Connecticut Labor and Working Class History


By Cecelia Bucki
Professor of History, Fairfield University

(Note: This essay provides an overview of labor/business history in Connecticut.  This essay may be utilized by educators teaching labor history as subject knowledge enrichment and may be provided to students as an overview of this topic). 

A key problem of the modern-age is the distribution of resources and income across the whole population. Since the Industrial Revolution and the development of the free-market system, this distribution has been the source of dispute and negotiation between two economic entities—business owners and employees. Historically, many of these disputes were settled peacefully and fairly, but some have resulted in violent confrontations between business and labor. When violence has flared up or an economic dispute has impacted the community, government—local, state, or federal—has stepped in. The 1930s New Deal passed labor laws to regulate employer-employee relations. The goal has been to create a peaceful mechanism for dispute resolution, and this goal has shaped the history of working people and the labor movement. The following is a brief introduction to this history in Connecticut.       

As one of the original thirteen colonies, Connecticut has a long history of economic development that starts in pre-industrial times. This is the origin of the Connecticut self-image as sturdy Yankee farmers and artisans who built the new nation, tamed the wilderness for farming, sailed the seas for whales and fish, dug the earth for metals, and produced goods and sold them through a network of Yankee peddlers. Any comprehensive labor history of the state needs to include all aspects of market and manufacturing changes, as well as changes to the workforce in all eras. For the early period, this includes the pioneer European settlers, the indigenous population, African slaves, and early waves of European immigrants who sometimes came as indentured servants.

Key to Connecticut’s, and the American colonies’, economic success was the growth of the Atlantic trade system. This “Atlantic Triangle,” as it has been called, depended on the colonies producing the cash crops and other raw materials that Britain needed, trading them for British finished goods and African slaves, and shipping those items back to the American colonies. Similar patterns of trade continued after the American Revolution. Connecticut farmers produced the foodstuffs—onions, potatoes, and livestock—that were shipped to the Caribbean and to Southern states. Prominent Connecticut merchants, mainly from New London and Middletown, were actively involved in the slave trade between the African Gold Coast and the Caribbean and Southern states until Britain outlawed the trade in 1807. There were a small number of African slaves who toiled in Connecticut agriculture, and some worked as servants in well-to-do households. Both Africans and Native Americans were enslaved in colonial Connecticut. Little is known about Native American slaves, though many were auctioned off to other British colonies in the aftermath of the Native American wars. African American slavery in Connecticut peaked in 1774 at 5,101 persons, but it dwindled after the 1784 state law setting up gradual manumission. That gradual manumission called for the freeing of every slave who had attained the age of twenty-five, later reduced to twenty-one by a 1797 law. Connecticut formally abolished slavery only in 1848. African Americans remained a small part of the state’s population throughout the nineteenth century.

In the colonial and early national periods, most Connecticut residents were engaged in farming. Pockets of manufacturing existed in the market towns, mostly to supply goods to the local population. English and Scottish immigrants made up the early settlers who were skilled artisans. Traditionally, artisans owned their own tools and practiced their craft in workshops owned by master craftsmen who employed journeymen and apprentices. Artisans made everything related to their craft. For example, iron forgers dug ore from the Litchfield hills, chopped trees and burnt wood to make charcoal, and then used their skills to heat open furnaces, extract iron from the ore, and purify it into wrought iron for use in metalworking shops. Similarly, cordwainers (shoemakers) measured the customer’s feet, cut out leather pieces, made the wax that coated the thread, sewed the shoes together, and then delivered them to each customer, one pair at a time. Artisans brought with them the practices of European guilds, with internal regulations about how products were made and how apprentices were trained. The goal for the pre-industrial artisan was not “profit,” as such, but a good standard of living and a “competence” or savings for old age. Master craftsmen worked alongside their journeymen and apprentices, and were not considered employers in the modern sense.

All this changed as the free-market revolution got underway in the 1810s and 1820s. Even before this market change, New England farmers were finding it more difficult to achieve a subsistence income, with poor soil, lack of affordable land with the increase in population, and other financial pressures. Many had started to work part-time in the growing factories. For example, the early Waterbury brass industry halted production at harvest time so that their workers could bring in their crops from their own nearby farms.

