by Cecelia Bucki, Professor of History, Fairfield University
On Monday, August 16, 1915, one thousand women corset workers struck the Warner Corset Company, demanding the eight-hour day, elimination of fines and other work rules, and recognition of their union shop committee. “Chaos reigned in manufacturing circles,” declared the Bridgeport Herald as other unskilled and semi-skilled workers struck the city’s factories, garment shops, foundries, rubber works, and laundries, all demanding the eight-hour day, pay raises, and union recognition. The city’s workers could take the chance for such actions in a mostly non-union city because Bridgeport was rapidly becoming a war-boom town and labor was scarce. The eight-hour-day campaign (meaning a 48-hour week since Saturday was a full working day) had been the national labor movement’s demand for some thirty years and Bridgeport’s workers were determined to win it now. It all started in the city in spring 1915 when orders for munitions and other war materials from the European war began pouring into Bridgeport. The New York Times reported on July 15 that Bridgeport was producing two-thirds of all small arms and ammunition being shipped from the United States to the Allies, and dubbed the city “The Essen of America.” The new Remington Arms Rifle factory on Boston Avenue, along with its sister plant the Union Metallic Cartridge Company (UMC), had received $168 million in war orders.
The eight-hour-day movement started in March with the building trades, as those unions decided to use the factory-building boom to capture some of the wealth that was pouring into Bridgeport by demanding the shortened hours and the union shop. Within a few days, the machinists at Remington-UMC struck too, with the same demands. More machinists and metal-working shopmen around the city joined in. Remington-UMC’s management quickly said yes to all those demands, to avoid delaying their production schedule. All other strikers were back at work by August 1, having won the same gains. The Manufacturers Association of Bridgeport was not happy, but everything seemed settled until August 16.
It was not unusual for skilled workers like the building trades and machinists to organize and win strikes in this era. But it was very unusual for unskilled and semi-skilled men and women workers — mostly Italian, Polish, Hungarian and Slovak immigrants — to organize and strike, much less win, in 1915. The spontaneous corset-workers’ strike of August 16 resulted in a near general strike in August; all told, some 14,000 workers struck that summer. While the American Federation of Labor (AFL) craft unions already had locals set up, these new strikers acted without union representation and AFL organizers poured into town to try to sort out the situation. Organizers from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the radical industrial union, came to town as well. Immigrant workers, speaking many languages, congregated at the Fraternal Order of Eagles Hall on the East Side. Hungarian strikers used their West End Rakoczi Hall as strike headquarters. By the end of August, all the strikes had been settled, with workers winning the eight-hour-day (48-hour week) but with companies generally refusing to recognize their unions.
The strike wave of summer 1915 in Bridgeport set the stage for labor activism for the rest of the war period. The International Association of Machinists (IAM-AFL) was so pleased with its results in Bridgeport that it made the goal of the Eight-Hour-Day a national campaign in 1916. Other unions and cities took notice as well. Bridgeport would remain in the national spotlight throughout the war period.
Cecelia Bucki, Ph.D., has taught American labor and working-class history at Fairfield University for twenty-five years. She is the author of Bridgeport’s Socialist New Deal, 2915-1936 (University of Illinois Press, 2001).