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Cudmore: Unions in the Mohawk Valley

Cudmore: Unions in the Mohawk Valley

The Knights of Labor (KOL) was the first union to organize Amsterdam mill hands.  A wage cut for Sanford carpet workers in 1884 led to a strike that brought union organizers to town.

The KOL was very active in the 1880s.  There was an Amsterdam knitting mill strike and management lockout involving the Knights in 1886, marked by frequent physical clashes.  The mill owners prevailed in ousting the KOL from the city, at least temporarily.

One of the local KOL leaders was a woman, Leonora Carney Barry.  Barry worked in the Pioneer Street Knitting Mill to support her three children after her husband died.

A former teacher and eloquent speaker, Barry became a leader of the 1,500-member Amsterdam local, which included many women. She left Amsterdam, leaving her children with relatives, and went on to head the women’s department in the national union. 

She resigned in 1889 amid opposition to her idea that women should be full-fledged KOL members. She lived until 1930 and was popular on the lecture circuit as an advocate for temperance, suffrage and women’s rights.

1914 GLOVERS STRIKE

According to historian Barbara McMartin, some 1,500 glove cutters went on strike at most of the glove firms in Fulton County in 1914.  The strike began in Gloversville and spread quickly to Johnstown.  Some 15,000 glove industry workers were idled.

McMartin said the glove cutters -- primarily Russian Jews, Italians, English and native-born American s-- argued they had not received any significant pay increase since 1897. The manufacturers were united in their stand that current trade conditions prevented a pay raise.

The New York State Board of Mediation and Arbitration issued findings on the strike after holding hearings in Fulton County.  The arbitrators said the strike was orderly and almost entirely without violence but in general ruled against the union.

The glovers returned to work without their long-sought pay raise. There were some raises after World War I.  McMartin said the glove manufacturers won a hollow victory in that the industry now had begun its ultimate decline in Fulton County.

Some union members advocated socialism.  One cutter, Herman Abbott, pointed to starving little children and miserable working conditions and said the quicker the state owns the glove industry, the better.

THE BIG STRIKE

What carpet workers called the big strike took place in 1952 when members of the Textile Workers Union of America were on the picket lines for 12 weeks at factories in northern states, including Mohawk Carpets and Bigelow-Sanford in Amsterdam.  That same year Herbert Shuttleworth II had become president of Mohawk Carpets.

“We got eleven cents (an hour raise),” said the late Amsterdam union leader Tony Murdico. “There were no ifs, ands or buts. We had to go back to work with 11 cents.”

When Bigelow-Sanford moved its Amsterdam operations to its plant in Thompsonville, Connecticut in 1955, some attributed the move to labor unrest.  However, Amsterdam textile union leader Fred Krokenberger noted that while Amsterdam only had four union grievances in four years, workers in Thompsonville had participated in 17 work stoppages in two years.  In any event, by 1971 Bigelow Sanford had closed its Thompsonville mills and moved all manufacturing to Southern states.

William Duchessi of Amsterdam was a local, then national, officer of the Textile Workers Union of America in the 1960s and 1970s.  He died in 1979.  William Duchessi’s nephew, John Duchessi, Jr., was mayor of Amsterdam from 1996 to 2003.

Mohawk Carpets moved its Amsterdam rug production south in 1968 and relocated its office operations to Georgia in the late 1980s.  Most American carpet production has since been moved to other countries.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected].
 

 

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