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Susan E. Grey
Organized labor has a tremendous impact on our lives. Yet it seems that students have little understanding of the function of labor groups. It is with the hope of creating more educated and aware consumers and workers that I feel that it is important to undertake the teaching of this unit.
Students will also be able to relate this material to information on organized labor in the 20th century. It is my intention in this unit to show students that labor organizations developed to protect the rights of individual workers to promote the interests of workers as a group. The unit will begin with a brief discussion of the growth of industry in 19th century Connecticut and the subsequent development of a labor force. There will be a description of working conditions and the factors which caused the laborers to organize. I will then give a short explanation of the early unions and their functions. The labor legislation of 19th century Connecticut will be examined, both as a result of the efforts of labor organizations, and for its impact on labor. Where possible, the material will be related to events on the national level.
The second part of the unit will focus on the Norwalk hatters, especially during the last quarter of the century. The hatters’ strike will provide the basis for a discussion of the goals of both labor and management, the tactics and the accomplishments of each. The unit concludes with an analysis of the accomplishments and failures of organized labor to date. I hope that teachers will use this material to draw comparisons and contrasts between organized labor in the 19th century and organized labor today.
This unit is designed for a three week period to be used with senior high school students. It is my hope that the study of this topic will be exciting for students and teachers and will stimulate an interest in current labor affairs. I also hope to use the study of local events to enliven history for my students and to create an interest in and concern for their communities.
Connecticut provides a good microcosmic view of the national labor movement in the 19th century, because events in Connecticut parallel events in the nation. The earliest factories in Connecticut were textile factories, constructed as almost independent villages. In 1806, the Pomfret Factory was established, and in 1810 Humphreysville was born. In these villages, the factory owners provided the workers with housing, a school, and a company store. They assumed a very paternalistic attitude toward the workers, regulating their activities outside, as well as inside, the factories. At the time, these were considered desirable employment situations, and although paternalistic, came to be the very factor that dissuaded workers from organizing. “Before the Civil War . . . unionization of factory operatives was virtually impossible. In the family-type mills of Connecticut . . . the operatives relied on their employers for jobs, housing, and . . . even for food. These workers were quite unable to combine to protect their interests.”1
It wasn’t until 1887 that a law was passed in Connecticut requiring factory inspections. Other laws passed called for better ventilation, lighting, sanitary conditions, provisions for bathrooms for the employees, fire escapes, and protection from dangerous machinery.2 From the reports of the factory inspector, it seems that most of the violations involved these very conditions. Therefore, the conclusion can be drawn that by the mid—19th century many laborers in Connecticut worked in unsafe, unsanitary, poorly ventilated, ill-lit factories.
However, with increased industrialization, this attitude changed. “Instead of a price for his product, which the artisan received, he would have to accept a wage for his labor, thus selling himself rather than his handiwork.”5 So the concern of the workingman shifted to matters directly regarding his labor. In the 1830s, Jacksonian democracy swept the country, and Connecticut labor was caught up in its tide. Connecticut laborers became much more active and militant. They organized, for instance, The New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Workingmen. They agitated for a ten hour day, abolition of imprisonment for debt, improved working conditions, reform of the tax system, universal manhood suffrage, and abolition of banks and monopolies. These goals were not limited to the state but were part of a national reform movement.
It was during this same period that labor first became politically active. In 1830, the state’s first labor candidate was elected to the state legislature from New London. The entire slate of town officers of New London, elected in 1831, was also a labor ticket. Political involvement by labor was not widespread at this point, but there were indications that labor represented a growing interest which politicians had better heed.
The flurry of labor activity in the 1830s was brought to a quick halt by the panic of 1837. High unemployment rates decreased the size of the labor force and its effectiveness in achieving reforms. Companies could always hire other workers willing to work for lower wages.
From this point until the Civil War, there is little activity on the part of organized labor in Connecticut. Although manufacturing in Connecticut increased steadily, by 1845, the value of Connecticut’s hay crop alone still exceeded the value of the cotton or woolen textile industries, Connecticut’s two largest industries.7 And by 1850, only 10% of the state’s population worked in industries.8 So organized labor was not a significant force at this point.
