Our History

The earliest mention of union activity in the Greater Utica Rome Area was in 1829 when the Mechanic’s Press began publishing in November of 1929 with an article on occupational disease. In December of that year the publication carried a letter from its headquarters in Philadelphia, Pa. stating: “there is no place in the Union (U.S.) where the productive classes are as little informed of their true interests and conditions as those in Utica.”

In September 1830 the Workingmen’s Party met to choose delegates to a county convention to nominate candidates for congress and the state assembly. Their candidates finished last in the election. James Benton, candidate of the Workingmen’s Party, was elected mayor of Utica in March 1887. The New York Times was concerned that Workingmen’s victories upstate were a sign that Communism was about to spread.

In January 1882 the Cigar-makers Local 7, Typographical Workers Local 62 and the Shoe Laster’s Union formed the Utica Trades and Labor Assembly. James H. Haverside was elected president. Unless future research proves otherwise, this was the historic beginning of the oldest continuously functioning central labor body in the United States.

1884 was a peak year for the Knights of Labor in the Utica-Rome-Herkimer area, with 25 different assemblies in existence. By 1893 only one was left.

In 1896 the Utica Daily Union newspaper, printed by members of the Typographical Workers Union, had the largest circulation in the city and was the exclusive Associated Press wire service recipient.

In 1900, the Utica Trades and Labor Assembly (UTA) joined the American Federation of Labor with 27 affiliated locals and 100 delegates. The original charter signed by Samuel Gompers hangs on the wall of the Labor Council’s meeting room.

The UTA subsequently changed its name to the Greater Utica Labor Federation. On July 4, 1912 Gompers visited Utica to dedicate the Federation’s new Labor Temple. The building existed into the early 1960s and was demolished to make room when the State Office Building was constructed.

At the turn of the century, Utica bakery workers were the focus of a Supreme Court ruling that would forever change the relationship between corporations and organized labor. There was abundant data that employees in the baking industry were suffering a variety of respiratory disorders from airborne flour dust. Today we know these collectively as White Lung Disease. In 1887, the New York Legislature enacted the Bakeshop Act prohibiting individuals from working in bakeries for more than ten ours per day or sixty hours per week.

Joseph Lochner, owner of Lochner’s Home Bakery in Utica, didn’t care. In 1889 Lochner was fined $25 for overworking his employees and, in 1901, drew a fine of $50 from the Oneida County Court for a second offense.
Lochner appealed to the Appellate Department of the New York State Supreme Court and lost. He lost again in the New York State Court of Appeals. Then, he took his case to the highest court in the nation and the stage was set for one of the most controversial decisions in United States Supreme Court history.

Lochner’s attorney, Henry Weismann, had been one of the foremost advocates of the Bakeshop Law when he was Secretary of the Journeymen Bakers’ Union. Now Weismann argued that the Bakeshop Act was unnecessary to protect bakers’ health. He said that “the average bakery of the present day is well ventilated, comfortable both summer and winter, and always sweet smelling.”

Furthermore, Weismann argued, New York State was in violation of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution because his client was being denied due process in assuring his “right to free contract.” The passage of the 14th Amendment was intended to prevent discrimination against blacks. But as soon as it was on the books the Supreme Court began to develop it as a protection for corporations. In 1886 alone the Court did away with 230 state laws regulating private enterprise.  Yellow Dog Contracts were legal at the time. Workers had to agree in writing not to join a union before employers would hire them.  The Court agreed with Weismann and voted 5-4 that the law limiting bakers’ working hours did not constitute a legitimate exercise of police powers and that Lochner’s right to due process was being violated.  This decision changed the direction of the Supreme Court and the next three decades were referred to in jurisprudence as the Lochner era. For example, in 1923 the Court held that minimum wage laws violated the due process clause. In his dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan contended that it was “plain that this statute was enacted in order to protect the physical well being of those who work in bakery and confectionery establishments.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes accused the majority of judicial activism, pointedly claiming that the case was “decided upon an economic theory which a large part of the country does not entertain.”  More recently, conservative judge Robert Bork referred to the decision as “an abomination” and President Regan’s Attorney General, Edwin Meese, said it “blatantly usurped legislative authority.” They were not speaking of the misuse of the 14th Amendment, however, but of federal meddling in States’ Rights.

