Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
–Jeremy Brecher, author, Banded Together: Economic Democratization in the Brass Valley, and Save the Humans? Common Preservation in Action
“This book reveals the fascinating but rarely told story of a vibrant movement of Connecticut’s poorest and most oppressed – immigrants, women, factory workers, and others — to build a better world for themselves and their fellow workers. In the first years of the 20th century, the militant Industrial Workers of the World – known as the “Wobblies” – organized a working class movement based on solidarity across racial, national, gender, and ethnic lines. In this informative and often entertaining book, long-time Hartford labor and community activist Steve Thornton provides an account of their little-known organizing, strikes, and free-speech campaigns in Connecticut.”
– Peter Kellman, author, Building Unions and Divided We Fall: The Story of the Paperworkers’ Union and the Future of Labor
Who were the Wobblies? They were a labor union like no other: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). These militant, courageous men and women, from all races and ethnic groups, changed the way working people of the early 20th century responded to the growing gap between the rich and everyone else.
The IWW established an organizing model still being used today by unions, civil rights groups and other progressive movements: effective cross-ethnic organizing, mass nonviolent direct action, community coalition building, and an inspiring, democratic vision of the future. These are the lessons we can still learn from the Wobblies.
“Thornton does a good job at threading us through the byways of long-gone political movements, showing how the Socialist Party was at first a strong ally of the IWW, then backed away from it, and also how the SP and the Socialist Labor Party under Daniel De Leon split from one another. For a long time, the AFL, the federation of traditional craft unions, was hostile to the idea of “One Big Union” that the IWW promoted, often opposing the Wobblies’ embrace of the foreign-born, non-English speakers, women workers, and people of color. (In the 1930s the CIO took up this more expansive, inclusive vision.)
The IWW is famous for its free speech fights, especially ironic in Connecticut, nicknamed the “Constitution State.” Especially at the time of World War I and the subsequent Palmer Raids on anarchists, Bolsheviks, and perceived radicals of every stripe, they played an important role in alerting otherwise average citizens to the real absence of constitutional norms in our country.”
–Eric A. Gordon, People’s World
“This lively, insightful study explores neglected chapters in Connecticut workers’ history and ties those experiences to broader U.S. history.”
-Dexter Arnold, former managing editor, Union Labor News and South Central (WI) Federation of Labor
“Steve’s achievement in fleshing out the record cannot be overstated. By recovering a slew of IWW initiatives across the state, he brings to light dimensions of discontent and volatility among industrial workers that raises wider questions… A Shoeleather History warmly welcomes all readers who are curious about its important subject. Obscurity of events and poverty of sources do not keep Steve from infusing vitality and a measure of drama into his stories. They run the gamut of Wobbly deeds in Connecticut, from visits by national leaders (Bill Haywood, Joe Ettor, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn appear frequently) to courageous organizing by local people who, because they were local, took greater risks. Steve’s writing is as fluent as his research is diligent.”
-Gene Leach, Trinity College, Connecticut History Review
“Thornton closes the story he tells with a brief afterward he fittingly titles Beautiful Radiant Things. Fitting because the story of the IWW can be told as a sad one, one of savage repression by vastly superior forces and a bit of unfortunate infighting. [It]neatly encapsulates what all the work and sacrifice were about and makes clear that those of us who came after have better lives as a result. More than that, the Wobblies in Connecticut and everywhere else provide those who walk in their footsteps, including many who don’t know they walk in their footsteps, both inspiration and guidance.”
-Andy Piascik, CounterPunch
Printed by union labor at Red Sun Press. 150 pages. Copyright 2013