Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
When he was about eight years old, Ernie DeMaio came home after school– more than once– with a black eye. He had been wearing the button his mother gave him, which inevitably started a tussle with other little boys as they tried to grab the pin off his shirt.
“I’d get a black eye or bloody nose trying to defend the button, which didn’t daunt my mother in the least,” he remembers. “She would tell me: ‘That’s all right. There’s plenty of other buttons where that one came from.’ In fact I was marched off to school to start all over again,” he said. The button read “Votes for Women.”
Ernie DeMaio’s mother Serephine was a suffragist, his father Donato was a Wobbly, and two brothers fought the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Born and raised on Mechanic Street in Hartford, with 16 brothers and sisters, Ernie’s upbringing laid the foundation for a life of struggle: “I come from the kind of working class background, interest in social emancipation, without being too clear as to what the hell it was all about.”
For a number of years, young Ernie worked every summer in the tobacco fields just north of Hartford. There he met Wobblies, also picking the leaves for cigar wrappers, and learning “smatterings” about work and life.
After high school he found that skilled trade jobs in Hartford were not open to Italians, so Ernie moved to New York and worked a series of factory jobs. When he joined an Unemployed Council (organized during the Great Depression to fight for jobs and stop evictions) it was Ernie’s task to quietly reconnect the gas pipes that had been turned off by the landlord.
Ernie moved back to Hartford and once more found only low-wage jobs. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) should have been organizing the unemployed, demanding unemployment compensation, and unionizing unskilled workers, but it wasn’t. The AFL stuck to its conservative role of protecting “native” white men in the skilled crafts only.
When jobs were scarce, workers bid against each other to get a position. At the non-union Underwood or Royal Typewriter companies, the boss would see who would work for 24 cents an hour and then offer the job to the worker who agreed to 23 cents. Where unions existed, there was often dissatisfaction with their organizational weakness and lack of militant leadership.
The workers of the Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool Company were fed up with their do-nothing union (in many industries employers set up ‘company unions’ to block real union organizing). The workers themselves established Machine Tool Company Workers of America Local 1, an independent effort not affiliated with any established labor group. Pratt & Whitney Aircraft workers soon followed suit with Local 2. Ernie became their unpaid organizer and helped build a loose federation of similar unions around New England. There was “a lot of independent organization work taking place on a grassroots basis without organizers,” Ernie said. These grassroots groups recruited African Americans, in contrast to the exclusionary International Association of Machinists (IAM) which still had a secret initiation rite that shut out Black workers.
On April 1, 1936, the United Electrical Workers (UE) union was born. Ernie became their first paid organizer “at the magnificent salary of $10 a week, no expenses,” he recalled. The UE was rebuffed when it applied for AFL membership; in 1938, the union joined the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a breakaway federation from the AFL. Both the UE and the CIO challenged the color barrier established by employers and enforced by many unions.
Thanks to Ernie’s skill and the workers’ determination, UE initiated and won the union campaign at the huge GE plant in Bridgeport. And in 1941, after many other unions had tried and failed, Colt Firearms workers won UE representation, first through a brief strike and then an election.
After World War II, the Cold War was gearing up and the UE was a prime target for red-baiting. The hysteria whipped up against militants–known as the red scare– had to have reminded Ernie of the 1920 Palmer Raids, where thousands of Wobblies and union activists were arrested and held without trial. Ernie’s father and uncle were swept up in the Hartford raids; Donato was kept in the Seyms Street jail for six months.
Every time the union was on strike, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) just happened to hold hearings in the same city. In 1952, UE workers struck the International Harvester company in Chicago. HUAC set up shop and subpoenaed Ernie. Three thousand strikers marched to the government building where he was testifying. The strikers knew that the committee’s purpose was not to “root out” communists but to distract and disrupt the strike. The workers sang “we’ll hang the (HUAC) chairman from a sour apple tree” as they surrounded the courthouse. Unfortunately for HUAC, the chairman suffered a heart attack and the hearing was called off.
Why did thousands of workers come out for Ernie DeMaio? “They saw it as an attack against themselves. Those workers fought for me and I fought for them,” he explained. Without such solidarity, Ernie figured he would have been “rotting away in a federal prison.”
In 1948 the boss at Colt Firearms announced that the company would no longer bargain with the UE due to its communist sympathies during the war. Local UE leaders scoffed at the flimsy excuse. After all, the United States Navy had awarded Colt its highest honor for efficiency– the Navy E Award– four times for the production of weapons. Of the more than 4,000 arms plants operating during the war, only 5% of them won the award.
When workers were forced to choose a new union, the UE did not even appear on the ballot, legally blocked from participation because the union’s leadership had refused to sign “loyalty oaths.”. Union leaders were required by the federal government to sign the oaths for their organizations to be protected under labor law.
Powerful, effective unions like the UE faced a coordinated red-baiting assault. The government and big business were not alone in their attacks. Other unions played a major role in interfering with UE organizing campaigns, disrupting strikes, and picking up the pieces once they had done their worst. Because Ernie and the UE’s leadership opposed the Korean War and would not succumb to the scapegoating of radicals, the CIO prepared to purge the union. The UE quit just before the expulsion.
The 1930s were unique in American history. As Ernie put it, “all of America was being radicalized” in response to the massive unemployment and poverty of the Depression, and by the international class warfare they saw in Russia, Spain and elsewhere. “We could solve the problems of the world. We couldn’t put bread on the table,” Ernie remembered. There were many competing ideologies: communist, socialist, anarchist. It was “Heinz 57 varieties of brands,” in Ernie’s opinion.
But there was one thing that all radical political tendencies had in common. “Because where we could disagree on everything else,” Ernie said, “we had common agreement on the basic need to organize the unorganized.”
Ernie DeMaio summed up his life’s work this way: “We had taken on the major industries in the country, the huge corporate centers of wealth and power in this country that dominated the economic and political life of the nation, and we organized over their opposition.”