While this is an interesting piece of local history, it speaks to the tendency of both courts and legislature to respond to the rights of the “power elite” over those of working people. That is why a strong Labor presence is necessary in Washington and with all seats of government.

In 1915, with the Great War barely over, the leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World, (IWW) – also referred to as the Wobblies, was in jail, mostly for its active opposition to the war. But the IWW idea of a general strike nevertheless became national reality. In Seattle, 100,000 workers walked out, leaving the city at a standstill. In the steel mills of western Pennsylvania, where men worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, 100,000 unionists went on strike joined by 200,000 non-union workers. In the year following there were textile worker strikes in New England and New Jersey, and in 1920, Utica, NY.

But in July of 1919, the metal trades went on strike in Rome, NY. Rome Copper and Brass, Rome Manufacturing, Rome Wire, and Spargo Wire were all affected. The International Association of Machinists, a member of the AFL, was demanding an 8-hour day and a living wage. The initial walkouts quickly evolved into a general strike. Estimates were that, at one point, 5,000 to 8,000 strikers were blocking roads to factories. Some employers were beaten in violent clashes. The union claimed that outsiders had been brought in to start trouble. State troopers were called after many newly sworn local deputies quit. Foreign-born workers were searched, the sheriff demanding that their weapons be surrendered. Many complied by agreeing to have their gun permits revoked. The State Police raided the home of IAM President, Rocco DeBlasia. They found (they said) pieces of Wobbley literature and a photo of Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg was a German revolutionary leader, journalist, and socialist theorist, who was killed in Berlin in 1919 during the German revolution. She believed that only socialism could bring true freedom and social justice. Luxemburg was an advocate of mass action, spontaneity, and workers democracy.

28 arrests were made during the strike with many unionists clubbed by law enforcement personnel. The strike was ultimately broken. Frances Perkins and P.J. Downey, of the State Industrial Commission, went to Rome to investigate. Perkins eventually condemned the employers for refusing to meet with the strikers.

Of all the companies involved in the strike, Revere (now Revere Copper Products) is the only one still in existence. Founded in 1801 by Paul Revere, it is one of the oldest if not the oldest manufacturer in the United States.  Workers at Revere are represented by United Auto Workers Local 2367.

Ilion, NY was scribed indelibly into the pages of labor history in 1936 when two linked events shook this small village and forever changed the future of labor management relations. One was described by Robert G. Rodden, in his book The Fighting Machinists, a Century of Struggle as “one of the most savage, lengthy and memorable strikes in the annals of the American labor movement.” The other was the creation of the Mohawk Valley Formula, the first comprehensive methodology for strikebreaking.

In 1934 congress had passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), also known as the Wagner Act. Section 7(A) stipulated that workers were to be allowed to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. According to Boyer and Morais, Labor’s Untold Story, “millions of workers were fanatically determined that employers would do just that.” Massive industrial unions were forming and, almost before they were formed, their members wanted action. Strikes were breaking out across the country. John L. Lewis, President of the United Mine Workers, posted signs declaring, “Roosevelt Wants You to Join a Union.”

The AFL, though uncomfortable with the increased activism, granted membership to the newcomers, forming a Committee for Industrial Organizations (CIO) to organize these workers outside of its traditional craft lines. John L. Lewis was appointed its chairman. In 1937 the CIO would part company with the AFL to become the Congress of Industrial Organizations. John L. Lewis would be elected its president in 1938.

With the passage of the Wagner Act, corporate America immediately launched an anti-union drive unprecedented our country’s history. In 1934 Big Business spent an estimated $80,000,000 on spies to report on the activities of employees and their unions. Millions more were spent to buy guns and gas to use against strikers.

According to Boyer and Morais: “in the long history of America’s ‘Red Scare,’ reaching back to 1877 and including Haymarket Square, the Pullman Strike of 1894 and the Palmer Raids of 1919 to 1920, there had never been so many organizations with so many millions of dollars devoted to the breaking of labor and the reforms of the Roosevelt administration.” Their main instrument was the charge of “Communism.” Strikes were characterized as “Communist insurrections.” Tycoons persistently whispered that Roosevelt himself was an agent of the Kremlin.”

