by Andy Piascik
On July1, 1979, 400 members of United Steelworkers Local 7201 employed at the Handy and Harman precious metals factory in Fairfield went on strike. There was nothing particularly unusual or exceptional about that; workers at factories in Bridgeport and the surrounding area regularly called strikes during the region’s industrial heyday. What was exceptional was the way in which a large number of people in Bridgeport responded when Handy and Harman employment representatives began actively recruiting replacement workers – scabs – in economically depressed areas of the city.
Founded in 1867, Handy and Harman opened a factory in Bridgeport in 1902. That facility eventually closed and the company centralized its local production at a plant on Grasmere Avenue in Fairfield that opened in 1915. The factory was adjacent to McKesson Labs on land where today Whole Foods, Home Depot, a Chipotle’s Restaurant and several other stores make up the Kings Crossing Shopping Center.
Even after the consolidation to the Fairfield plant, Handy and Harman continued to draw most of its workers from Bridgeport. There was an especially large number of Portuguese employed in the factory, most all of whom lived in or had roots in The Hollow. They were highly skilled technicians who took great pride in their abilities working in what the company, in its official history, calls “the largest and best equipped precious metals plant of its day.”
In what had become the norm for companies in the Bridgeport area by 1979, Handy and Harman opened negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement by demanding substantial givebacks of its unionized workforce. The negotiations stalemated and the workers went on strike. The company soon countered with a tactic that was once common but had fallen out of favor beginning around the Second World War: the active recruitment of replacements for the strikers.
One area where Handy and Harman attempted to recruit was a stretch of State Street on Bridgeport’s West Side. The neighborhood happened to be home to an office of the Spanish American Coalition (SAC), an activist organization well known to the city’s Latinos. Several young Puerto Rican men from the neighborhood walked into the office on Colorado Avenue and informed SAC members, who soon discovered that youths on Bridgeport’s East Side had also been approached about applying for employment at the struck facility.
SAC members led by Willie Matos, a long-time city activist who in the early 1970’s had been a leader of the Young Lords Party, distributed an English/Spanish flyer that explained that Handy and Harman’s workers were on strike and urged people not to apply for jobs there. They also put out a call to activists throughout Bridgeport, and a meeting to address the recruitment efforts was held at the SAC office in September. The meeting was well-attended and included, in addition to Matos and other SAC members, activists from other Bridgeport community organizations, Handy and Harman strikers, officials from the striking Steelworkers local, members and officers from other area unions, and several of the young men who had encountered the Handy and Harman recruiters.
Because of the efforts of the SAC members and the ad hoc committee it pulled together, Handy and Harman soon curtailed its efforts to recruit scabs in Bridgeport. As the strike dragged on, the ad hoc committee decided to support the strikers in other ways. Meetings were held, press releases were issued and people joined the Handy and Harman workers on their picket line. Committee members also reached out to members of the International Association of Machinists who were on strike against the Olin-Winchester company in New Haven and joined the Olin-Winchester workers several times on their picket line.
As the strike entered its third month, the committee initiated calls for a solidarity day to pressure the company to settle the strike on the workers’ terms. Together with officers and members of Local 7201, as well as other union officers and members from the area, the committee organized a march and rally on November 17, 1979.
One thousand people gathered at the Steelworkers union hall on Kings Highway Cutoff that Saturday morning and then marched past the Handy and Harman factory to Sherman Green in the center of Fairfield. One of the co-chairs of the march and rally was Americo Santiago, an electrician at the Sikorsky Aircraft factory in Bridgeport and a member of Teamsters Local 1150. Santiago later served on the Bridgeport City Council, for three terms as a state representative and as Connecticut’s Assistant Secretary of State. Among those who addressed the rally were Victor Matta from Bridgeport Fight Back, Arthur Pecchillo from the union representing Bridgeport’s public school teachers, the Bridgeport Education Association, and Craig Goughier, who spoke on behalf of the Olin-Winchester strikers.
Within a matter of days, the company changed its tune. Realizing that its workers were not going to give in, and having long since given up on recruiting replacements because of the spirited opposition from the Bridgeport community, the company agreed to settle the strike. The terms were very similar to the union’s proposal and the settlement was widely hailed as a victory for the workers.
For several months after the strike, the strike support committee continued to meet. Members sought to establish an organization that could facilitate similar solidarity efforts while also providing area workers a venue to address the growing crisis of plant closures, layoffs and concessionary bargaining. The group also was in contact with the Plant Closures Project, a short-lived statewide effort to pass legislation that would hold companies financially liable to the municipalities and workers they left behind if they closed a factory. The effort to transform the committee and keep it going in a different form ultimately failed, however, and as the 1970’s turned into the 1980’s, one area factory after another – Bridgeport Brass, Jenkins, Bullard, Hubbell, Bryant Electric/Westinghouse, General Electric – closed up shop. The Handy and Harman factory closed in 2002.
Still, the efforts of 1979 made it possible for Handy and Harman’s workers to enjoy better livings standards and more power on the job than they would have had the company gotten its way. In addition, the actions of those who came together in a small, drafty office on Colorado Avenue on Bridgeport’s West Side demonstrated the solidarity that is the single most important means available to workers to ward off the depredations of corporate elites, be it in 1979 or 2016.