The revolution in transportation, with canals and then railroads, created broader geographical networks that reached people in far-away regional markets, creating more consumer demand. Some master artisans chose to take advantage of the enlarged market for goods by becoming employers, subdividing the production process, and hiring less-skilled workers to do just one step in making a product. This division of labor, with cheaper wages, increased the amount of commodities for sale, but it undercut the entire artisan system. Craftsmen responded in the 1830s by organizing Mechanics’ Associations that made demands on employers about “prices” (piece-rates) and the length of the working day. General Trades’ Unions appeared in major cities along the Atlantic Seaboard, demanding the Ten-Hour-Day (still a six-day workweek and thus 60-hours per week) and an end to imprisonment for debt. When the financial Panic of 1837 caused wage cuts and then layoffs, these movements added unemployment to their list of grievances. In Connecticut, chapters of the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Other Workingmen engaged in such efforts, elected their members to the General Assembly, and protested poll taxes.

Market changes and resulting craftsmen’s grievances led to job actions. It also caused employers to petition the courts, where decisions often reinforced the Doctrine of Criminal Conspiracy against labor organizations. However, the general public often supported workers’ self-defense activities. As one example, in 1834 the Thompsonville Carpet Company in Enfield sued striking Scottish carpet weavers for interrupting its business. The expert carpet weavers, using hand-looms in this non-mechanized business, had gone on strike over prices and new work-rules and had communicated their strike to other carpet weavers in the Northeast, asking them not to take jobs at the Thompsonville Company. A jury of local farmers ultimately acquitted the accused weavers of conspiracy to harm business. Labor economist John R. Commons declared in his 1910 History of American Industrial Society that this was an important early legal victory for the right of employees to form unions, as opposed to doctrines of free trade.

Entrepreneurs in many parts of the state sought to establish industries through importing technology and craftsmen from England, even though British law forbade the emigration of skilled craftsmen and the transfer of machinery to their former colony. A story often told in Waterbury was that of brass manufacturer Israel Holmes smuggling skilled master brass casters, rollers, and die-cutters out of Birmingham, England in the dead of night to deliver them to Waterbury in 1829. However, as historian Jeremy Brecher pointed out in his book Brass Valley, that story was folklore, not fact, as the English law had been repealed in 1825. Nonetheless, Scovill, Holmes & Hotchkiss, Benedict & Burnham, and other firms, having recruited skilled men and having attained a regular supply of ore from the Michigan copper range, made Waterbury the “Brass City” by the 1850s, producing buttons, buckles, and ammunition among other commodities.  

Other merchant capitalists established textile mills and factories for the production of metal goods from brass, iron, and silver. All depended on water-power in these early years and later switched to coal. In 1840, Connecticut ranked fourth in the nation for the production of wrought and pig iron. Key products included clocks in New Haven and Thomaston, hardware in New Britain, silverware in Wallingford and Meriden, and firearms in Hartford and New Haven. However, Eli Whitney and his much-touted new system of “interchangeable parts” still needed skilled craftsmen to finish these products in the early years.   

Textile companies in Massachusetts and Rhode Island became the first to bring mechanized production to the industry in the 1820s. Entrepreneurs followed suit in eastern Connecticut, where textile mills sprouted up along waterways. Women, usually teen-aged, farmers’ daughters, became the first factory workers in these mills, living in company-owned boardinghouses in an employment arrangement known as the Lowell System. (See Sally Rice letters on becoming a textile worker in a Connecticut mill.) By the 1840s these mills had become unhealthy and harsh workplaces. It is unclear whether Connecticut mills had similar activities like the more famous Lowell, Massachusetts “factory girls” strikes of the 1840s to protest lowered wages and longer working hours. In Massachusetts, this caused women mill-workers to join with the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Other Workingmen to lobby for the Ten-Hour-Day. Many Connecticut textile mills used the Waltham System of employing all family members—men, women, boys, and girls—in various jobs throughout the mill.

What altered the composition of the general population in Connecticut was the massive influx of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. While Irish labor gangs had built the canals and the railroads of early nineteenth-century Connecticut, their larger immigration in the 1840s-50s took them to the mills and factories of the state and facilitated the mechanization of Connecticut industry.

Women were less likely to break into skilled trades. One notable exception was Augusta Lewis Troup (1848-1920) of New Haven, who successfully founded a women’s craft union. As a single woman in New York City in the 1860s, “Gussie” trained as a compositor at a printer’s shop and founded the Women’s Typographical Union (WTU) No. 1 in 1868 in Manhattan. The International Typographical Union (ITU) had refused to accept women members ever since its founding in 1853, but that sentiment soon changed. During the 1869 ITU strike in Manhattan, members of WTU No. 1 refused to act as strike-breakers, and, in gratitude, the ITU admitted the WTU into membership that year. It was also during this strike that Gussie met Alexander Troup, secretary-treasurer of the union. In 1870, she was elected Corresponding Secretary of the ITU, making her the first woman to hold office at the national level in any American union. She married Alexander in 1872 and they moved to New Haven where they started a newspaper, the New Haven Union. She subsequently became a teacher in the New Haven school system and a member of the Board of Education. She became known for her advocacy of teachers at the General Assembly, where pensions for teachers became state law in 1911. She also aided Italian immigrants in the Hill section where she lived. After her death in 1920, the Augusta Lewis Troup Middle School in New Haven was dedicated in 1926.  