Conditions created by the Civil War provided an incentive for unionization. The War drained manpower resources, at the same time that it created a great demand for industrial labor. By 1880, 46.7% of the working population was employed in industries in Connecticut.9 However, continued apathy and opposition on the part of the public, management, and the government forced labor to organize to Protect its interests.
As the Connecticut Bureau of Labor Statistics pointed out in 1885,
The individual workman does not meet his employer on equal terms. When the law assumes that he does, the law makes a mistake. Sometimes he is stronger; generally he is far weaker. It may be true that it is for the interest of the employer to consult with the interest of the employee; but when he does not do so, the individual employee has no remedy. It is for this reason, more than any other, that he resorts to combination.10From 1850-1877 about fifty local unions were organized in Connecticut. Once again, though, hard times impaired the effectiveness of labor organizations. The panic of 1873 and the following depression again caused a glut on the labor market. But when they recovered from this economic setback, unions became very well-organized and established clear goals.
Knights included about 12,000 members. It was involved in a great number of strikes. The power and influence of the Knights is also seen by its involvement in politics. In 1885-86, thirty-seven members of the legislature were Knights, and it is during this time that much legislation favorable to labor was enacted. “But for the most part, the impossible was tried and the possible was relegated to the rear.”12 Due to its idealism, national events, internal dissension, and its inability to settle many Connecticut strikes favorably, the Knights of Labor in Connecticut began to decline.
The American Federation of Labor bridged the gap left by the fall of the Knights of Labor. Founded by Samuel Gompers, it pursued the “bread and butter” issues of wages and hours. The Connecticut branch of the American Federation of Labor was founded in March, 1887. It rose in proportion to the decline of the Knights of Labor. The Connecticut Federation of Labor continued the policy of strikes and boycotts, and aimed at the same goals as the Knights. However, it was better organized on both the state and national levels. It also focused its time and energy on the passage of labor legislation. The most important difference between the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor was the organization of the A.F. of L. along trade lines. The A.F. of L. was an association of independent trade unions, so its membership was limited to skilled workers.
Regarding employer-employee relations, in 1899, the Connecticut Federation of Labor was instrumental in securing a piece of legislation that prohibited an employer from forcing an employee to sign a contract promising that he wouldn’t join a union—the infamous “yellow dog contracts. This was a very important victory for organized labor.
A matter of great concern to the organized workers was the union label. This certified that a product was made by union workers under conditions that met union standards in a union shop. It encouraged the consumer to buy union-made goods, and thereby pressured the manufacturers to hire union workers and maintain union standards. Unscrupulous manufacturers counterfeited the union labels, but they couldn’t be prosecuted because the labels were not legally recognized as official trademarks. In 1893, the Connecticut Federation of Labor secured the passage of a law requiring the registration of union labels as official trademarks, thereby making their counterfeiting illegal. From 1893 to 1905, twenty-five such labels were registered in Connecticut.
Another important area of legislation which the C. F. of L. worked to reform was laws regarding boycotts and blacklisting. Here they were not very successful. In 1878 a law was passed which essentially prohibited employees from combining to boycott a business. This law seemed directly designed to limit the power and tools of the unions, but, despite much agitation, it remained on the books into the 20th century.
One interesting case which met a negative precedent for labor was the Danbury Hatters’ case. Because of a reduction in wages, the workers boycotted the company. The company then sued them under the federal Sherman Anti-Trust Act, charging that they were a combination in restraint of trade. The union lost the case end was forced to pay the company three times the damages incurred by the boycott. This was a real setback for labor. The U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act restricted the use of boycott by the unions, thereby depriving them of one of their most effective weapons.
Two important court cases clarified the rights of labor unions in Connecticut.15 The decisions made it legal for unions to combine to raise wages or improve conditions and to strike if their demands were not met, but they made it illegal for workers to combine to injure the employer’s business. This restricted the methods available to labor for achieving its demands. Blacklisting by the employers was more difficult to prove. By its very nature, it is secret, though one employee was successful in a suit against his employer for blacklisting. This was the only such case in Connecticut and the first of its kind in the United States.
