Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
The Colt Firearms factory has been producing guns since the 1800s, from pistols to Gatling guns and the M-16 (now the M4 carbine). The Colt name is known worldwide. Workers at Colt have tried to establish a union since the turn of the 20th century, and finally succeed in the 1940s.
Now, in 1986, they are in a life or death struggle with a company that will do anything to break their union, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 376. Colt intends to rollback the gains made over the years by the white, black, and Puerto Rican workforce. “We are not claiming that we are losing money, nor were we basing our proposals on the Company’s financial condition,” admits the company’s top negotiator.
Colt workers have already been protesting on the inside for nearly two years against poor treatment and blatant attempts to bust their union. Led by shop chairman Lester Harding, activists have been disciplined, suspended and fired for nonexistent infractions. In response, they print the names of the fired workers on their shirts, and parade in the plant during breaks to communicate their anger.
Once the strike begins on January 24, 1986, the 1,000 strikers attempt to stop scabs from entering the factory and taking their jobs. Frequent scuffles on the picket line are met with overwhelming force by the city police. There are many arrests during the strike’s first months. At one point UAW leader Phil Wheeler is slapped with the serious felony charge, inciting a riot.
The boss at Colt knows that public opinion is important in this fight. He thinks he can sway that opinion with full-page newspaper ads. He harps on the picket line conflicts, laying the blame solely on the strikers. He explains how reasonable his negotiating demands are, and how unreasonable the UAW is.
Thanks to the newly formed Labor /Community Alliance, the propaganda falls flat. On May 13 1986, forty-five community activists, elected officials, clergy members, teachers and others converge on the Colt factory on Huyshope Avenue, Hartford. They sit down, blocking the parking lot entrance and the scabs attempting to work. The group is dubbed the “Colt 45,” an ironic take on the company’s most famous product.
The civil disobedience is no picnic. The Hartford Police captain in charge of the cops on the line has been biased against the strikers from the beginning. They are proven correct when he quits the police force during the strike and takes a job as head of security for Colt.
The nonviolent Colt 45 action is only one of many community support events and marches organized during the record four-year struggle. Critical to the strikers’ morale is the solidarity they get from other unions and the city and state lawmakers, who support a successful nationwide boycott of Colt products. In fact, the strike itself is the longest sustained nonviolent action in Connecticut history.
Included in the Colt 45 are a number of peace activists. Is this some mistake? No, they say. They issue a public statement signed by many of the most locally prominent anti-war figures, who declare that union jobs are good for families and neighborhoods. They understand that workers have no power to choose what they make in this society.The activists want to build relationships with unions and rank-and-file workers to find common ground and ultimately achieve “economic conversion,” the process by which industry changes to peacetime production.
In 1990, UAW 376 wins big. The company finally gives in after labor court decisions have found that Colt has been a massive law breaker. Workers win $10 million in back pay and benefits. All can return to their jobs. A coalition of the state government, private investors– and the UAW– have bought the company.
Thirty years later, union veterans and community activists hold a “commemoration of courage” to celebrate the Colt strikers’ victory. At first, some openly question the event’s purpose: do they really want to remember those hard times? But still, many strikers and their spouses attend. When asked about good memories from their historic strike, they answer “the Colt 45.”
(All photos by Nick Lacy)