In 1933, a poor Italian-American girl led a dramatic strike that lifted thousands of New Haven garment workers out of poverty.
Jennie Aiello wasn’t the only leader of the New Haven garment workers’ strike of 1933. Still only in her teens, she was certainly a key to its success.
On a cold day in April, Jennie slid down the clothing chute from the second-floor cutting room of the huge Lesnow Brothers shirt factory to rally the stitchers on the first floor to strike.
The month-long Lesnow Brothers strike that followed was the climactic episode in a series of successful job actions during 1933. The workers’ revolt against poverty and miserable working conditions brought union contracts and a higher standard of living to most of New Haven’s garment workers. The wave of strikes resulted from cooperation between two labor unions, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. From 1933 on, the unions’ two New Haven locals were central to their members’ political and social lives until the garment industry’s demise in the early 1990s.
New Haven in 1933 had a long and storied labor history. In 1884, women shoemakers struck the L. Candee Rubber Boot Company, according to Anthony Riccio’s “The Italian American Experience in New Haven.” In 1886, strikes engulfed the city at 29 businesses, including construction, iron and wire producers and companies making carriages, hardware, rubber and corsets. That year, The New York Times reported, “This town has picked up the reputation lately of having more strikes than an (sic) other city of its size in the country.”
New York City was the center of the garment industry, but in the 1920s so-called “runaways” moved to Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to avoid paying union wages. Clothing manufacturers were attracted to New Haven because of its cheap factory space and large pool of poor African-Americans and immigrants – mostly Polish and Italian. Wages were low in the city because hardware and weapons makers had floundered after World War I ended
By 1933, workers were growing increasingly desperate as the Depression sent mainstay employers reeling: Sargent Brothers Manufacturing laid off workers and L. Candee Rubber Co. went under. In 1931, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company went into receivership.
Jennie Aiello’s family suffered through the hard times. Her parents had emigrated from Italy and periodically relied on relief to support their seven sons and seven daughters. Jennie’s older brothers got work through the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the garment factories. Jennie and her six sisters quit school at 13 or 14 to work in the Wooster Square shirt shops. Only the youngest sibling, Nick, would graduate from high school. Though the children worked, they still had to help out at home, according to “Learning To Forget Schooling and Life in New Haven’s Working Class,” by Stephen Lassonde.
Thousands of men and women were then working in New Haven’s needle trades centered on Wooster Square. During the early years of the Depression, New Haven led the state in the number of work certificates issued to young women, 20 percent of whom were under the age of 16.
Wages were low and hours were long. Spreaders in the cutting rooms, where Jennie worked, were paid $4.50 for a 54-hour week ($80.63 in today’s equivalent) and cuff turners earned $4 for a 60-hour week (today’s equivalent of $71.68). The work was seasonal and employees were laid off for long periods.
Working conditions in these sweat shops were abysmal: dangerous, unsanitary, unventilated and unheated. Plant managers often sexually abused the female workers, some in their early teens.
Jennie Aiello and her sister Lucy went to work for Lesnow Brothers, the largest garment employer in Connecticut. The company employed 550 people, mostly very young women, in the heart of New Haven’s garment district.
The workers were afraid to speak to Ed and Harry Lesnow. One worker remembered Harry as “cruel, very ugly.” He’d come around the shop floor and yell “Get the hell!” if a worker went to get a drink of water.
One worker wasn’t afraid to talk to the boss: Jennifer Aiello. “In those days it was considered disrespectful to talk to your boss,” said Salvatore “Gary” Garibaldi, a co-worker. “You got fired on the spot.” But he said Jennie would respectfully speak to him.
Jennie was one of the eight or 10 girls at Lesnow Brothers who became leaders in the drive to form a union. They would quietly ask workers to join them outside the building to talk. They met secretly in Waterside Park on Saturdays.
A great deal of preparation preceded them.
Sidney Hillman, president of the ACWA, had begun a campaign in 1932 to organize the runaway clothing manufacturers in neighboring states. He sent his wife Bessie to help organize New Haven, where she had family ties, according to Karen Pastorello in “The Power Among Them.” Aldo Cursi from the ACWA went, too. The ILGWU sent Bernard Schub. Young Italian women from nearby cities were brought in to help organize.
By 1933, the ACWA and the ILGWU had already organized four small contract shirtmakers: Par-Ex, the Ideal Shirt Company, D & I Shirt Company and the Creighton Shirt Company.