Although organized labor was not as successful in getting all the labor legislation as it might have liked, it was very instrumental in the passage of the legislation that did occur. In fact, a student of the Connecticut scene wrote in 1907,
. . . since 1885, organized labor has been the chief factor in securing labor legislation, either by direct legislative campaigns or by agitation outside the legislature, or by both. It is safe to say that without the influence exerted by organized labor, few of the labor laws would have been passed when they were, and, probably, many of them never would have been passed.Thus the purpose for which labor originally organized was, to a great extent, achieved, at least for skilled workers.
On the whole, the laws have been of great benefit to the laboring classes and have improved their condition and the conditions under which they work very materially.16
It is in the 20th century that a true recognition and support of organized labor begins, but that is outside the scope of this paper.
The second section of this paper deals with a case study of the South Norwalk Hatters’ strike of 1884-85. This strike illustrates many of the problems of organized labor in Connecticut and in the United States in the 19th century.
In 1860, Norwalk’s first hatters’ union, the Hat Finishers’ Association, was organized. In 1861, Hat Makers Union No. 15 was organized. The Ladies Hatters Union was informally organized at the beginning of the strike in November of 1884, but was not officially established until the strike was over in April of 1885. However, the women walked off the job with the men and remained out until the strike was settled.
The South Norwalk hatters’ strike began in November of 1884 and lasted into April of 1885. It involved four hat manufacturers and 1,250 hatters. The companies involved were the Crofut and Knapp Co., (the largest), Alden Solmans Co., Coffin, Hurlbutt, and Co., and the Adams Brothers Co. These four companies acted in concert during the strike. They claimed that severe competition had caused a drastic reduction in the price of hats. They felt that the only way to cut their losses was to cut wages, which they said were higher than those of hat workers elsewhere. Hatters in Norwalk received from $2.50 to $8.00 a day, depending upon the job they performed.20 The workers claimed that the wage reduction was unfair since there had been no corresponding reduction in the price of hats. They also stated that they were asked to agree to this wage cut for the coming six months. The hatter’s unions forbid acceptance of this agreement, so the workers felt that they had no choice but to refuse. The manufacturers responded by declaring their shops independent (non-unionized). So the hatters walked out.
The manufacturers claimed that such wage reductions were necessary because wages ate up a disproportionate amount of their profits. They stated that they sought three aims by their actions. First, they acted together because they wanted to establish uniform wages in all their shops, and they wished to bring Norwalk wages down in line with those in other places. Their last aim was to bind the workers to wages fixed for a season, so that the manufacturers could stabilize their businesses. The manufacturers claimed that they had tried to negotiate with the unions in the past, but the unions had maintained an intractable position.
The employers issued a statement which said,
. . . finding, in short, that they (the hatters) were determined if we employed them at all it should be under conditions degrading to us and which rendered success impossible, we took the only steps really open to us, that of making our factories independent of all ‘trade’ rules and regulations. We wish our position in this matter to be clearly understood. We make no war upon any trade society or order. We refuse to employ no man because of his membership in any trade organization. We simply deny the right of any society to further control and injure our business. Our factories are open to any man or woman capable of doing our work and willing to do it at prices we can afford to pay and under the conditions and rules we choose to make.21Therefore, the real issue in the strike became, not wages, but the recognition of the right of the workers to organize. This is why this strike provides such a good case study for this unit. This issue becomes apparent, as, immediately after the walkout, the employers agreed to pay the usual wages, if the workers would agree to give up their association with the unions. This was not acceptable to the workers, so the walkout became a strike according to the employers and a lockout according to the workers.22
The manufacturers attempted to keep their businesses running by importing non-union workers known as “foul” hatters from New York and New Jersey. However, committees of striking hatters would meet these fouls—known today as “scabs’;—at Grand Central Station in New York and persuade them to go back to their homes. The strikers were so successful that, by early December, only about fifty fouls actually made it to South Norwalk. There they were met by another committee of striking hatters who had been telegraphed by the committee from Grand Central. Many more fouls were persuaded to return home at this point, with the union paying their expenses.
