By Molly Miller
Although Mark Twain’s neighbors in Nook Farm may have represented the late 19th century Hartford aristocracy, many of them, especially former abolitionists, supported workers’ rights.
Opposition came from captains of industry, said Hartford labor historian and former union organizer Steve Thornton. In Hartford, this meant people like Albert Pope of the Pope Manufacturing Company.
In a speech given at his Monday Evening Club, Twain called the Knights of Labor “The New Dynasty.” The Knights had more than 30 people elected to the state legislature to represent the workers’ interests, said Thornton, including safety and child labor laws. They encouraged everyone to join, and were certainly powerful, but they had no legal protection.
Workers didn’t have the right to organize into unions until 1935, and workers who would try to organize were often fired, blacklisted, or jailed for conspiracy.
In 1883, telegraph operators in the Hartford branch of the Western Union Company participated in a nationwide strike, according to Thornton.
Operators worked for 12 to 16 hours at a time. They pushed for an eight-hour day, overtime pay on Sundays, a raise to compensate for the increasing hours and profits, and equal pay for both genders.
The telegraph operators’ strike lasted for about a month, and yielded no results for the Western Union workers. Most strikers were fired, and those who weren’t were forced to sign “yellow dog contracts,” Thornton said, which prohibited them from joining a union.
According to Thornton, many workers’ issues stemmed from the transfer from farms to factories after the Civil War.
“People weren’t working for themselves anymore,” said Thornton.
Workers would commonly fight for better working hours.
“That was something everyone could fight for,” said Thornton. The slogan, Thornton said, was “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what we will.”
The business mantra at the time was “make more stuff more cheaply,” said Andrew Walsh, who is associate director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College. The health and living conditions of the workers weren’t taken into consideration.
“They wanted to take advantage of mechanization,” said Walsh. “They wanted less skilled work.”
If the Paige Compositor – an invention Twain poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into – had been successful, Twain would have helped management take as much skill as possible out of the printing process.
The biggest issue facing workers, in Thornton’s view, is the right for unions to exist. This is somewhat similar to the concern that faced workers while Mark Twain lived in Hartford.
“There’s this all-out assault on … unions,” said Thornton, referring to recent collisions between workers and legislators around the country. “The right to exist is the first big issue.”
With Detroit hoping to cut workers’ pensions in order to aid the city’s economic recovery, and fast food employees across the country striking for higher wages and the right to unionize, the issues facing workers today are somewhat similar to those workers faced in Twain’s day.
“The people who thought that unions should never have any benefits are now in power,” said Thornton, making retirement funds “an easy scapegoat.”
However, there are many who believe that unions just aren’t as pertinent in a world where workers already have the rights they need.
Wallace Barnes, former CEO and chairman of Barnes Group Inc. and former chairman of the Connecticut Employment and Training Commission, doesn’t deny the importance of unions in the late 19th and early 20th century.
“They were very, very necessary,” said Barnes. “There was an imbalance of power between workers and management.”
But Barnes doesn’t think they are as necessary today.
“There’s still some need,” Barnes said, “but the balance has shifted. Workers have recourse now through the law that they didn’t have then.”
As a lawyer, Barnes negotiated contracts with unions. Since workers can sue, he said, there’s less of a need for organized labor.
Barnes sees Detroit’s bankruptcy as “a wake up call to all cities that they’ve got to adequately fund these pension programs,” but he says that unions needn’t be involved.