Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
The New Britain branch of the Workmen’s Circle applauded the death of the Czar’s henchman, Imperial Police director Vyacheslav von Plehve, who had disbanded labor unions and failed to stop a bloody wave of violence against Russian Jews.
The New Britain workers’ reaction was the last straw for the patriots of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) at whose hall the immigrant Jewish socialists met. In July 1904, the GAR banished them from use of their facilities. “Too anarchistic,” the Civil War veterans said.
Eastern European Jews fled the Russian pogroms in the 1880’s, and many emigrated to Hartford. The “Workingmen’s Circle of New York” was founded by Jewish cloak makers as a mutual aid society, providing social services– including medical clinics, old age homes, and burial assistance– to immigrants. As the organization explains, “recognizing the importance of facing these challenges with a unified front, and feeling the resonance of traditional and deeply-held Jewish values emphasizing community and social justice.” The group was founded in 1900.
Hartford’s Branch No. 15 was the first Arbeiter Ring branch, organized in 1901, with Rueben Neister as one of its first presidents. The city was home to a number of branches over the years, including No. 15, 36, 67, 184, and 936 (the last two built the cemeteries pictured with this article).
Hartford hosted the national convention of the Independent Workmen’s Circle of America that began on May 30, 1914. At the time, the organization had 3,500 members and sixty-three lodges. Delegates attended from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Jersey and California.
Some of the convention’s activities were held at the Hartford Theater in the Wise Smith building on Main Street. It had formerly been the Hartford Opera House, where Yiddish plays and silent films were shown. Also during the convention, “Little Freida” Bienstock gave several recitations at the Eagle Hall on Central Row. Musical entertainment was provided by pianists and singers, mandolin players and violinists.
The convention held a heated discussion about the IWW and protested the recent Ludlow Miners massacre in the coal fields owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Special guest speaker was Hartford’s own Emily Pierson, suffragist and labor activist, who received an enthusiastic response as she promoted women’s suffrage (still six years away). The wealthy class “opposes equal suffrage because they want to give to charity,” Pierson told the crowd. “ But charity is not what the working man and woman are looking for. They want only a fair chance to gain a living.” At the end of her speech, the delegates unanimously passed a resolution supporting equal suffrage:
We do hereby solemnly protest against the active opposition of those women of leisure who persist in obstructing their efforts of working women to obtain full citizenship thereby making the struggle for the protection of the working people’s homes immeasurably more difficult.
By 1917, 1,100 Connecticut workers had joined the Circle, leading the group to establish its own bakery on Bellevue Street. Goods were sold at cost; the group boasted that while a regulation loaf of bread weighed one and seven-eighths pounds, the Workmen’s Circle bakery would sell bread loaves at two and one eight pounds.
Socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs was a favorite of the Workmen’s Circle members. In May 1920, a Newark Circle convention supported Debs who at the time was serving a federal prison sentence for speaking out against World War One. By this time, the organization had reached its membership peak of 80,000 and was close to labor’s American Clothing Workers of America (one of the predecessors of today’s UNITE HERE).
Hartford once again held a national convention in 1921 which included eighty branches including New Haven, New Britain, and Bridgeport. During this time there were a total of four Hartford branches. For the past three years, the Circle focused on consumer cooperatives, spurred on, no doubt, by the Hartford bakery and the co-op efforts of Boston, which included a grocery, creamery, dry goods, and shoe store. The Boston co-op joined similar businesses in the region, including the Finnish cooperative which was active in eastern Connecticut.
The 1921 conclave was held at the Labor Lyceum on 287 Windsor Avenue (later renamed 2003 Main Street, a cooperative effort between the socialist, socialist labor and communist parties. Also known as the Labor Educational Alliance, it served as a common platform for left political and labor events for a number of years.
At a massive 1925 Madison Square Garden convention, the Circle delegates voted to expel communist delegates, signaling a political split that had been brewing for some years. The convention condemned the red-scare activities of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, but declared that they considered the United States as the country of “Wendell Phillips, Abraham Lincoln, and Eugene V. Debs.”
The Hartford branch stayed active, giving a musical benefit on behalf of its sick fund at the Labor Educational Alliance in 1926 where four hundred people attended. But on March 9, 1930, at an emergency meeting in Boston, Hartford members voted to expel all communists from their organization. Hartford branches 36 and 37, described in the press as “arch-foes of the Communist Party,” helped lead the expulsion.
In response, the International Workers Order (IWO) was formed in 1930. At its height IWO had 200,000 members who received low-cost health insurance and other benefits. According to Hartford native and activist Henry Hurvitz, the cemetery of the Albany Jewish Center on Garden Street was an affiliate of the International Workers Order. The group also owned a building on the south side of Albany Avenue between Sigourney and Edgewood Streets. Attacked as a Communist Party front in 1954, IWO was forced to dissolve.
At the Hartford Labor Lyceum in 1929, the Workmen’s Circle had sung The Internationale. The next year, they opened their meetings with the Star Spangled Banner.