The manufacturers, naturally, were upset by this, so they organized their own welcoming committee to meet the train in South Norwalk. On Friday, December 6, 1884, a train arrived in South Norwalk at 6:20 P.M., carrying ten foul hatters. Two representatives from Crofut and Knapp were there, as well as the mayor and five policemen, at the request of the manufacturers, to escort the fouls to the Crofut and Knapp factory on Water Street. About 400 to 500 striking hatters were also present. They followed the fouls to the factory, taunting and jeering at them. Just as the door to the factory closed, two stones were thrown. No one was injured, but the manufacturers were worried and angry, and sent the following telegram to the governor:
The manufacturers of South Norwalk would most respectfully call upon you for protection, the city is in the hands of a mob. Our lives and property being in danger. The mayor and sheriff are unable to give us the requisite assistance.Governor Waller replied that he would send his representative to look into the matter. In the meantime, the strikers and the sheriff issued the following bulletin:
No riots, nor disorder, nor fires at South Norwalk. The city perfectly quiet and good order prevails.23The hatters and manufacturers each met with the governor’s representative and assured him that there would be no further violence. The whole incident blew over, but it aroused a considerable stir and was reported in the New York and New Haven newspapers. The pro-union Norwalk Gazette attributed this violence to a rowdy and lowly element in the union and not to the union leaders. The union claimed that it was the work of outsiders who wished to discredit the union.
This issue of The Gazette (Dec. 9, 1884) also reports that the economy of the town was suffering as the workers had no money to spend. Since the workers comprised such a large proportion of the population, this seems to have been a natural by-product of the strike. Yet the retailers in town generally supported the hatters.
Another problem which the manufacturers faced, once they got the fouls to South Norwalk, was where to lodge them. The strikers called on the boardinghouse keepers and restaurant owners and threatened to withdraw their patronage from anyone who served the fouls. This must have been effective, because the manufacturers were forced to resort to boarding the fouls in the factories.
These tactics might have been effective, but they did serve to drive the employers and the workers farther apart. Alden Solmans, one of the owners, in an interview with The Gazette, said that the strike had become a question of “‘whether they (the manufacturers) were to be permitted to run their own shops or whether the union was to run them for them.’ For his part he proposed to run his.”24
It was also reported that Mr. Austin Wilson, a foreman at the Adams Bros. shop, quit the strike and went back to work. That night all the windows in his house were broken by stones thrown at them. He also received an anonymous note, warning him not to go back to work. Although there was no proof, Mr. Wilson attributed the incident to the hatters. They again claimed that it was done by an outside element with the intent of arousing opposition toward the union.
Throughout the strike, The Gazette reported incidents of other unions in New England and New Jersey making donations to the hatters’ unions in South Norwalk. There were also reports of benefits being held by other unions to raise money for the striking hatters. This gave the impression that solid support existed for the hatters among union workers.
ln January, 1885, the workers organized a co-operative hat factory and soon after established a second one. The co-operatives sold shares at $100 each with members limited to five shares apiece. The co—operatives employed union members only.25 On February 12, 1885, the pro-business Sentinel reported a fire which completely gutted Co-operative Hat Factory #1. However, the Co-operative had sufficient insurance to cover its losses and was able to re-locate in other quarters and resume production. By March, these co-operatives employed almost all of the striking workers and were turning out large numbers of hats. Later on, the striking hatters also organized a co-operative grocery store. So, to a great extent, through ingenuity, the workers were able to fend for themselves.
In the Journal of United Labor,it was reported that the Knights of Labor decided to send out circulars to 150 cities, asking consumers not to buy any hats made by the four South Norwalk hat manufacturers involved in the strike. They also asked their members to call on the hat sellers in their districts and persuade them to discontinue selling the hats of the South Norwalk manufacturers until the strike was settled.26 So, affiliation with the national organization of the Knights of Labor was of benefit to the striking hatters.
