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Henry D. O’Connell, CTLC president

“It’s my life to fight for the things I believe in”

The appearance of Henry D. O’Connell, a leader in the local labor movement for the past 22 years, does not belie these words. At 50 he is as active and as energetic as a much younger man; possesses a good sense of humor; speaks dynamically, whether to one or a hundred people; exhibits a friendly personality; and generally gives the impression of being a fighter.

Mr. O’Connell is native-born and a graduate of Immaculate Conception School. His father, a fire captain, died in line of duty. His mother, who is still very much alive, is an inveterate card-player, movie-goer, and attends church regularly.

An interest in labor comes naturally to Henry O’Connell. “I was a rebel from the time I was a child,” he said, “and kept myself informed on labor problems through reading and activities as far back as I can remember.”

His experience as a worker began early in life. At the age of 12 he worked in a nursery, at 18 he was working in a clothing factory, later becoming a cutter. “Until I realized one fine spring day,” he declared, “that I hadn’t seen the sun in more months than I cared to think about; so I quit mt job.”

Turning to work that would keep him outdoors, he drove a team on an express wagon. Later he became an electrical worker, and held the position of business agent for the union from 1917 to 1931. His present office in the labor movement is that of president of the Central Trades and Labor Council, a post he has held for the past 11 years. “When I took over the Council there were about 20 delegates attending meetings regularly,” he noted, “but today the attendance averages 150 at each of our semi-monthly meetings.”

Mr. O’Connell prides himself especially on having “raised wages more than any man connected with labor in this city.” While he was business manager for the electrical workers, their wages, over a period of 14 years, jumped from $4.50 a day to $11.50, approximately a 157 per cent increase. “Over the same period of time,” he added, “I raised the pay of engineers from $6 a day to $10; of carpenters and painters to $9.20 from $4.50.” He recognizes the fact, of course, that general economic conditions had something to do with this.

Defeated in the electrical union elections in 1931, “I walked out of the labor movement with five kids and not a cent in my pocket,” he said. Today Henry O’Connell’s family numbers 7 children, the oldest son being 26, while their mother is only 42 years of age,

His philosophy of life, he says, is very simple. It calls for “three square meals a day, an opportunity to be with my family, a chance to participate in the sports I enjoy, and, most important, my work ... I wouldn’t take any amount of money to forsake the principles which are part of my life,” he stated.

Asked what the labor movement must do to strengthen and develop itself locally, Mr. O’Connell indicated the need for a newspaper to express the opinions of labor. He suggested that unions should elect their business agents for a longer period of time to that they will be freed of political pressure. He declared, also, that the recognized leader of an organization which represents a number of unions, such as, for instance, the Central Trades and Labor Council, should be paid so that he could devote more time to the duties connected with his office.

Outside of union activities, Mr. O’Connell is particularly interested in education, in better school buildings, and is in favor of more playground area for children. He has served as chairman of the apprenticeship committee of the Board of Education, a committee interested in the training of young people in the technical and mechanical skills.

Other extra-labor concerns have led to membership in the Rochester Tuberculosis and Health Association, the City Advisory Committee of National Youth Administration, and the State Health Commission (appointed by the Governor).

In addition he speaks frequently at high schools, churches and Y.M.C.A.’s on economic and labor problems, which he believes need to be more widely understood.

Despite his varied interests and widespread activities, Mr. O’Connell has found time to become proficient at golf, swimming and handball. He has been a member of the Y.M.C.A. for the past 36 years.

Pointing out his “pet peeve” in the labor movement, Mr. O’Connell condemned the men in the movement who fail to keep their word at crucial times. “I have had many a bitter fight in my life, and hundreds of hot arguments, “he said, “yet I’ve never broken my word.”