Certain journeymen’s societies, such as carpenters, typographers, cigar-makers, tailors, iron-molders, and granite cutters, became established national craft unions in the 1850s and 1860s, but only a few survived the Civil War years. They rebuilt themselves after the war, survived the depression of 1873-77, and combined to form the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886. But before then, the largest and most widespread labor organization was the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor (KOL), whose members dedicated themselves to an alternative to the capitalist marketplace. The KOL, founded as a secret society in Philadelphia in 1869 by a group of defeated tailors, sought to claim dignity and fair working conditions for their members through workplace organization and political action, as well as producer and consumer cooperatives. The KOL did not believe in strikes but preferred to use the tactics of persuasion and the boycott to punish greedy employers. The KOL became famous nationally by successfully organizing railroad workers and defeating the “robber barons” who owned the great railroad lines. By 1886 in Connecticut, the KOL had 188 local assemblies and an estimated 12,000 members, including many women textile workers. Thirty-seven KOL members were elected to the state General Assembly, where they resurrected the Bureau of Labor Statistics, enacted Mechanics’ Lien laws, and made illegal the common employer practice of withholding wage payment for one month or more. The KOL broke with traditional trade-union practice by welcoming all working people, skilled and unskilled; the only prohibited job categories were lawyers, gamblers, and liquor-dealers. Even employers could join if they subscribed to the principles of the organization. Moreover, the Knights were unusual as a labor movement, because the organization saw itself as representing working people outside of work itself—in neighborhood organizations, in cooperatives, and such. Even housewives could form a local assembly to solve community problems.

The KOL lost its influence nationally after the 1886 Chicago Haymarket Affair. The KOL national leadership had neither supported the Eight-Hour Day strikes nor approved of the anarchist leadership of the strike in Chicago. But many other workers, including KOL members, enthusiastically struck for the Eight-Hour Day (a 48-hour week) and saw the KOL leadership’s disapproval as betrayal of the workers’ cause. Little is known about events in Connecticut during 1886. However, the Knights’ lasting effects nationally included the tactic of the boycott, healing the rift between Protestant and Catholic workers, inter-racial unionism, and its slogan: “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All,” which became the slogan for the entire American labor movement. 

With the decline of the KOL, the AFL became the self-proclaimed spokesman for American workers. It was the AFL, in its early incarnation as the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU), which had called for the May 1, 1886 strike for the Eight-Hour Day. However, craft unions now faced larger and more mechanized workplaces, where employers attempted to sub-divide work processes and to undercut craftsmen’s control over those work processes. Nationally, labor defeats during the 1890s depression weakened many unions. Significant strikes captivated the nation’s attention. Organized workers faced major companies, like the Carnegie Iron and Steel Company in the Homestead (PA) strike and massacre of 1892. There, manager Henry Frick was determined to break the AFL union, the Association of Iron Workers, who wanted to retain their traditional skilled jobs. Frick succeeded in his goal of breaking the union by hiring Pinkerton detectives to import strikebreakers and to defend the mill, causing a heated gun battle when strikers faced off against arriving detectives and strike-breakers. Both detectives and strikers were killed, leading to the company’s demand that strike leaders be arrested and tried for murder; the union leaders were acquitted by the local jury. Similarly, in the depression year of 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company, who made luxurious railroad sleeping cars in the company town of Pullman outside of Chicago, struck against George Pullman when their wages were cut but their rents were not. They went to the convention of the newly created American Railway Union (ARU), asking for support. The ARU voted to boycott any train that had a Pullman car attached. When the General Railroad Managers Association refused to settle, ARU members refused to move the trains. But when U.S. postal mail cars were also halted, the railroad managers succeeded in receiving from the federal courts an injunction against the ARU for interfering with the U.S. mail. When ARU officers refused to call off their strike, President Grover Cleveland ordered 20,000 federal troops to crush the strike and operate the railroads, jailing Eugene V. Debs and other ARU officers for violating the federal injunction. These spectacular strikes called national attention to the “Labor Question,” as it was then called, and state and federal government power helped defeat the unions. The AFL style of “business unionism” became recognized as the more cautious course, compared to the more idealistic KOL or the industrial-style unionism of the ARU. The AFL’s slogan, “A Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work,” summed up a more limited vision for craft unions.