In 1927 the Rand Corporation had bought Remington Typewriters in Ilion to become Remington Rand. The merged company was owned by James Rand, Jr. and had plants in Syracuse; Tonawanda, and Ilion, NY; Norwood and Marietta, Ohio; and Middletown, Connecticut. They manufactured a complete line of office equipment including, In Ilion, a punch card computer that competed directly with IBM.

Union members were jubilant in 1934 when the International Association of Machinists signed their contract with Remington Rand. But the joy proved to be premature. Plant managers were instructed to ignore complaints about contract violations and foremen were told to not discuss grievances with union representatives. In this climate of mistrust, the workers began to hear about company plans to relocate to a facility in Elmira. According to Rodden, “Rumor ran wild and uncertainty reigned.” With the old contract about to expire the company refused to even discuss a new agreement. In desperation, a strike vote was taken. More than 75% of the returned ballots were marked “Strike.” The union asked for federal mediation but Rand forced the issue by firing the presidents of the unions in Tonawanda and Syracuse along with the president and fifteen other members and officers of the IAM lodge in Syracuse. 6,500 Remington Rand employees immediately walked off their jobs in late May and set up their picket lines at each plant.

The company’s main thrust against the strikers was in Ilion. The NLRB later reported: “The main road leading into the village was barricaded with a large chain. Squads of special deputies and the local police armed with shotguns stood guard at the entrances to the village and patrolled the streets. Arms had been secured that night at the Remington Arms plant and were carried by many of the special deputies and police. Others carried clubs. Private cars were used to serve as police cars. The headquarters of the union, where the pickets gathered, and which was across the street from the plant, was padlocked by the Village Board on the basis of one complaint.”

Then Rand began to develop and implement a sequence of strike breaking strategies that he later refined and called the Mohawk Valley Formula. It was distributed to other corporations throughout the United States by the National Association of Manufacturers. This is a NLRB summation of the Formula. Its content is instructive.

First: When a strike is threatened, label the union leaders as “agitators” to discredit them with the public and their own followers. Conduct balloting under the foremen to ascertain the strength of the union and to make possible misrepresentation of the strikers as a small minority. Exert economic pressure through threats to move the plant. Align bankers, real estate owners and businessmen into a “Citizens’ committee.”

Second: Raise high the banner of “law and order”, thereby causing the community to mass legal and police weapons against imagined violence and deny that employees have equal right with others in the community.

Third: Call a “mass meeting” to coordinate public sentiment against the strike and strengthen the Citizens’ Committee.

Fourth: Form a large police force to intimidate the strikers and exert a psychological effect. Utilize local police, state police, vigilantes and special deputies chosen, if possible, from other neighborhoods. Coach the “deputies” and vigilantes on the law of unlawful assembly, inciting to riot, disorderly conduct, etc.

Fifth: Convince the strikers their cause is hopeless with a “back-to-work” movement by a puppet association of so-called “loyal employees” secretly organized by the employer. Have this association wage a publicity campaign in its own name and coordinate such campaign with the work of “missionaries” circulating among the strikers and visiting their homes – all designed to convince the strikers that their cause is hopeless. Keep secret the number of applications received from employees ready to break ranks so that doubts and fears will cause others to make application.

Sixth: When enough applications are on hand, set a date for opening the plant by having such opening requested by the puppet “back-to-work” association. Arrange for police, rope off areas surrounding the plant. If an insufficient number of workers are willing to return, persuade the public through news releases, etc. that the opening was nevertheless successful.

Seventh: Stage the “opening” theatrically by throwing open the gates and having the employees march in a mass protected by squads of armed police so as to dramatize and exaggerate the opening and heighten the demoralizing effect.

Eighth: Continue to demoralize the strikers with an ongoing show of force. If necessary turn the locality into a warlike camp and barricade it from the outside world so that nothing may interfere with the successful conclusion of the “Formula” and convincing union leaders of the futility of trying to hold their ranks together.

Ninth: Close the publicity barrage on the theme that the plant is in full operation and the strikers are merely a minority attempting to interfere with the “right to work”. With this, the campaign is over–the employer has broken the strike. When Rand finally gathered enough scabs to reopen the Ilion plant on June 12, 1936 he gloated about his new formula for strikebreaking.

