Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
A Shoeleather History of the Wobblies: Stories of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Connecticut is a new book that documents the organizing efforts of this unique labor group in the early 20th century. The book can be purchased on this site. Below is more information uncovered about the Wobblies since the book was published.
I met the daughter of Pierce T. Wetter in August. Pierce was an original Wobbly. He was arrested in 1917 in a nationwide roundup of more than one hundred IWW activists for opposing the U.S. entry into the first World War. He and many others were imprisoned; Pierce served five years in the Cook County Jail in Chicago and the Leavenworth, Kansas Penitentiary. His brother Telfair ran the Baltimore office of the IWW during this period.
As soon as she mentioned her father, Pierce’s daughter launched into The Internationale: “Arise you prisoners of starvation / Arise you wretched of the earth / For justice thunders condemnation / There’s a better world in birth!” More
On Labor Day, 2014, over 100 residents of Willimantic re-enacted the successful 1912 strikes at the Quidnick and American Thread mills. Both strikes were inspired and led by the IWW, whose main spokesman was Ben Legere of Bridgeport (above left, portrayed by Roger Benham). Residents played the parts of mill workers, cops, and managers. They marched from the textile museum, ending up downtown where they rallied and listened to strike leaders. Both Legere and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn spoke to the crowd, reciting the same speeches they gave in 1912.
The IWW newspaper Solidarity recorded the “Victory in Four Days” in 1912 at the American Thread Company in Willimantic, CT. An earlier victory by the Quidnick-Windham Mill provided inspiration to the American Thread workers. Both workforces– and a number of others– were well aware of the successful fight by Lawrence, MA textile workers, since IWW organizers travelled to the Thread City” on their way to and from Lawrence.
This is the Sanseer Mill in Middletown, CT. It was a textile factory that made canvass webbing for the military. Sanseer was the site of an important IWW strike in May, 1912 involving hundreds of mostly Italian immigrant workers. The combined might of the boss, city authorities, local and state police, and “deputized” Wesleyan students finally defeated the month-old strike. The effort, however, broke the isolation and fear that immigrant workers in the city had faced every day. See “The Forty Inch Yard” in Shoeleather History of the Wobblies for more information.
The most famous pioneer of birth control was also an early IWW supporter. She played a key role in finding safe homes for strikers’ children during the famous 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence MA. An excellent graphic novel about Sanger has been published. Here is a page from “Woman Rebel” on the strike (click to enlarge). Sanger founded the Connecticut Birth Control League at a 1923 meeting in Hartford with Josephine Bennett and Katharine Hepburn’s mother, both prominent suffragists. She established the state’s first birth control clinic in Hartford in 1935.. Margaret Sanger now has something of a reputation for allowing racism to influence her work. This book takes the claim head on, so read it and figure it out for yourself.
This rare photo of a Connecticut IWW office appeared in the Hartford Courant as part of the effort to stir up hysteria around the Wobbly organizing taking place in 1919. Specifically, the union had just organized a meeting of 2,000 workers to demand jobs. The Wobblies had been at this location on 54 Market Street since March. The Courant boasted that it had alerted the Feds to this Red nest. “While this war was on, we say to President Wilson and to Congress that you appropriated billions for war. How much are you willing to appropriate for peace and for jobs?” demanded one speaker. Read more at One Big Union in Hartford.
Finnish Historian Harry Siitonen writes that “In the Far and Midwest the raw and brutal capitalism of the extractive industries like logging and mining, in which most of the Finns worked, was much more exploitative and oppressive. So these workers by the very nature of their conditions were more attracted to a more militant, revolutionary form of socialism than their Eastern counterparts. The more syndicalist anti-political stance found in the industrial unionism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) founded in Chicago in 1905, appealed to thousands of them.” “With the buildup of the hostility between the IWW and the decisive leadership of the Socialist Party, the Wobblies were forced out, including its Finnish component with 3000 Finns leaving in 1914 to set up their separate IWW halls throughout the country particularly in the Mid and Far West. In the East there were Wobbly Finn halls in a few places like the Tarmo club in Manhattan and a hall in Brooklyn, Connecticut.” Here is the Finnish IWW Hall in Brooklyn, CT as it looks today. It was recently a Masons’ Hall and is now for sale.
Life-long activist Al Marder recalls his first association with Wobblies: “It was in the ‘40’s-early 50’s. The Communist Party had a group of Railroad Workers, all but one Irish. They had organized a movement among railroad workers dealing with railroad workers’ pensions. My understanding was they were not covered by Social Security but had a separate plan. I attended their meetings. Several of them had been Wobblies. I sat there in the Hill section of New Haven enthralled by their brogue, their stories and their militancy. I listened to the songs of The Easter Rebellion. They talked of their experiences traveling the country, of Big Bill Haywood, Mother Bloor, Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (whom I met several times later). When I went to UConn, I took all the courses available in Irish literature, and then some. Sadly, when the McCarthy period swept through the country, the group became another casualty. I understood that several of the younger members had succumbed to the threats and fear of the FBI and I lost touch in the turmoil of the times.”
Two men who supported Carlo Tresca in his Waterbury Free Speech fight deserve more recognition. At left is Rabbi Lewis Browne and next to him is Roger Nash Baldwin (not to be mistaken for Governor Baldwin’s son, as did some newspapers of the time). Browne lost his congregation after the incident and became a popular writer and philosopher. Baldwin continued to fight for civil rights until his death in 1981. Their story starts on page 31 of the book.
