“The People are Indestructible:” UE General Strike in Hartford

Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool Company President Charles W. Deeds addressed several hundred embattled scabs and supervisors in the company cafeteria. He told them of his plans to put the plant on a 45-hour week to help recoup the losses caused by the strike that had begun in March. Deeds told his listeners not to worry about the “scurrilous” leaflets being distributed in their neighborhoods by the Union that was exposing workers who had crossed the picket line. He threatened the loss of planned vacation holidays for anyone who had not already returned to work.

July 15, 1946: Outside the Pratt and Whitney gates, members of the United Electrical Workers union (UE) were planning a different kind of holiday.

imageHartford celebrated Japan’s surrender almost a year earlier, signaling the end of World War II. For workers in Hartford and across the country, the war against fascism had taken its toll. The United States suffered over one million casualties from 1941-1945 on the battlefield, working people who served in the armed forces. But according to Labor’s Untold Story, more than 11 million workers were killed and injured back home in industrial accidents during that same period. Wages had risen 15% since 1941 but prices rose 45% (and profits soared by 250%). With the war over, it was time for working people to catch up.

During 1945-46, four and a half million American workers went on strike. This included the members of UE at Pratt & Whitney Tool and the Hamilton Standard propeller plant. Their goal was a pay increase of 18 ½ cents an hour, similar to the pattern just set by workers at General Motors and General Electric, and eventually by 5 million steel, auto, and electrical workers. In March, 1946, the Hartford UE workers began their struggle.

imageHartford labor unions had started the ball rolling back in January when hundreds of UE workers rallied at the State Capitol to demand unemployment benefits for strikers. They demanded that Governor Baldwin call a special session to pass a law protecting their income. “Industry gets relief, why not strikers?” one union newspaper asked. Baldwin passed the buck to the federal government and refused to call for action, despite the efforts of State Representative Harold Conroy, who also served as the president of UE local 270. Undaunted, the workers at P&W voted in March to strike anyway.

The UE workers then took their case to the Hartford City Council. There, Hartford Alderman Patrick Ward, a UE member and the CIO Council president, introduced a resolution in support of the strike. The resolution was seconded by striking worker and Alderman Vincent Argento, and backed by Alderman Edward Kennedy, a Teamsters official. The vote was 9 to 9, and Mayor Moylan broke the tie with his vote of support.

Strikers also looked to the broader Hartford community for solidarity and found an important ally in Reverend Edward L. Peet, the pastor of Hartford’s North United Methodist Church. Rev. Peet quickly signed on to the Union’s efforts to “secure a decent standard of living for all the working population.”

By May, the strike was still holding strong and production had been crippled. Governor Baldwin sent 100 State Police and West Hartford added 40 cops to push scabs through the picket line. Twenty-two striking workers were arrested.

Strikers tried a new tactic.  In May they began to picket the homes of scabs and P&W officials, distributing “Know Your Neighbor” leaflets to the surrounding neighborhoods. The Governor ordered a halt to the picketing and 13 UE members were arrested retroactively on his order. Eight of the workers received fines and suspended sentences. The State went even further when it won a court-ordered injunction against mass picketing at the plant. The UE appealed the injunction and the Connecticut Federation of Labor filed an amicus brief. Union lawyers fought Baldwin’s action, calling it a “clear example of government by executive fiat.”

imageBy July, the company started a back-to-work movement among the strikers. Every other day, anonymous letters to the editor from a “striking worker” or a “worker’s wife” appeared in the Hartford Courant complaining about Union leadership and predicting that the strike would lose. The newspaper’s owners editorialized against the strike on a regular basis.

The UE was winning more union and grassroots support, however. The Oil workers and Railroad unions refused to deliver fuel or freight to the struck plant. The UE erected a tote board announcing the financial help it was receiving from the people of Hartford. And although the strike, now in its fourth month, was taking its toll, workers at Underwood Typewriter voted to join the UE on June 3rd.

