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Organizing

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Central Trades & Labor Council, 1910 -1959

The right to organize continued to remain an issue for Rochester’s garment workers. “For years,” it was reported, “as soon as it was known that a worker was a member of the union, a resignation blank to his union was handed him and he must either sign his resignation in his union, or quit.” In January, 1913 at least 200 garment workers walked out and held a mass meeting at Convention Hall — one of the largest labor meetings held in Rochester thus far.

Ida Breiman postcard
Ida Breiman commemorative postcard, 1913, collection of Linda H. Donahue. [NB., postcard spells name incorrectly]

The strike was galvanized by the murder of young Ida Braiman, shot by a contractor as she sought to call workers out of his sweatshop. “Little Girl Striker Shot Dead by Manufacturer,” read the CTLC paper’s headline. By February 7 an AFL organizer reported that nearly 10,000 garment workers were on strike. The CTLC endorsed the strike and appointed a committee to assist it. A thousand pickets were placed in the clothing district, a commissary was opened, and “girl” strikers were sent to several cities to solicit aid. The CTLC sent a telegram to the Governor requesting that the State Board of Mediation conduct a public hearing in Rochester. Efforts by the manufacturers to reopen the factories failed. When they agreed in April that workers would not be discriminated against for joining a union, the strike was declared off.

In May, 1915 Samuel Gompers took labor’s Memorial Sunday as an occasion to urge workers to join the Labor Forward movement to increase AFL membership to three million: “The work of organization should not be left to organizers alone. But every member of organized labor should be fully sensible of the obligation resting upon him individually — the obligation of talking unionism to those workers with whom he comes in contact. We sincerely hope that every labor body at its next regular meeting will consider plans for carrying on labor forward movements during the coming year, and that every member of organized labor will conduct a labor forward movement for which he individually will be responsible.” By the following February, 32 Rochester unions had indicated their willingness to join the movement and the CTLC formed a Labor Forward Committee with subcommittees on publicity, organizing, halls and speakers, visiting and resolutions. In April two parades were held to promote the movement, with the slogan “Eight Hours for the Working Men and Women of Rochester.” A mass meeting was addressed by AFL officers and organizers.

The Labor Forward impetus slackened with the approach of World War I, but the CTLC’s Organizing Committee continued its efforts, organizing waitresses and trying to organize women at Kodak (1917); the Department of Public Works, firefighters, and Sibley, Lindsay & Curr (1918); drill runners, newspaper writers (1919); newsboys, City employees, drug clerks, laundry workers (1920); rural letter carriers of Monroe County (1921), and milkmen (1924).

In 1925 the AFL shifted its organizing focus, launching a national campaign to organize unorganized workers including bank clerks, office workers, the laundry industry, Mexican workers, and workers in the South. On Labor Day, 1928 AFL President Green set a goal of doubling the AFL’s membership by September, 1929. But the national campaign did not reach Rochester, having turned into a southern campaign, complete with an “Organize the South” pin and headquarters in Birmingham. Green made a speaking tour of the South, and the AFL held its 1930 organizing conference in Charlotte.

Meanwhile, the Depression was deepening: unemployment was rising and soon ten million workers would be out of work. CTLC organizing continued at a slow pace in 1932, as waiters and cooks, laundry drivers, broom makers, and coal truck drivers formed unions.

Everything changed in 1933. With the passage of the Wagner National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) the organizing landscape was transformed. The “three striking facts,” the CTLC explained, were “1 — Employers, organized in trade associations, must file with the President or his agent, their codes of practice and ethics. 2 — Wage agreements must likewise be filed, along with price lists. 3 — There can be no wage agreements unless workers are organized. Therefore, workers MUST BE ORGANIZED!”

The piece continued, “America is shortly going to be a land of universal organization. Local labor bodies can and must wake up the workers in every community. The day when an industry could be half union and half non-union have gone. Every Central Labor Union and every Council of Trades ought to be NOW in the midst of a tremendous organizing campaign.”

