Labor Family Beats Garment Boss

This is the story of a Hartford family that rose to the top of the economic and social ladder by cheating their employees and putting them in danger every workday. The Kolodneys lied to the government to avoid millions in taxes and repeatedly broke the law. They intimidated and assaulted workers and denied them the right to freely organize. This is a story of class struggle that spans almost fifty years. Neither the Kolodney family nor the garment workers they employed emerged unscathed. But one side maintained dignity and solidarity, and the others went to prison.

Textile workers, 1908 [Lewis Hine]

The history of Connecticut working people, and especially immigrant workers, holds many unrecorded examples of persistence and courage. This is especially true with the garment and textile workers, who, in Hartford, numbered in the thousands during the first part of the 20th century.

Many of these girls and women were foreign-born or first-generation European immigrants, searching for better lives. They were not strangers to hard work, but in return they expected fair wages, decent hours, and safe workplaces. Garment workers, and in fact the entire working class, faced employers who had more money, more power, and more influence in the business and political world. Their livelihoods depended on the whim of the boss.

At the turn of the 20th century, workers were also battered by the boom and bust capitalist system; they were hit hard by a stock market crash, followed by yet another economic downturn (there had been twenty-four recessions and depressions during the previous one hundred years). When a boss suffered losses, immigrants were the first to suffer layoffs.

Hartford garment workers’ pleas for better conditions, however, fell on deaf ears. These women (and a smaller number of skilled male cutters) decided that joining a union was the best way– the only way– to achieve better lives.

The First Strike

On January 30, 1919 hundreds of garment workers from seven Hartford factories walked off their jobs, in coordination with a massive garment strike in New York City. One of the businesses affected was owned by the Kolodney family: the Elite Shirtwaist Company on 52 Union Place.

The women worked fifty-two hours, six days a week, in “unsanitary conditions,” for as little as $6.50 a week. In contrast, the average weekly wage in the U.S. at the time was $25.60 for a 45 hour workweek.

On the first day of the job action, the strikers challenged the newly-hired replacement workers. At closing time on Friday February 7th, they gathered to confront the scabs who had been hired to take their jobs. It was especially galling that co-owner George Kolodney gave scabs free cab rides home. Police were present when Kolodney struck one of the strikers, who fought back.

Seven strikers, including union organizer Sam Rosen, were all arrested. They were accused of hitting a scab, throwing beans, “attacking” a cop and knocking off his hat. The group appeared the next day in Police Court, accompanied by a crowd of supporters. Also present was Josephine Bennett, a prominent Hartford suffragist and labor activist, who brought her brother, attorney George H. Day.

As the two sides argued, fifteen-year old Constance Corvo entered the court and joined the strikers gathered at a table, drawing the attention of Jo Bennett. It turned out that young Connie felt she had been left out of the legal proceedings and turned herself in. These women had become her family, Bennett said.

Some of the scabs had been recruited from New York City to break the strike. They were kept in the dark about the Hartford conflict. When one Manhattan cutter arrived by train, he quickly realized that he had been duped by the scab recruiter. He promptly told the boss he would not work. Instead of being sent home, the Hartford police brought the worker to a nearby hotel and forced him to stay overnight. The next day he was forcibly escorted to Union Place railroad station and put on the return train to New York.

Two days later at a mass meeting in the Labor Lyceum on Park Street, Rose Kaufman from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in New York pledged full support for the Elite Shirtwaist workers. Also speaking was Josephine Bennett, who had already earned a reputation as skilled organizer against child labor, for the liberation of Ireland, and in support of union efforts in the city. She told the crowd:

“Even in the courts, which are supposed to be tribunals of justice, the rich and poor are not treated alike. I have just lately realized what Dr. Anna Shaw meant when she said that the courts ‘dispensed with justice,’ not dispensed justice. In the trial in Hartford of these boys and girls accused of intimidation there was no justice done. The boss appeared and praised the girl who was working against the strikers and the girls on trial were convicted almost without evidence. If the judge of that court had seen the inside of my mind he would have sentenced me to five years for contempt of court.”

Ultimately, the strike was short-lived and did not succeed. George Kolodney’s brother Ralph became sole owner of the factory. He moved Elite Shirtwaist in 1920 from 52 Union Place to a building he bought for $160,000 nearby at the corner of High and Allyn Streets. By this time the Elite workforce numbered 250 workers.

First Evidence of Kolodney’s True Nature

Ralph Kolodney

Kolodney was a man on the way up. He was elected president of the Hartford chapter of Zionist Organization of America in 1921. He performed high-profile charity work, like making his employees knit socks for the poor of Europe. His family could be regularly be found in the Society pages. He was a fixture in his synagogue, a good, moral man.

But in 1936 there was a crack in the façade. Kolodney was found guilty of forcing women in his shop to work overtime. He received a paltry fine. A few more attempts at unionization were thwarted.  Kolodney insisted his workers were happy; ILGWU organizers said the workers were being intimidated.

A few years later the U.S. Labor Department charged him with violations of wage and hour laws, including illegally withholding overtime pay. But what no state or federal investigators knew at the time was the magnitude of Kolodney’s criminal activities.

