suffragist, this Nook Farm resident could not vote except in school board elections. But she could organize, and her untiring social justice efforts were prompted in response to what she called the “vested interests that controlled the government.”
Bennett’s work highlighted the fact that before the 20th century, more than half the working class could not vote at all. Hartford women struggled to improve their political status and in 1893 the city’s first women’s political caucus took place. Three hundred women chose an all-female ticket in the upcoming school elections for the new Educational Party.
African American women were always left out of the political equation, and black men were excluded, sometimes by law and often by practice. As the black population in Hartford began to grow, Dr. P.H.C. Arms became the first African American to run for mayor in 1906. Patrick Henry Clay Arms, who lived on Capen street, served as a physician in the city gor 40 years. In 1955, Hartford elected John Clark as its first African American City Councilman. Clark ran on the third party Citizens Charter Committee slate along with Andrew Christiansen, the head of the central labor union.
Labor couldn’t always elect their own candidates, but they could defeat their opponents. That’s what happened to Democrat Thomas J. Spellacy in 1912. The Republican Louis Cheney won by 649 votes, but only because disgruntled voters supported one of the labor-oriented socialist parties that fielded their own mayoral candidates.
In the 1920s and 30s, organized labor pushed to make Election Day a legal holiday in order to increase the working class turnout. This idea was vigorously opposed by the Chamber of Commerce. Pro-worker candidates won valuable support from Labor’s Non-Partisan League, led by United Electrical workers union (UE) organizer Nick Tomasetti, who also served as a State Representative from New Britain. Nationally, the League’s crowning achievement was its role in the re-election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Union organizers won important municipal seats in the 1940s and 50s and played crucial role in labor strikes. A massive citywide strike by the UE took place in 1946. In this battle no one was neutral. At one point the City Council was challenged to support the union dispute. State Representative Harold Conroy, who served as president of UE Local 270, proposed unemployment benefits for strikers. The Hartford City Council narrowly approved a strike support resolution thanks to the efforts of two Hartford Aldermen: Ed Kennedy, a Teamster, and Vincent Argento, who was one of the UE strikers.
Over the last 25 years, Hartford has seen the election of People For Change (PFC) and Working Families Party city council members, third parties supported by unions for their pro-labor platforms and their aggressive advocacy to protect decent jobs and benefits, essential ingredients for a healthy city. PFC won the important backing of a number of powerful unions including the United Auto Workers and District 1199/SEIU. From 1987 to 1993, PFC was Hartford’s second party, operating on a grassroots basis and challenging policies that favored profits over people.
It was labor leader and Socialist Party head Eugene Victor Debs who, when he barnstormed through Hartford, had a consistent message to working people: “March together, vote together, fight together.” Debs practiced what he preached, winning over a million votes for President in 1920 while he was in prison for protesting World War I.
When we look at this long history, can it really be said that unions represent a “special interest” vote? There has been a powerful effort to marginalize Labor’s efforts as such. But anyone who has worked to encourage union members to go to the polls knows how hard it is to break through people’s cynicism and despair. The idea that politicians can’t be trusted, that they only come around at election time, that voting doesn’t make any difference– these are all difficult obstacles to mobilization. Union households vote as a powerful progressive bloc, and that’s a tribute to their ability to understand the value of political engagement.
Does the union vote count? Ask your boss.