A national Labor Advisory Board, appointed by the NRA to “speak with full authority for American labor in the formulation and enforcement of all labor codes,” insisted that these codes must result from collective bargaining. The CTLC appointed a special committee to study labor’s rights under NRA. Rochester’s Metal Trades Council, which had been inactive for some time, was revived. The CTLC Organizing Committee began to meet every two weeks. A local committee of union men was appointed by the Council to monitor NRA compliance: soon the CTLC was complaining to Washington that labor had been excluded from the official Local Compliance Board.

Meanwhile the Organizing Committee was working with bakery drivers, optical workers at Shur-on, dry cleaners and dyers, Public Market employees, cannery workers, button workers (1933); coach and lace weavers, Newspaper Guild, waitresses, box makers, office furniture workers, gas station employees, and garage workers (1934). By mid-1934 the Organizing Committee had organized five Federal Labor Unions (affiliated directly with the AFL rather than with one of its national unions).

Just after passage of the NRA, in June 1933, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers stepped-up their organizing efforts at the Keller-Heumann-Thompson and put picket lines up around all of the factories. When police used tear gas against the picketers, the union contacted Frances Perkins, U.S. Secretary of Labor, who secured from the War Department 500 gas masks for the picketers.

The AFL organizing wave unleashed by NRA soon dissipated in the jurisdictional conflicts, hostility and raiding resulting from the emergence of the rival CIO. By 1937 the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, now affiliated with the CIO, represented workers at all Rochester clothing shops except Michaels-Stern, where the United Garment Workers were alleged to have a "sweetheart" deal with the company. That September, however, the cutters at Michaels-Stern returned their UGW charter to the national union saying "We have never received any cooperation or help from that union." With the cutters’ help, the ACWA was able to build a strong base with the workers at Michaels-Stern and, eventually, the company applied for admission to the Clothiers Exchange, automatically including them in the regional collective bargaining agreement with the union.

An AFL drive to organize retail clerks, launched in 1940, was stifled by the nation’s entry into World War II. Throughout the war labor subordinated its needs to those of the war effort, agreeing not to strike. But after the war ended, as price controls on goods were removed and the cost of living rose, workers renewed both organizing and strikes. 1946 saw the greatest strike wave in U.S. history, as 10% of the workforce engaged in nearly 5,000 work stoppages, with general strikes in several cities, including Rochester, where labor conducted a massive one-day General Strike in support of organizing municipal workers (Sources, Brecher, 1997, 237-248).

In early 1946 the AFL assigned an organizer to the CTLC Organizing Committee. Soon organizing targets had been identified: 10,000 - 15,000 production workers at optical plants; 3000 - 5000 office clerks; 4000 retail clerks; 2000 - 3000 food canning/ processing workers; gas station workers, prison guards, building service workers, amusement park workers, etc. Some of this work was actually accomplished, mainly through Federal Labor Unions.

Again in 1950, the AFL developed plans for a Gompers Centennial year organizing drive, with a national goal of 1 million new members. New York State was divided into six regions, each with an AFL organizer; Rochester was designated capital of the Western New York district 6. Organizing Committee chair Anthony Capone and the AFL organizer requested all CTLC affiliates to report on their organizing activities, but the campaign faltered. Meanwhile, the AFL and CIO continued their rivalry: after the AFL tried to organize at General Railway Signal, for example, the CIO got a consent election and the AFL withdrew.

Organizing efforts improved in 1954, after the Organizing Committee sifted through dozens of plans. In the first three months alone the Committee won 14 of 15 representation elections. Soon they backed a campaign to affiliate the 2000 city and county workers whose union, achieved in the General Strike of 1946, had subsequently been destroyed. In 1959 the CTLC and the CIO Council formed a Joint Labor Hospital Organizing Committee as the Hotel, Restaurant and Cafeteria Service Workers Local 466 sought to organize 1000 service, housekeeping, culinary and other non-professional workers in six Rochester area hospitals. Of course the greatest organizing story of the 1950s was the merger struggle at the national and local levels to move from AFL and CIO to AFL-CIO.

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