Labor planned a final pitch to win the conflict with a “United Labor Day” scheduled for Tuesday, July 23rd at the old State House in the heart of downtown. The Courant responded by calling the rally “illogical” and “needless.” One editorial said “certainly there is no need to stage such rallies to impress the public with the strength of labor’s command.” The best way to solve the dispute would be to stay at work, the paper counseled. Opinion-makers had reason to be scared. Every Hartford union had endorsed the rally and several were planning to walk out in sympathy with the UE strikers.

May 15,1946 picket line at Pratt & Whitney’s Niles-Bement-Pond plant in West Hartford.

The Courant’s worst fears came true: workers at Royal Typewriter, Colt Firearms and Whitlock Manufacturing took a labor holiday and joined the strikers in the pouring rain on Main Street at noon. Early newspaper reports from the afternoon Hartford Times assured readers that the crowd was small, about 1,000 people, and that no traffic disruption had occurred. But by the next day, accounts estimated “several thousand” participants and the national UE News counted the mass rally at 10,000: “The bastion of finance surrounding the square, including Travelers Insurance and the Phoenix echoed the applause of the crowd as the speakers lashed out at the National Association of Manufacturers,” which had spent $2 million nationwide in propaganda efforts to portray workers as “strike-happy.”. Buses had to be re-routed by the police for several hours as the rally built in size. Local merchants confirmed a significant loss of business.
Reverend Peet was there too, to point out that the strike affected 12,000 other Hartford residents: the strikers’ families. “How easy it is to say that, but how terrible to contemplate when you reduce it to hunger, anxiety, evictions, frustrations and despair” he told the crowd.

Three weeks later, almost a year after Japan’s surrender, the company settled and the strike was over. As the UE News reported it, the workers won the 18 ½ cents an hour they had demanded.

Labor had won its battle, but Capital was preparing for a longer war. A change in the structure of Hartford city government was being forged by the business-dominated Charter Commission. On the agenda was a switch from the aldermanic districts (which had provided the strikers with their support at City Hall) to an at-large system and a Council-Mayor form of government.

The Hartford Courant labeled one side in this fight as Communist sympathizers. “It is not difficult to imagine that some of [the opponents’] innovations might have descended along that familiar party line plan from Moscow,” the Courant warned. To make its point perfectly clear, the paper’s editorial cartoon showed a bearded Communist, dressed in pajamas, decorated with a hammer and sickle design, getting into bed with a local political official who opposed the big business plan. The caption read “Move over! I’m your pal!” In fact, the Hartford branch of the Communist Party did have an opinion on the matter, which was also shared by the Republican Registrar of Voters.

It would not be too long before the UE would face the same charges of communist domination and lose thousands of members in Hartford and around the nation to red-baiting attacks, from manufacturers, government, and other labor unions as well.

In 1947, the General Assembly took its cue from Governor Baldwin’s strike-breaking actions by passing a law that made it a crime to picket private homes. Connecticut General Statute 31-20 stated that “no person shall engage in picketing before or about the home or residence of any individual” unless they actually lived at a strike site. The law stayed on the books for forty years until it was struck down by the Connecticut Supreme Court. The legal challenge came from striking UAW workers at Colt Firearms, which had once been a UE shop. The workers were engaged in the state’s longest strike which had begun in January, 1986. They picketed Colt president Gary French’s home four times, the same way UE strikers had taken on Pratt & Whitney. French sought an injunction but the court found the state law to be a violation of the strikers’ Constitutional rights.

With a clear-sighted view of the Hartford strike and the other, larger industrial battles that had just taken place, UE leaders summed up the meaning of the 1946 strikes. “The people are indestructible,” the Union wrote. “UE took the initiative and demanded the right to a living wage. The conspiracy failed because in the heat of battle, rank-and-file labor was united.  The CIO, AFL, and Railroad unions in many communities worked together. The conspiracy failed because labor was not alone. The townspeople were on labor’s side.” And in a prescient warning, the statement ends: “Defeated in the first battle, profit-hungry big business continues its war against unions and the people. Other battles loom ahead.”

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