When the NLRB finally handed down its decision in April 1937, eleven months after the strike began, 4,000 of the original 6,500 Machinists were still on the picket lines. In a monumental 120 page decision the Board found Rand had arrogantly placed himself above the law, subjecting 6,500 workers and their families to the miseries of a prolonged strike, the people of six communities to extreme economic hardship, turning neighborhoods into warring camps and unleashing unreasoning hatreds. The Board ordered reinstatement with back pay of the union workers discharged prior to the strike, reemployment of the 4,000 workers still on strike, disestablishment of all company unions and recognition of bona fide unions in the six affected plants as well as in the new Elmira plant. Rand fought the order all the way to the Supreme Court but was eventually forced to recognize the union and make restitution to the workers.

Workers at Remington Arms are represented today by United Mine Workers Local 717. According to past president and long time Remington worker, Sam Bass, the Remington Rand plant occupied the front of what is now the Arms as well as other buildings since torn down. At that time the manufacture of firearms was housed in the back section.

Elements of the Mohawk Valley Formula are still used today by employers and union-busting consultants. The rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively has been so eroded by federal legislation over the intervening years that we are much closer to the circumstances described in this article than our brother and sisters were even two decades ago.

In 1955 the American Federation of Labor merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to become the AFL-CIO. Central Bodies were now referred to as “Councils.” And other changes were taking place in the labor movement. I would like to talk personally about a relevant of local labor history that is a kind of bridge between the old times and the new.

When I began teaching in 1961 there were two teacher organizations in New York State: the New York State Federation of Teachers, belonging to American Federation of Teachers (AFT), run by Al Shanker, and the New York State Teachers Association, headed by Manny Kafka and affiliated nationally with National Education Association (NEA). Each organization was spending its limited human and financial resources in a no-win battle for statewide supremacy. So, in 1966, when Tom Hobart became President of NYSTA, merger talks began. Soon, staff and office space were being combined across the state and the two groups started working together.

In 1967, New York State passed the Taylor Law requiring public sector employers to bargain collectively. Things began to heat up.

In 1968, I was a member of a New York contingent of more than 200 delegates, sent cooperatively by the two organizations, to the National NEA convention in Detroit. We arrived in uniform: red blazers and white, 1776-style, tri-cornered hats. We also had our own candidate for National President.

The other delegates, all members of a “professionals association” and not “union” members, refused to be dazzled. They were, in fact, appalled. Here was the union camel’s nose under the tent. And it was a particularly large, gaudy, well-organized and assertive camel. To their great dismay, they were rubbing shoulders with the great unwashed if only by proxy. The affront to their professional sensibilities was profound.

New York’s candidate for NEA president lost. We were sent back home to that radical union hotbed, New York State, urged to control our schizophrenic tendencies and seek the one true path to professional dignity—which did not include a relationship with the AFL-CIO.

The following year, 1969 was also eventful. There was a brief and unsuccessful jurisdictional skirmish by NEA and, more importantly, a flurry of teacher strikes across the state. Even though the financial penalties under the Taylor Law were severe (two days pay for every day out) Utica Teachers walked off the job for four day to settle a contract dispute with the Board of Education. New York teachers were beginning to identify themselves as unionists rather than as an association of professionals. Teacher Locals began joining their Central Bodies.

Finally, in 1972, NYSFT and NYSTA merged into one organization, the New York State United Teachers (AFT), part of the AFL-CIO. But by 1971 there were already teachers in our Central Body.

In the fall of that year, I was invited, as President of the Utica Teachers Association, to attended the last meeting of the Utica Labor Federation to be held under that name. We gathered at Valley View Golf and Country Club in Utica at a meeting chaired by Arcy Degni, a member of the Painters Local and Executive Vice President of the Federation. By then we were not only AFL-CIO, we represented both private and public sector unions and an expanded membership that included Rome and Utica in Oneida County, and Locals from Herkimer and Madison Counties as well. Various word combinations were suggested including, “Labor Council of the Mohawk Valley” and “Labor Council of Central New York.”