However, a new voice arose from the ashes of the 1894 Pullman Strike. The defeated ARU and its radicalized leaders reorganized as a labor party, and in 1900 combined with other labor groups to establish the Socialist Party of America (SPA), led by the former ARU president Eugene V. Debs. The SPA sought both economic power at the workplace and political power at the ballot box, running candidates for political office at every level. It reached its political height in 1912, where Debs won over 900,000 votes (6 percent) for U.S. president, contributing to the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson’s defeat over his Republican rival William Howard Taft. Of course, the fact that Teddy Roosevelt had split away from the Republican Party to run as the Progressive Party candidate also caused the Republican defeat. The SPA continued to be an important third party until the World War I era.

Manufacturing companies were now undercutting skills and hiring scores of new, unskilled Eastern and Southern European immigrants to jobs in major industries. Socialists like Debs and other social-justice activists were convinced that only industrial unionism, the unionism that took in every worker in each factory, was the key to organizing all workers, not AFL craft unionism which took in members only by skill and training from multiple area work places. Thus in 1905, Debs and other unionists established the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which aimed to create one big union of all workers who could organize for their own protection as well as build a future where workers ruled the economy and their own workplaces. In addition, the IWW embraced unskilled immigrant workers and sent various ethnic organizers to speak to workers in their own languages. The result was a tremendous flocking of immigrant textile and garment workers to the IWW. Hartford labor activist Stephen Thornton has documented dozens of strikes throughout Connecticut in the years 1910-14 in which the IWW was involved (See Steve Thornton. A Shoeleather History of the Wobblies: Stories of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Connecticut. Hartford, CT: Shoeleather History, 2013).

Of course, skilled workers in AFL unions had successes as well, including carpenters and other building trades, machinists, brass casters, metal polishers, teamsters, as well as bakers and cigar-makers. But most Connecticut employers remained resolutely anti-union. For example, in 1902, the Danbury hat-makers became a national labor cause when their employer Dietrich Loewe refused to recognize the hatters union and most of his employees went on strike. When Loewe reopened his factory with strikebreakers, the striking workers organized a boycott of Loewe’s hats wherever they were sold. Loewe responded with a lawsuit against the hatters union, and after six years in federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1908 ruled against the boycott and the hatters for carrying out an “unlawful restraint of trade,” citing the new Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The court awarded triple damages to the company and ordered Hatters Union members to pay. Thus, the Supreme Court effectively outlawed the secondary boycott. Faced with the possibility of losing their individual homes, the hatters union organized a "Hatters’ Day" asking for an hour’s pay from all members nationwide to help pay the judgment fines. Many other Connecticut labor unions participated in this fund drive.

It was in this time, termed the Progressive Era by historians, that the national AFL began supporting Democratic Party candidates on the national level in return for favorable labor legislation to overcome these negative court decisions. This era saw many reforms being implemented, especially in the aftermath of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in nearby Manhattan, which killed 146 women garment workers. Connecticut passed factory safety legislation and established the Connecticut Workmen’s Compensation Fund in 1913, which paid workers or their families for injuries or death on the job. The success of this legislation was due to the lobbying efforts of the Connecticut Federation of Labor, joined by allies in the business community who were concerned with efficient labor management or the uncertainty of court awards to injured workers. Unfortunately, the law was weak on occupational diseases, so that cases of brass-casters’ “spelter shakes” (zinc poisoning) and “mad-hatters” disease (mercury poisoning) were rarely compensated. Historian Claudia Clark, in her book Radium Girls, revealed that women watch-dial painters at the Waterbury Clock Company suffered disfiguring illness and death but did not receive compensation for radium poisoning from the luminous paint used for watch dials.

The state’s unions, like the economy, remained weak in many sectors, but the beginning of the “Great War” (later to be called World War I) in Europe in August 1914 created a war boom in the United States, allowing Connecticut industry to flourish again. Ammunition, firearms, cannon, and even submarines were being manufactured throughout the state. The war years changed American society nationally, as it increased African-American migration to northern cities (though not much to Connecticut), created an opportunity for women workers to fill previously unavailable metalworking jobs, and greatly enlarged manufacturing facilities.