Matilda figures prominently in the book. She’s a home-grown Wobbly organizer that Connecticut can be proud of. Her granddaughter, Robbin Legere Henderson, recently completed a graphic novel about Matilda’s immigration from the Ukraine, her introduction to the Socialist party, and the major role she played in the Shelton weavers’ strike at the Blumenthal company. Utilizing 70 prints and accompanying text, Robbin Henderson follows Matilda’s history to Detroit (where she organized auto workers) and beyond. You can view Robbin’s artwork at http://www.robbinhenderson.com.
Here’s the notorious Seyms Street Jail, located off Main Street in Hartford’s north end. It held criminals– and political prisoners– for almost 100 years until it was torn down in 1977. Wobblies were imprisoned here in 1919 and 1920 after being swept up in the Palmer Raids. The massive arrests, named after the politically ambitious U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, were widely condemned by civil libertarians and others. A well-respected committee of legal scholars examined the arrests including those in Connecticut. They singled out the Seyms Street facility (then known as the Hartford County Jail) for prisoner treatment we would now consider torture. Fifty years later, Seyms Street held Hartford members of the Black Panther Party. Wobblies and the Panthers were both targeted for destruction by state and federal authorities. Incredibly, both groups were pursued by J.Edgar Hoover.
Let me note that I failed to thank the library and archive workers who helped me with research, primarily at the Connecticut State Library and the Tamiment Library at NYU. Thank you!
A working man, known only as John, ended his life in 1907 on Arch Street in New Britain. He was a machinist by trade, but he had been unemployed for many months. John’s wife and child had both died the previous year. He was about 60 years old. He had nothing to live for, he told two young boys who were passing by, just after he drank a fatal bottle of laudanum.
The full effect of the new national recession had hit New Britain hard. Men were committing suicide because they couldn’t find work, couldn’t support their families. They were loathe to ask for charity; it had been pounded into them all their lives that begging showed weakness. Suicide was the second highest cause of violent death in Connecticut in 1907, a seven percent jump from 1906.
On Saturday January 25, 1908, jobless New Britain men met at Turner’s Hall, located on the same Arch Street where John had ended his life. They had previously contacted Mayor George Landers to seek assistance, but he answered there would be work on the roads in the spring. “By spring we’ll all be in Potter’s Field,” the graveyard for unidentified corpses, replied socialist speaker John Carlson.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was in New Britain, and organizer J.P. Thompson explained to the crowd the difference between craft unions that divided and weakened workers’ power, and the revolutionary industrial unionism of the Wobblies, which united all workers and required solidarity across all trades. John Carlson also urged the crowd to join the “One Big Union,” as the IWW was known. The Wobblies understood that economic slumps were built into the capitalist system. The union did not want to reform capitalism, the speakers insisted, but to create a system run by workers, for workers. Its plan: to “build a new world within the shell of the old.”
As part of their protest, hundreds of unemployed workers marched to Mayor Landers’ home. The mayor promptly told them he would not grant a permit for any outdoor meetings. The men then marched to the center of town for a massive outdoor meeting. “We believe we are entitled to at least enough to be able to live,” the marchers affirmed, “whether others can make a profit out of our labor or not.”
Reckless gambling by financial institutions had triggered the 1907 recession. This caused banks and businesses to fail, which threw workers out into the streets. The crisis got worse when Wall Street gamblers tried and failed to corner the copper market. This, in turn, started a rumor that the stock market was about to collapse– a rumor started by JP Morgan. The populist U.S. senator Robert LaFollette charged that Morgan and friends “deliberately brought on the late panic to serve their own ends.”
Speeches in Russian, Lithuanian and English exhorted the New Britain men to stand together and support each other. Emma Goldman had just visited the city in December, also in Turners Hall. (She addressed Hartford and Waterbury supporters that same weekend.) The speakers pointed out the cops in the audience, and in more than one language demanded that the chief of police be removed from his position. The city fathers and local police didn’t like this agitation, but there was not much they could do about it.
The growth of the IWW in New Britain was not meteoric, but it was steady, particularly in the Lithuanian community. A two-day campaign had recruited more than 150 workers. They wrapped up their victory at the Lithuanian Hall on Park Street. Polish leader Waclaw Chotkowski, who ran on the 1912 Socialist ticket in New Britain for state representative, used the hall to organize local Poles at two meetings in 1913. He invited IWW organizer, M.K. Bolis, who told two hundred workers about the Lawrence strike victory the previous year. Stanley Bayer and Joseph Mazolka (the IWW’s local secretary) helped organize the event.
T.A. Flannagan, head of the Connecticut Federation of Labor, blamed the CFL’s poor organizing record on the IWW. At a speech in New Britain, Flannagan said “we would accomplish much more if it was not for those ‘isms’ keeping labor from the position it should rightfully organize. We must stop and consider the unwarranted, unlawful and destructive methods practiced by the so-called labor organization known as the I.W.W., the Industrial Workers of the World. They are a band of men and women who travel around the country [and have] as their object turmoil and destruction.”
Of course, the Wobblies caught hell for every act of vandalism in the towns they organized. In 1914, one Polish priest had his New Britain church desecrated after he spoke out against the IWW and other “opponents” of his church. Despite a large reward, no one was ever charged with the vandalism.
In July, 1919, just four months before Connecticut’s infamous Palmer Raids, New Britain detective Andrew Richardson told a reporter there was “a well-organized branch here” of the Wobblies which met at Skritulsky’s Hall on 26 Broad Street. After conferring with the State Police, Richardson implied there might soon be raids on IWW headquarters across the state.