This boycott became a very important tool for the unions. Many of the retailers in Boston and New York, as well as those in Norwalk, refused to sell the hats of the four manufacturers until the strike was ended. It would seem that this boycott was effective, because, by March, the five shops, (two run by Crofut and Knapp), only shipped 100 dozen hats in a week, while their usual output was about 2100 dozen a week. However, the Sentinel took another view, saying, “Hat trade is very dull, and, in some respects the turnout has proved beneficial rather than detrimental to the employers.”27
Another act of violence occurred on Friday, January 16, 1885. A cartridge of explosive that had been placed on a windowsill in the Crofut and Knapp plant exploded at 10:55 p.m. It startled the fouls and two supervisors who were sleeping there, but no one was hurt. However, windows were shattered and machinery was damaged. The manufacturers and the public blamed the hatters. The hatters accused the manufacturers of planting the charge to make the hatters look bad. The Gazette agreed with the hatters. A reward totalling $1400 was offered by the manufacturers, the hatters and the city, but no evidence was ever found.28
Throughout February and March both sides continued to stand firm in their positions. The manufacturers continued to try to import fouls and the strikers continued to dissuade them. The union continued to receive money and support from other unions. Other unions, The Gazette editorialized “consider this not simply a local strike for wages, but a battle between labor and capital, the result of which will affect the workingman everywhere.”29 A few weeks later, the editors continued:.
When the bosses formed their combination with the intention of breaking up the Union, they gave the challenge to every branch of organized labor in the country; and the result is that the whole system of organized labor is up in arms, and battling to maintain the very object of its existence.Another interesting incident which reflects the support of the strike by other workers occurred in February. A woman who had been on strike got a job in the Davenport and Andrews Company which was not on strike. However, when she entered the factory, the other women put down their work and refused to resume as long as she was in the room. The company gave her a leave of absence. In this way, the workers reminded their employers that they would not tolerate any breach of the union shop agreement.
In March, the first glimpse of a possible settlement appeared. The owners requested a consultation with the strikers. Together they set up an arbitration committee, comprised of leaders from other unions not involved in the strike. This committee was unsuccessful.
Then a local committee of arbitration was appointed by the striking unions, and it met with the manufacturers. On April 14, 1885, The Gazette headline read, “The Strike Ended. The Bosses Recognize the Union and Turn Their Shops Fair.” The strike was over. The manufacturers agreed to recognize the unions, to pay the original wages, and to only employ union members in their shops. They also agreed to discharge all the fouls. The unions said that the deserters would have to rejoin the union in order to remain employed. The deserters would have to pay a penalty fee of $200 to $250 for men and $10 for women before they could renew their union membership.
“The contest has been long and bitter, and all honor is due the hatters—ladies and gentlemen—who have won an honorable victory in a good cause, by their perseverance and pluck,” cheered The Gazette.30 The recognition of the union and the institution of the union shop represented clear victories for the hatters; unions and of the cause of organized labor everywhere. The Norwalk struggle exemplifies the struggle and goals of organized labor in the 19th century not only in Connecticut but in the United States as well.
It is not absolutely clear why the manufacturers settled at this point, but spring trade was always their busiest time of the year, and thus a settlement was to their advantage. With the settlement of the strike, the hat companies resumed production and maintained a good business for the next several years. The industry began to decline after World War I and some of the companies consolidated or went out of business. In 1932, Crofut and Knapp was bought out by the Hat Corporation of America. This company remained in Norwalk until business declines and labor problems forced them to remove their business to Tennessee in the 1960s. Today, that building is occupied by the Factory Outlets, but pictures of the Hat Corporation can be seen there.
Today organized labor is recognized as an extremely powerful voice in America. Organized labor represents the interests of a much larger though declining segment of the population today. The labor vote is wooed by all political parties.
The reforms enjoyed by workers today would not exist without the work of organized labor in the past. And yet the workers of today strive for the same goals as their counterparts did a century ago: shorter hours, better wages, and improved working conditions. The goals of organized labor will always be to improve the conditions of work and the quality of life for the working man.
I hope that through this study, students will have a greater understanding of the work of organized labor and will view their cause from an educated and sympathetic perspective.
I then try to lead into a more general discussion of unions. I might ask:
- 1. How many of you work? I compile a list of the places they work and the jobs that they do on the blackboard.
- 2. Do any of you belong to unions? If they do, I ask them why they do. Did they have to join in order to be employed? Do they pay dues? What does the union do? Have they ever been to a union meeting?
- 3. I then have students who belong to unions compare salaries, benefits, job security, etc., with students who work but don’t belong to unions or work in union shops.
- 4. Then I try to have them draw conclusions about the functions of unions.
As a follow-up activity, I might ask the students to go home and ask their parents whether they belong to unions, and if so, which ones, and why? Is there one in the place where they work? What do they think of their unions, and of unions in general?