In Connecticut, nowhere was the war’s impact greater than in Bridgeport. The crisis over management’s attempt to undercut skilled craft work, craft workers’ attempt to defend their jobs, the eagerness of immigrant men and women workers to gain well-paid industrial work, and the national war effort led to a series of spectacular strikes in the city of Bridgeport that attracted national attention and the concern of the federal government. Bridgeport was one of the “war-boom towns” that expanded greatly because of war production. By the end of 1915, the city was supplying two-thirds of the small arms and ammunition to the European war theater. The giant factory built by Remington Arms Company on the East Side, the largest factory in Connecticut at this time, symbolized the extensive building campaign undertaken by machine shops and munitions producers. By summer 1915, full employment led the city’s workforce to strike, demanding the Eight-Hour Day (a forty-eight-hour week since Saturday was still a full workday) and unionization of workplaces throughout the city. The summer strike, originally started by the Carpenters’ Union, soon took on the aspects of a general strike as workers from many workplaces, including the Warner Brothers Corset Company, Remington Arms, and even restaurants and laundries, walked off the job. The Eight-Hour Day was won in these workplaces, but most employers declined to accept unions. The exception was the munitions industry, where the International Association of Machinists (IAM-AFL) achieved a stronghold and elected a newcomer, Samuel Lavit, as its business agent. Lavit, who was rumored to have previously been an IWW activist, believed in Industrial Unionism and set out to unionize the entire metalworking industry in the city. He welcomed the new immigrant workers who were being hired to semi-skilled machine-operator positions, anathema to skilled craftsmen. Similarly, he recruited women workers, former teachers and nurses as well as garment workers, who were being hired into better-paying jobs in Remington Arms-Union Metallic Cartridge Company. The IAM grew tremendously, setting up four new lodges (locals), including a Scandinavian lodge, a Polish lodge, and a Women’s lodge. When the U.S. declared war in April 1917, all government contracts came under the jurisdiction of the new National War Labor Board (NWLB). The NWLB, in response to unions’ wartime no-strike pledge, mediated labor disputes and sought to break through the anti-unionism of major American industries, in order to create industrial peace and continue production. Lavit and the Bridgeport IAM petitioned the NWLB for wage increases and filed grievances against companies that paid women workers less for the same job or did not pay overtime after eight hours as the federal contracts stipulated. Skilled machinists went out on strike, against federal rules, in March 1918 over Good Friday holiday pay. Strikes by various munitions workers continued throughout the summer until President Woodrow Wilson ordered the men back to work after Labor Day 1918. In the end, the strike wave by Bridgeport machinists affected Connecticut working people by achieving the Eight-Hour Day, allowing immigrant men to join unions, and giving women workers equal pay for the same work. It also gave the federal government an unprecedented model for settling labor disputes, one that would be crucial during the 1930s depression.

Four million industrial workers went on strike nationally in 1919 after the war’s end to retain the gains they had won during the war, as employers tried to rollback those gains. Waterbury was an important city in this strike wave, especially after a local policeman killed one Italian striker on a picket line. However, most strikes, both nationally and locally, were lost and budding unions were destroyed. Only pockets of craft workers, especially in the building trades, were able to hang on to their unions in the 1920s. Garment workers in Bridgeport and New Haven were able to retain their union contracts, probably due to that union’s strong presence in nearby New York City. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union tried to push forward in NYC, demanding a 44-hour work week (Saturday half-day) during the 1920s, though it was not very successful.

The 1920s decade nationally became known for anti-labor and anti-immigrant sentiment. In Connecticut, many businesses were bought out by national corporations, while some remained locally owned and expanded to reach a national market. With the wave of European immigration slowed by the passage of a national quota system of visas, Connecticut’s immigrant workforce now settled into ethnic neighborhoods and built their associations and places of worship. However, the next economic crisis, the Great Depression, gave rise to a renewed labor movement and a revived vision of Industrial Unionism. Amid the organizing of Unemployed Councils in working-class neighborhoods of major cities in 1930-32, workers who had been unionized during World War I began to re-organize. These included metalworkers, textile workers, and garment workers.

However, it was not until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 that unions began to gain a foothold again. Many strikes engulfed Connecticut workplaces in late 1933 and 1934. One spectacular national strike that had an impact on the state was the Textile Strike of 1934. This action had originated in the southern states where many textile companies had fled from the Northeast in the 1920s to avoid the union movement. In eastern Connecticut, “flying squadrons” of strikers moved from one mill to the next to encourage support for the strike. It was here that Connecticut textile unionists faced the state militia, who had been ordered into service to “keep the peace.” Many of these strikes were lost, but the Democratic Governor Wilbur Cross did support some labor legislation and allowed his Labor Commissioner Joseph Tone to pursue an anti-sweatshop campaign around the state in 1933-34. Labor saw an increase in its political power as Socialist Jasper McLevy, former president of the Slate Roofers Union, became mayor of Bridgeport in 1933; Socialists were also elected to state offices in 1934.