I stood up with my contribution to the brainstorming. “Why not just Central New York Labor Council?” It was accepted, and that was how we assumed our current incarnation:Martin Berger, President of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Local, was Central Body President during the transition. When I became a delegate in 1973, Marty was still in charge. We were meeting at the new UFCW Local One headquarters on the Parkway in Utica.
Marty was soon required by his union to live and work in Syracuse and he asked to resign his presidency. We elected Sam Fiore. Sam was out of the notoriously activist union, the International Ladies Garment Workers (ILGWU) and was then working as an organizer for UFCW Local One. He was militant and Labor was his life. Sam was President from 1974 to 1980. During Sam’s reign, the Council was insightful enough to create the Central New York Labor Agency. That decision would turn out to be our salvation.

Sam was the last president to use a gavel.

He was followed by Bill Sullivan (Sully) who was President of CWA Local 1126. He, like Sam, was one of the “old guard” who had helped build the area’s labor movement when militancy and audacity were the only tools we had. Sully was both militant and audacious. He guided us through 1985.

Between 1986 and 1987 Jim Cook of IBEW was Council President and still serves as a President Emeritus.
Joe Tierno, on staff at UFCW, followed, leading the organization from 1988 to 1990.

In 1990 Victor Olivadoti, President of Teamsters Local 182, became top dog and led us through a notably active time which included our Labor in the Schools program, chaired by NYSUT member, Karen Sullivan (no relation to Sully). Labor in The Schools reached out to 5th and 6th graders, bringing experienced union members into public school classrooms where they modeled organizing, collective bargaining and union precepts to the students.

Tom Chester, President of the Utica Teachers Association served the office from 1993 until 1998. During that time the Labor Council slowly dwindled and we appeared to have lost our vision. Meetings were often comprised of no more than 6 delegates. President Chester refused another term and we were near extinction.

Most central bodies never recover from the apathy virus. No one wants to belong to a dying organization and there is little incentive to be a leader. The disappearance of central bodies was the reason the AFL-CIO embarked on the New Alliance project and, in New York State, the formation of Area Labor Federations. But in our case the Labor Agency maintained contact with union leadership, providing services to the rank and file and helping out in organizing drives, plant closings and strikes. One of those contacts, Jimmy Moore, president of the large and powerful CSEA Region 5, told the Agency that he would be willing to try and get the Council back on track provided he had the support of all affiliates.

Acting on this information, the Executive Board of the Council called all area AFL-CIO affiliates to a meeting at the Club Monarch in Yorkville on February 5, 1998. The newly formed Mine Workers Local at Remington Arms was there. So was UAW from Orion Bus (now Damlier Bus) and Revere. PEF, CSEA, Teachers, the Building Trades, Steelworkers, the Machinists, UFCW were all represented. Over 100 unionists attended.

Moore spoke persuasively about the power of working together in common interest, and how it was to each local’s benefit to join hands across the table to help and support one another. He was elected President by acclamation.

We were thus reborn. Jimmy stayed on for two terms, until 2002. During that time, we successfully opposed efforts to fold us into the Syracuse ALF. Our activity level and the presence of the Labor Agency made us unique in the State. Since then, we’ve proven ourselves by maintaining a level of activity and effectiveness beyond that of some ALFs.

Moore stepped down in 2002 to be replaced by our current leader, IBEW Local 43 Business Agent Pat Costello.

At the west end of Ilion Memorial Park, a site where the Erie Canal once carried New York’s commerce, a Workers Monument has been built with donations from Central Body affiliates.  Initiated by Moore and due to be completed in 2008, the eight-sided structure (pictured on home page) is topped by a cap of Revere copper and features bronze plaques with union commemorations in gold letter against a dark background. The inscription reads:

We Entrust to Them
Our Children to Teach
Our Bodies to Heal
Our Homes to Build
Our Food to Provide
Our Steel to Forge
Our Clothes to Make
Our Families to Guide
Our Communities to Flourish
Our Neighborhoods to be Safe
Our Future to Secure

Dedicated to the Generations of
Working Men and Women
Of the Mohawk Valley
Who, Through the Dignity of Their Work
Made Us What We Are Today
The Keepers of Our Yesterdays, Todays and Tomorrow