“Don’t be chained to the machine!” Union organizer Feigel Levine (left, dressed as jailer) leads picket line of workers in prison garb. [Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library]
A New Generation Organizes

It was an extraordinary sight. Women in prison uniforms marched back and forth in front of the Kolodney & Meyers Company, as Elite was now known. Heading up this parade was a uniformed “prison guard,” wearing sunglasses and carrying a police baton. The “prisoners” carried signs reading “Don’t be chained to your machine for less than you deserve,” and “Join the ILGWU.”

It was March 1941, and 21-year old Feigel Levine, who portrayed the guard, had staged this colorful protest to draw attention to the ILGWU’s re-appearance. She was later arrested for driving a sound truck up and down Capitol Avenue in front of Kolodney’s business.

On April 22, Kolodney workers were again on strike, although by now it was a new generation. There were now 500 workers in his Hartford and New Britain plants. On this first day, 200 strikers were looking like an army without guns, dressed in smart strike uniforms with overseas caps that read ILGWU, and “Kolodney Striker” sashes over their shoulders. Two days later, Lucille Uccello was arrested, accused of striking a scab. She and her brother Salvatore had come from Italy in 1920 when she was fourteen years old.

On April 29th, 25,000 leaflets were distributed in downtown Hartford by strikers. They were all dressed in homemade peasant costumes and were unmistakably union women. Two of the leafleteers were brought in for questioning by police.

Strikers from Kolodney garment shop in their “peasant girl” uniforms. They are on their way to downtown Hartford to distribute leaflets about their strike. Police interfered with their action. [Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library]
The Connecticut state board of mediation and arbitration attempted to settle the strike on May 7th. The ILGWU announced it had a majority of workers signed up on union “intent” cards which it would turn in to the labor board. David Dubinsky, the diminutive but larger than life president of the ILGWU, contacted Hartford Mayor Thomas J. Spellacy from New York to request a meeting.

Kolodney was active too. He had four strikers arrested for assault and battery. Two of them, Mort Goodman and Ann Mascariella, were found guilty, based on accusations made by scabs. In July, Kolodney sued to limit the number of pickets in front of his plant. His motion was denied in Superior Court.

Feigel Levine attended to the strikers’ needs and kept them in constant motion. She announced to the press that the strikers were doing quite well despite not receiving paychecks. In fact, Levine said, they were gaining weight. Photos of very healthy children on the picket line seemed to confirm that strikers’ families were not suffering malnutrition.

Strikers’ kids on the picket line. [Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library]
Picketing lasted every work day, so the Union bought new shoes for all strikers. After 5 weeks, weekly strike pay increased from $10 to $20, along with a transportation stipend and a daily two- meal allowance.

One photo of the picket line showed the strikers in their Sunday best. They were reading PM, a weekly news periodical not unlike Life magazine. PM, however was a progressive publication and very pro-labor, so the strikers expected sympathetic coverage.

During this period, two NYC garment factory owners came to town. The union announced the men were checking out locations where they might expand. But why did the Union care? On June 9th, Lady Youth Dresses Company filed incorporation papers in Connecticut and the answer was revealed.

When it looked like Kolodney planned to weather the strike– and even lose profits to keep the union out– the ILGWU announced that Lady Youth Dresses would soon be opened near his plant. This new company would compete with Kolodney. All the strikers, the new employer announced, were welcomed to take jobs at this union-friendly business. And they did, effectively ending the strike.

Kolodney’s Dismal End

In 1957 Ralph Kolodney, pillar of the community, was charged by the federal government of tax evasion. The tax fraud case was the “biggest in Connecticut,” the authorities boasted, with 35 agents having been assigned to his misdeeds. Kolodney’s son also found guilty. The tax men said Ralph Kolodney’s misdeeds reached back decades. His supposed 1951 salary was $33,000, when it was actually $155,000 that year (in today’s dollars, $1.3 million). He had shortchanged the public over $5 million over past 32 years.

Kolodney had branched out into real estate, purchasing properties that included a four-story Garden Street apartment building in 1956 for $1.4 million ($12 million today). Ironically the IRS office rented offices in Kolodney’s building when it started the investigation against him.

The 69-year old Kolodney was convicted and began a two-year prison sentence in March 1957. Five months later, he was sued by his sister-in-law, who accused him of cheating her.

Kolodney was scheduled to be released on October 1, 1958. The release would have been sooner, but he was caught trying to smuggle mail out of prison by bribing a guard.

Kolodney’s son was also convicted and imprisoned for the tax schemes. He earned a short sentence after convincing the judge that he had been coerced into the illegal business by his father.

In 1960 Ralph Kolodney paid $2.8 million in back taxes, fines, and penalties. In 1962 the Feds took possession of his 460 and 470 Capitol Avenue buildings, where his garment factory had been. Today they are State of Connecticut office buildings, filled with several hundred state employee union members. Kolodney died at 91 in 1979.

“Betty Hartford” was a Kolodney & Meyers brand label.

The ILGWU merged with other unions to become UNITE HERE and today represents 270,000 workers, mostly women and people of color who consider decent treatment and fair wages as important today as did the 1919 Elite Shirtwaist strikers.

 

 

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