A Peace of History
While the rest of the world celebrated the labor of working people on May 1, Americans will observe Labor Day on Monday of next week. But what is it that we will be celebrating, exactly?
On May 4, 1886, the Haymarket Affair occurred: a complex incident to which we will return another time. For now, the important thing to know is that violence broke out at a street protest, labor leaders were blamed, and following an openly biased trial, the state executed five of the eight labor leaders in what is now generally considered to be a miscarriage of justice. The entire affair was international news. In 1889, the Second Internationale (a coalition of socialist, anarchist, and labor groups from twenty nations) dubbed May 1 “International Workers’ Day,” co-opting the ancient European spring festival May Day for its proximity to the Haymarket Affair anniversary. Meanwhile, the Haymarket Affair became an important touchstone for many young participants in the socialist, anarchist, and labor movements in the United States as well. As the narrative in the general public gradually became more nuanced and sympathetic -- recognizing the executions as unjust “judicial murder” -- the U.S. government saw the commemoration of the incident as an existential threat. And so by 1894, President Grover Cleveland had thrown his support behind the alternative date in September, purely for anti-socialist/anarchist propagandistic reasons, specifically in an attempt to bury the memory of the workers’ tragedy and stifle the movement.
Today’s main story begins in 1986, a century after the Haymarket Affair, and concerns the longest sustained nonviolent action in Connecticut’s history. In the 1940s, workers of the Colt Firearms company in Hartford, CT were finally able to organize a union. Four decades later, at the height of the Reagan era, the Colt company was harassing union members and rolling back gains in blatant efforts to shut down the union. During the four-year-long strike that followed, a number of peace activists joined the struggle in favor of the union workers, despite the inherently violent nature of the products the workers were meant to build. At first glance, this may seem completely self-contradictory, but the pacifists followed a different narrative, a more leftist analysis: under capitalism, the workers do not choose what they build, and are thus better understood as victims of worker-exploitation than as warmongers.
President Grover Cleveland helped to bury the story of Haymarket, of the miscarriage of justice that followed, and of the left labor movement that was killed in Chicago. Much of U.S. foreign and domestic policy over the next century would be determined by the same xenophobic, anti-left, and anti-labor prejudices that led to the Haymarket executions. While we recognize the history of injustice perpetrated by the U.S. government against working people, we also recognize their perseverance despite it all. Today, many working class people are on the front lines of this pandemic, struggling for better pay and working conditions while trying to stay healthy. This Labor Day, let us remember and celebrate the heroic struggles of working people of the past, and let us thank and defend working people now.
The Colt 45: Peace Work with a Union Label
May 13, 1986
The Colt Firearms factory has been producing guns since the 1800s, from pistols to Gatling guns and now, M-16 automatic weapons. The Colt name is known worldwide. Workers at Colt have tried to establish a union since the turn of the 20th century, and finally succeed in the 1940s.
Now, in 1986, they are in a life or death struggle with a company that will do anything to break their union, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 376. Colt intends to rollback the gains made over the years by the white, black, and Puerto Rican workforce. “We are not claiming that we are losing money, nor were we basing our proposals on the Company's financial condition,” admits the company’s top negotiator.
Colt workers have already been protesting on the inside for more than a year against poor treatment and blatant attempts to bust their union. Led by shop chairman Lester Harding, activists have been disciplined, suspended and fired for nonexistent infractions. In response, they print the names of the fired workers on their shirts, and parade in the plant during break time to communicate their anger.
Once the strike begins on January 24 1986, the 1,000 strikers attempt to stop scabs from entering the factory and taking their jobs. Frequent scuffles on the picket line are met with overwhelming force by the city police. There are many arrests during the strike’s first months. At one point UAW leader Phil Wheeler is slapped with inciting a riot, a serious felony charge.
The boss at Colt knows that public opinion is important in this fight. He thinks he can sway that opinion with full-page newspaper ads. He harps on the picket line conflicts, laying the blame solely on the strikers. He explains how reasonable his negotiating demands are, and how unreasonable the UAW is.
Thanks to the newly formed Labor /Community Alliance, the propaganda falls flat. On May 13 1986, forty-five community activists, elected officials, clergy members, teachers and others converge at the Colt factory on Huyshope Avenue, Hartford. They sit down, blocking the parking lot entrance and the scabs attempting to enter the factory. The group is dubbed the “Colt 45,” an ironic take on the company’s most famous product.
The civil disobedience is no picnic. The Hartford Police captain in charge of the cops on the line has been accused of acting against the strikers from the beginning. The workers are proven correct when he quits the police force during the strike and takes a job as the new head of security for Colt.
The nonviolent Colt 45 action is only one of many community support events and marches organized during the record four-year struggle. Critical to the strikers’ morale is the solidarity they get from other unions and the city and state lawmakers, who support a successful nationwide boycott of Colt products. In fact, the strike itself is the longest sustained nonviolent action in Connecticut history.
Included in the Colt 45 are a number of peace activists. Is this some mistake? No, they say. They issue a public statement signed by many of the most locally prominent anti-war figures, who explain that union jobs are good for families and neighborhoods. They understand that workers have no power to choose what they make in this society.
The activists want to build relationships with unions and rank-and-file workers to find common ground and ultimately achieve “economic conversion,” the process by which industry changes to peacetime production. There are only two sides in this fight, and they choose the workers.
In 1990, UAW 376 wins big. The company finally gives in after labor court decisions have found that Colt has been a massive law breaker. Workers win $10 million in back pay and benefits. All strikers can return to their jobs. A coalition of the state government, private investors-- and the UAW-- have bought the company.
Thirty years later, union veterans, community activists, and college students hold a “commemoration of courage” to celebrate the Colt strikers’ victory. At first, some openly question the event’s purpose: do they really want to remember those hard times? But still, many strikers and their spouses attend. When asked about good memories from their historic strike, they answer “the Colt 45.”
(Good Trouble: A Shoeleather History of Nonviolent Direct Action is a riveting chronicle of stories that prove time and again the actions of thoughtful, committed people can change their lives and their country. It is a brisk, inspiring primer for veteran political activists and newcomers alike.
Civil Rights struggles. “Fight for $15” strikes. Tenant occupations. LGBT campaigns. Each of the 40-plus examples in good Trouble focuses on the power of organizing and mobilizing, relevant in any context, and serves as an “emergency tool kit” for nonviolent action.
Excerpt republished with permission from the author.)
Kohn, Sally. “Why Labor Day was a political move” CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/01/opinion/kohn-labor-day/
midtowng. “Knights of Labor” Progressive Historians. https://web.archive.org/web/20070930082656/http://progressivehistorians.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=2041
Thornton, Steve. GOOD TROUBLE: A Shoeleather History of Nonviolent Direct Action. Hardball Press, 2019. https://goodtroublebook.com/