Nationally, the New Deal included government attempts to overcome the wealth gap between rich and poor by strengthening the weaker party—workers—in collective bargaining situations, in order to raise wages. The idea was to increase the buying power (wages) of the average citizen in order to stimulate the economy. The passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (“Wagner Act”) led to a new system for dealing with labor disputes. Collective Bargaining now became the law of the land, through the federal agency the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Moreover, the Wagner Act created an organizing upsurge in basic industry and resulted in a split in the AFL and the creation of an industrial union federation, the Committee (later Congress) of Industrial Organizations (CIO). CIO unions spearheaded union drives in such industries as steel, auto, and electrical. By 1939, many Connecticut factories had been unionized. The largest CIO unions in Connecticut were the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE), which organized electric-appliance and machine factories, and Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (MMSW) which organized the brass industry. AFL craft unions like the IAM adapted to the changing times and began to organize industrially as well. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) also outlawed child labor, mandated overtime pay for work beyond forty hours a week, and set a national minimum-wage law—goals that the labor movement had championed for the previous fifty years.

Not all went smoothly, as the Machinists’ strike at Middletown’s Remington-Rand Typewriter factory demonstrated. In July 1936 when the IAM failed to reach an agreement with owner James Rand, the workforce went on strike in Middletown and at his other plants in upstate New York. Rand then launched an anti-union campaign that became known as the “Mohawk Valley Formula,” in which he labelled unionists as “outside agitators,” threatened to move the plant out of town, organized “Citizens Committees” of local businessmen to counter the local appeal of the union, and refused to negotiate. The Mohawk Valley Formula was successful, as the company remained non-union.         

World War II brought unionization to most major industries, as the new War Labor Board (NWLB) expanded the reach of the federal government into almost every facet of the economy with government war contracts. Federal contracts guaranteed both business profits and a good standard of living and working conditions for the nation’s working class. In exchange for agreeing to wage freezes, many unionized workers received new fringe benefits such as paid sick leave and paid vacation days. Connecticut society changed dramatically, as southern African Americans and Puerto Ricans migrated to Connecticut defense jobs and “Rosie the Riveter” appeared on many shop floors. What had been the experience for some women in Bridgeport during World War I now became widespread during WWII, where women were recruited to fill expanding factories and jobs vacated by men drafted into the military. 

At war’s end, unions and the previously mentioned fringe benefits created the new “middle class,” as wages stayed high and workers could afford to buy the new products that American industry was manufacturing once the war was over. CIO unions struck nationwide in 1945-46 to retain those wartime gains and a wage increase to make up for the loss of wartime pay and the rising cost of living. Connecticut’s biggest strike was at the GE plant in Bridgeport, with 25,000 workers walking off the job. Similarly, in January 1946, an estimated 10,000 workers rallied in Stamford for a one-day strike to demand “We Will Not Go Back to the Old Days,” according to historian George Lipsitz in his book Rainbow at Midnight (1981). Unlike the aftermath of the 1919 strike wave where unions were defeated, unions now retained their presence in the nation’s workplaces, though this 1945-46 strike wave produced only small wage increases. Many states passed “Little New Deal” legislation to improve on the national legislation; Connecticut, for example, mandated a higher minimum wage than the national law. Many male workers took advantage of the GI Bill to go to college, while federal subsidies for highways and new mortgage-interest-rate tax deductions spurred workers and their families to move to the new suburbs. 

However, the CIO lost its political momentum in the post-war years as the new Cold War and fear of communism spurred a civil war in the labor movement. The 1947 federal Taft-Hartley Act amended the Wagner Act to limit unions’ legal actions and their economic power, as well as barring participation in the NLRB any unions whose leaders had not signed Non-Communist Affidavits. This federal law spurred the national CIO to expel ten unions in 1949 for being “Communist-dominated.” The UE and MMSW were two of these. Other CIO unions, as well as AFL unions, rushed to supplant these unions in many Connecticut workplaces, leading the labor movement in Connecticut to focus inward rather than continue to press for progressive societal changes. The CIO, purged of its radicals, merged with the AFL in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO.

The rest of the 1950s saw stability, though strikes were not unknown, as continued economic prosperity led to steady labor relations. Growth of the defense industry, especially airplanes and submarines, cemented Connecticut’s economic reliance on Pentagon contracts. The wartime ban on racial discrimination in employment did not signal the end of job discrimination, but it did allow African American workers to gain a foothold in many industries. White and Black women workers, after being forced out of many wartime factory jobs, continued their presence in the job market by moving into the expanding clerical and service sectors. However, these sectors remained non-union.