- 1. What do the following things have in common a baseball strike, 20c postage on a letter, no new television shows until November instead of September, no job until you are 16, etc.? When they draw the conclusion that these things are all the result of the work of organized labor, I ask them for examples of other ways in which organized labor has an impact on our lives.
- 2. I then lead them into a discussion of what unions are and what they do, issues with which they deal; and I try to get them to come up with things other than wages, i.e., hours, working conditions, benefits, etc.
- 3. I ask them why unions are needed to do these things. What are the purposes of organizing?
- 4. I ask them how long unions have existed. Why do they think that unions were formed in the first place?
AFL-CIO. Publication. Washington, D.C: AFL-CIO, 1980. These are available from the state office in Hamden and contain useful information on the AFL-ClO and on unions in general.
Andersen, Ruth, O.M. From Yankee to American-Connecticut 1865-1914. Chester, Ct: Pequot Press, 1975. This is one of a series of works on Connecticut and contains a chapter on labor in its later days.
Burr, Nelson R. The Early Labor Movement in Connecticut, 1790-1860. West Hartford, Ct: By the Author, 1972. Burr’s work is a short informative piece on the early stages of labor and organization.
Connecticut Bureau of Labor Statistics. Report. Hartford, Ct: State Printer, 1887-1902. These reports contain a great deal of useful information and statistics concerning labor in Connecticut.
Connecticut Department of Factory lnspection. RePort of the Inspector of the Factories of the State of Connecticut. Hartford, Ct: Press of the Case, Lockwood, and Brianard Co., 1889. This also contains a lot of useful charts and statistics depicting conditions in the factories.
Crofut and Knapp Book. New York: Crofut and Knapp Co., 1924. A publicity release by the hat company, this is useful only in that it contains no mention of the hatter’s strike.
Dananberg, Elsie Nicholas. The Romance of Norwalk. New York: The States History Co., 1929. This is an interesting, but not entirely accurate history of Norwalk, with a good account of the hatters’ strike.
Day, Clive. The Rise of Manufacturing in Connecticut:. 1820-1850. Tercentenary Commission of the State of Connecticut, Publication No. 44. Yale University Press, 1935. The pamphlet is helpful in understanding how manufacturing led to the development of a large labor force.
Edwards, Alba M. “The Labor Legislation of Connecticut,” Publications of the American Economic Association. Third Series, Vol. VIII, 1907. This is an excellent, comprehensive work surveying the whole field of labor legislation to the date of publication.
Four Cities and Towns of Connecticut. New York: Acme Publishing and Engraving Co., 1890. This contains a chapter on Norwalk with some interesting details on the hat manufacturers.
Grant, Ellsworth S. Yankee Dreamers and Doers. Chester, Ct: Pequot Press, 1975. Grant’s book is a very readable account of New England inventors and laborers.
Knights of Labor. Journal of United Labor. Vol. V, No. 17, January 10, 1885. An article indicating KofL involvement in the hatters’ strike is found here.
Ray, Deborah Wing, and Stewart, Gloria P. Norwalk: being an historical account of that Connecticut town. Norwalk: Norwalk Historical Society, Inc., 1979. This is a very lively, interesting history of Norwalk, containing information about the hat industry and strike.
The Norwalk Gazette. 1884-1885.
The South Norwalk Sentinel. 1884-1885. Most of the information on the hatters’ strike is derived from these two newspapers. The accounts are fascinating. The Gazette takes a very pro-labor stand while The Sentinel is very pro-management.
Trecker, Janice Law. Preachers, Rebels, and Traders—Connecticut 1818-1865. From the same series as the Andersen book, this contains a chapter on labor in its early stages.
Tyler, Daniel P. Secretary of State. Statistics of the Condition and Products of Certain Branches of Industry in Connecticut. Hartford, Ct: State Printer, 1846. This is useful in determining the size of an industry in Connecticut at this time.
U.S. Department of the Interior, Census Office. “The Population of Civil Divisions Less Than Counties,” Statistics of the Population of the United States at the Tenth Census, June 1, 1880. Washington, D.C: Government Printing Office, 1883. This is useful in determining the size of the population in a town.
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