But the Lesnow workers faced daunting obstacles in their union drive. Ed Lesnow would tell them they’d lose their jobs if they joined a union. Workers who were discovered talking about a union were fired.
Parents were afraid to let their daughters strike because they so desperately needed their meager income. Two Italian-speaking union officials, Cursi and John Lauria, went to the parents’ homes to persuade them to support the action.
“We were afraid,” she said. “You didn’t know who to listen to.” The male organizers’ high pressure tactics frightened her, while the boss threatened to fire them. Some of the girls would pretend to go to meetings to talk about the union but instead would hide out in a candy store, she said. One organizer, Jennie Formichelli from Bridgeport, talked nicely to the girls. After weeks of indecision, finally she decided to join the union effort.
It was the Lesnow Brothers who provoked the strike at the beginning of April. The company demanded additional piecework from the workers without paying them more. Jennie Aiello was working on the second floor as a cutter when she decided to walk off the job. Workers who sided with the company tried to block her. She dodged them, sliding down the chute with bales of unfinished shirts, and rallied her friends on the first-floor stitchery to join her.
That began a month of intimidation, police brutality and many hours of picketing in the freezing weather with signs that said “We Are Fighting for a Living Wage.” The anti-union New Haven Register barely covered the strike. The school district wouldn’t allow them to meet in the school auditoriums. The park district wouldn’t give them permits to assemble for a rally. Male workers and some of the women stayed on the job at Lesnow Brothers.
Jennie Aiello walked the line along with the union organizers and other workers during that cold spring. Nearby social clubs -- Saint Trofemina and Saint Andrew – would let them come in and get warm, drink coffee and eat a sandwich before going back out on the line.
There they faced tense confrontations with police. If any of them marched out of the line or said something, the police would hit them with billy clubs. They targeted the male leaders, but didn’t spare the women. The police tore off Jennie’s coat and clubbed her. But like the rest of the strikers who fell, hurt and bleeding, she got up again.
The strikers stood strong, and momentum began to turn in their favor. On April 18, the ACWA called for a nationwide strike of unorganized shirtmakers. By Monday, April 24, striking workers closed nearly all of the New Haven shirt companies.
The Connecticut State Board of Education sided with the strikers, notifying the labor commissioner that school age children were working in factories. A letter from the board described a “little girl” working for the LeRoy Shirt Company who earned 37 cents for working 24 hours.
The most dramatic confrontation of the strike probably happened on May 1, when Yale Divinity students joined the striking Lesnow workers on a picket line outside the shirt factory. Their ranks were swelled by strikers from other shirt companies. Thugs, hired by Lesnow Brothers, reinforced the police presence.
That day, the height of the strike, Lesnow’s male employees decided to join the revolt and walked off the floor. Lesnow Brothers shut its doors.
By May 3, Lesnow’s signed a contract with Sidney Hillman and Jacob Potofsky, another ACWA official. The workers got a 10 percent wage, health insurance and a pension. A year later, a new garment industry code shortened their days to 35 hours a week in the dress industry and 40 hours in the shirtmaking business.
Within six weeks of the Lesnow strike, virtually all of New Haven’s shirt companies were union.
In August, the ILGWU called for a general strike. According to the Greater New Haven Labor History Archives, there were strikes in all of the city’s dress shops. After two weeks of rallies, pickets and a shut down of the industry in New Haven, the ILGWU represented all the dressmaking workers in the city.
What happened next:
Jennie Aiello got married. Her younger brother Nick became the business agent for ACWA Local 151, a pillar of the Connecticut labor movement who spearheaded the Greater New Haven Labor History Project.
In 1939, Lesnow’s moved to Easthampton, Mass.
The unions became two of the largest in Connecticut. For many years, they were the center of the workers’ social lives and improved their standard of living. The unions, Local 125 of the ACWA and Local 151 of the ILGWU established singing and theater groups, classes, child care centers and later health care.
During the 1970s and 80s, garment makers ran away to the South. Later, they moved to the Pacific Rim and South Asia for extremely low wages and dangerous working conditions. In April, more than 1,000 factory workers were killed in Bangladesh when their building collapsed.
The ILGWU and ACWA merged to form UNITE, which since merged with the hotel workers’ union to become UNITE HERE.