The economy was changing in the 1960s, as service and white-collar jobs increased and industries began moving to the south and west, and then offshore, to non-union regions. Many companies, battered by national competition, were fleeing the higher costs in Connecticut and much of the Northeast. This was clearly the case with textiles and garments, and even some metalworking. On the other hand, public employment expanded, as local, state, and federal governments took on more societal functions. Municipal workers gained the right to organize in the early 1960s, but state workers had to wait until 1973 state legislation allowed them to organize. At that time, state workers, including white-collar workers, formed unions, leading to momentum among other clerical workers in the private sector. Teachers successfully organized around the state, though in 1975 New Haven teachers struck and 100 were arrested for violating a court injunction. That strike resulted in state legislation that imposed a ban on teacher strikes and mandated binding arbitration between school boards and teachers. Women trade unionists, once a rare sight, became much more visible with the establishment in 1975 of a Coalition of Labor Union Women chapter in Hartford. Hospital and health-care workers began organizing in the 1960s, often in tandem with the civil-rights movement, as District 1199-Connecticut proved in the nursing home sector and some hospitals. Mostly Puerto Rican agricultural workers in the shade-tobacco industry attempted to create a union in the tobacco fields in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but without a state agricultural labor law, their efforts went nowhere.

Women and African Americans dominated the new service and clerical job sectors and thus increased their membership in the labor movement. A major victory came in 1984 when the Yale University clerical and technical workers went on strike and won a union contract, which continues today. The most recent activities have been union drives in food service and custodial services in the 1990s and 2000s, where success was reached on university campuses and some businesses. Union activists today are often focused on health-and-safety regulations and “wage theft” violations where employers deprive workers of minimum wages and overtime pay as mandated by state and federal labor law. A push for an increased minimum wage, to $15 per hour and an end to reduced-tier minimum wages for restaurant workers, has engaged social movements in all parts of the country.

At the same time, the deindustrialization of Connecticut because of international competition proceeded rapidly, as it did in other industrial regions, creating a “Rust Belt” throughout the Northeast and Upper Midwest. The loss of well-paying, unionized blue-collar jobs devastated communities and unions. The defense industry, which had expanded in the state since the 1960s, increasingly used technological innovations to increase production, thus eliminating more jobs. As an extreme example of this phenomenon, workers at Colt Repeating Firearms Company in Hartford, members of the United Auto Workers (UAW), struck against management’s plan to reorganize itself financially and eliminate jobs. The strike lasted from January 1986 to May 1990, the longest in Connecticut history. After this strike, where the union was supported by a broad community coalition, the State of Connecticut provided a bailout, buying a 47 percent stake in the company while the union and private investors also bought ownership. Years later, another equity firm took over the company and continued to siphon funds away from the Hartford plant; the factory now exists in West Hartford with about 500 workers. In another example, historian Jeremy Brecher, who documented the history of the brass industry, returned to the Naugatuck Valley after deindustrialization to see how people and communities were surviving. In his 2011 book Banded Together, he described the union efforts to own and run a factory and community efforts to rebuild neighborhoods and provide cooperative housing and supermarkets for themselves. Nevertheless, as Brecher concludes, the Valley remains a “victim of the Rust Belt.” The working “middle class” has lost its economic foothold in American society. Anti-union court decisions, lower corporate taxes, and looser government regulations are contributing factors to workers’ new place in the lower rungs of the economy.  

The one positive thing that can be said about deindustrialization is that the state has less air and water pollution than previously. That is small comfort for those displaced by economic change. Accompanying these economic changes has been a revolution in the retail sector, encouraged by globalization of the U.S. economy. The Wal-Mart phenomenon in Connecticut, as detailed in historian Troy Rondinone’s 2005 article, combined a determined company pursuit of low-cost goods produced abroad with a dedication to low-wage jobs with few fringe benefits. Wal-Mart thus contributed to the decline of local retailers and thrust Wal-Mart workers’ families onto state-funded healthcare programs.

A solution has not yet been found to these broad economic changes. The state is presently faced with a declining tax-base, as the business sector tries to promote a more “business-friendly” environment. Working people and their unions are faced with an increasing wealth gap, which threatens the American Dream of a home and a good standard of living. Unions have declined as a proportion of the workforce, weakening one important tool for reversing that wealth gap and increasing consumer buying power. Finally, health-insurance coverage, once established during and after WWII as a key employee benefit and indicator of a “good job,” has declined as unions lost strength and now is a contested political issue for society as a whole.  

