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Rochester 1946 general strike photo
General Strike rally at Washington Square Park, 1946, photo by Harold Lara. Click for larger view>>

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General Strike

In 1945, at the invitation of the Central Trades and Labor Council (CTLC) Organizing Committee the Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers dispatched Adrian L. Mitten to organize Rochester’s city workers. In December these workers held their first meeting. Organizing progressed rapidly and by May 10, water department workers, school board employees, city junk and cemetery employees, and sewage disposal workers had formed FSCME Local 871. The City’s response, on May 15, was to abolish their jobs.

On May 17 Presidents Anthony A. Capone of the AFL Central Trades and Labor Council and John H. Cooper of the CIO Industrial Union Council of Rochester and Vicinity called emergency meetings of their respective bodies. The result was an unprecedented unity between the two central labor councils including not only strong resolutions of support for the fired workers but appointment of a joint strategy committee including business agents from three AFL unions (Teamsters, Upholsterers, and Allied Printing Trades) and three CIO representatives (two from the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and one from the United Electrical Workers).

On May 18 the AFL-CIO joint strategy committee adopted a three-point plan that included establishing a welfare committee to aid the fired workers, holding a joint AFL-CIO demonstration, and conducting a city-wide campaign that included picketing and house-to-house informational canvassing.

The struggle escalated on May 21 with the arrest of 54 pickets, including CTLC President Capone, Local 871 President Rossi, and FSCME organizer Mitten. Bail, set at $100 for each picket ($500 for outside agitator Mitten), was posted by the CTLC.

From jail Capone and Mitten threatened a city-wide strike. “There are between 60-65,000 union men and women in the area. We will ask these union men and women in all walks of life to take a rest from their jobs” in a sympathy strike.

Meanwhile, the arrest of Anthony Capone had outraged Rochester’s Teamsters. (In addition to heading the Central Trades and Labor Council, Capone was business agent for Local 398.) The Teamsters Joint Council agreed to recommend a general strike at that night’s meeting of the Labor Council. Meanwhile 40,000 leaflets were readied announcing a mass protest meeting for 5 PM on May 23 at Washington Square Park.

On May 23 300 police arrested 150 pickets, the largest mass arrest in Rochester’s history. Again bail was paid by the CTLC. That afternoon 5,000 people attended a mass meeting at Washington Square Park and heard a series of labor leaders, clergy and other civic leaders denounce the City administration, protest the firing of the workers, and condemn the mass arrests.

By May 24, trash collection had come to a virtual standstill. That evening, at an open meeting of the Central Trades and Labor Council, the joint labor strategy committee was authorized to take whatever action it saw fit.

On Monday morning (May 27) Rochesterians found attached to their milk bottles pamphlets blasting the City administration: 50,000 householders were asked to sign and return to their milk drivers coupons demanding dismissal of the arrests, reinstatement of the fired workers and recognition of their union. Later in the morning Local 871 President Rossi delivered to the City Manager’s office the same demands on behalf of organized labor, accompanied by an ultimatum: “If the Republican City administration fails to accept these proposals they alone will be responsible for whatever action labor is forced to take to protect constitutional government and civil liberties.”

That evening the strategy committee chair and the Labor Council President presented labor’s side of the dispute on local radio. The 10 PM deadline passed without a response. On May 28 many factories did not open. The entire clothing industry was shut down by 13,500 striking members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Throughout the day pickets under the direction of AFL and CIO leaders were sent from a rallying point at Carpenters Hall to strategic points around the city. Taxi drivers refused to work. Movie houses closed when projectionists refused to cross picket lines. However, at the request of the joint strategy committee, union waitresses remained on the job as restaurants as well as hotels and food deliveries were exempted from the strike. Restaurants and department stores were thronged with idled workers.

Local estimates put the number of persons out of work that day at 30,000 but this did not include those unable to work simply because they could find no transportation. The strike compelled the City administration to deal with local labor. That evening state mediators, the Deputy State Industrial Commissioner and prominent Rochester religious leaders shuttled between the City Manager’s office and Carpenters Hall and, by 2 AM on May 29, a settlement was reached. All discharged workers were reinstated, charges against arrested pickets were dropped, and city workers’ right to organize a union and choose representatives to bargain with the city administration was recognized.

That night organized labor kicked off the Memorial Day holiday with the largest Central Trades and Labor Council meeting ever held. Though Local 871 had to fight to win its first contract, organized labor had won the battle for the right of public workers to organize in unions of their choice. Labor was able to hold its head up in Rochester. However, it had taken a general strike to achieve this victory.