The larger questions that have dogged the labor movement for the last century remain today: How can working people protect themselves and their families in this rapidly changing economy? Can the union movement look back to the community organizing model of the Knights of Labor, or the IWW, or even the CIO? Will union leaders return to seeing themselves as representing all working people and not just their members? Will the political system allow for such innovation? History cannot predict the future but only remind us of where we have been.


Connecticut References

Robert Asher, “Connecticut’s First Workmen’s Compensation Law,” Connecticut History 32 ((November 1991): 25-50.

David Bensman, The Practice of Solidarity: American Hat Finishers in the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Brass Workers History Project, Brass Valley: The Story of Working People’s Lives and Struggles in an American Industrial Region. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

Jeremy Brecher, Banded Together: Economic Democratization in the Brass Valley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.

Cecelia Bucki, Bridgeport’s Socialist New Deal, 1915-1936. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Metal, Minds, and Machines: Waterbury at Work. Waterbury, CT: Mattatuck Historical Society, 1980.

Claudia Clark, Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

John R. Commons (ed.), A Documentary History of American Industrial Society. 11 vol.  Cleveland: The A.H. Clark Company, 1910-11.

Toni Gilpin, Gary Isaac, Dan Letwin, and Jack McKivigan, On Strike for Respect: The Clerical and Technical Workers’ Strike at Yale University, 1984-85. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995).

Nell W. Kull, “’I Can Never Be Happy There in Among So Many Mountains’—The Letters of Sally Rice,” Vermont History 38 (Jan. 1970): 49-57.

George Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).

Robert Macieski, Child Labor in New England (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2015)

Marta Moret, A Brief History of the Connecticut Labor Movement. Storrs: University of Connecticut Labor Education Center, 1982.

Troy Rondinone, “The Invasion from Bentonville: Wal-Mart Comes to Connecticut,” Connecticut History 45 (Fall 2006): 177-200.

Anson C. Smith, “The 1936 Remington-Rand Strike in Middletown: A Case Study in Propaganda,” Connecticut History Review 54 (Spring 2015): 112-42.

Steve Thornton. A Shoeleather History of the Wobblies: Stories of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Connecticut. Hartford, CT: Shoeleather History, 2013.


Brief Bibliography - General works on U.S. labor and working-class history.

  1. Jo Ann E. Argersinger, The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents, 2nd Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016. ALSO SEE:, and rest of website, including bibliography that contains lesson plans and classroom exercises.
  2. William Bigelow and Norman Diamond, The Power in our Hands: A Curriculum on the History of Work and Workers in the United States. NY: Monthly Review Press, 1988.
  3. California Federation of Teachers. Golden Lands, Working Hands.
  4. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. NY: Metropolitan Books, 2001.
  5. Michael Evan Gold, An Introduction to Labor Law. Ithaca, NY: Cornell ILR Press, 2014 (third edition).
  6. Priscilla Murolo and A.B. Chitty, From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States. NY: The New Press, 2001.
  7. Martin E. Sleeper, “Teaching about Work in History: A Museum Curriculum for the Schools,” The History Teacher 11 (Feb. 1978): 159-74. [on using the Sally Rice letters]
  8. Randi Storch, Working Hard for the American Dream: Workers and their Unions, World War I to the Present. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
  9. Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. NY: Pantheon Books, 1974.
  10. Wisconsin Labor History Society.
  11. UC-Berkeley Labor Center. Work, Money and Power: Unions in the 21st Century (Third Edition, 2013).

Suggested websites: 

  1. Teaching Labor HistoryOAH Magazine of History issue (1997).
  2. Labor History for the Classroom and the Public. Includes general bibliographies and lesson plans, as well as more general labor history resources.
  3. Teaching Labor’s Story. Includes primary documents with teacher’s notes.
  4. Labor Matters. Based on the Teaching Tolerance website of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
  5. National Labor History Timeline
  6. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute: Connecticut History (1981). Includes two units of interest:
    • Susan E. Grey, The Rise of Organized Labor in Nineteenth Century Connecticut Case Study: The South Norwalk Hatters;
    • Tracey Wilson, Women and Work in Connecticut 1880-1920.
  7. American Labor Studies Center. Contains labor history timelines and lesson plans.
  8. Greater New Haven Labor History Association. For garment workers’ oral histories and for exhibit “Our Community at Winchester.”
  9. Bridgeport Working: Voices from the 20th Century, Oral Histories by Bridgeport Public Library History Center.