Labor Day, a holiday now synonymous with barbecues and relaxation, has a rich history that dates back to the late 19th century. Its origins trace back to the labor movement's fight for fair working conditions, hours, and wages. The Barnes Museum takes you on a journey to the early days of Labor Day, providing a glimpse into the struggles and triumphs that paved the way for the holiday we celebrate today. Thanks to the Central Labor Union's visionary plans, the inaugural Labor Day holiday occurred on September 5, 1882, in New York City. A mere year later, on September 5, 1883, the Central Labor Union once again brought the nation together to celebrate the principles of labor rights and workers' dignity.
During these times, the Southington Cutlery Company became a focal point of labor tensions in this area. In July 1880, the company employees initiated a strike due to a decision by the directors to deduct 10% from their pay. This was a clear demonstration of workers' collective determination to protect their rights.
By 1882, the Southington Cutlery Company transitioned into making razors, experiencing a surge in production and busier times than ever. The company's dedication to evolving its products mirrored the evolving spirit of the labor movement.
The year 1886 marked both expansion and strife for the company. The company represented the epitome of labor's vitality, with over a hundred men employed in their knife department, including grinders and finishers. However, in November of that year, a hundred men from the knife department went on strike in response to another 10% wage reduction. This significant strike, organized by the Knights of Labor, showcased the unity and determination of the workers. The Knights of Labor was a prominent labor organization in the 1870s. By July 1886, Connecticut boasted nearly 12,000 Knights of Labor members spread across 118 local assemblies. Among them were women textile workers in the eastern Connecticut mills, adding a dimension of gender equality to the labor movement. The influence of the Knights even extended to the state's legislative arena, with 37 Knights of Labor members in the 1885-86 legislative session.
However, 1886 would be a turning point for the Knights of Labor in Connecticut. The Knights of Labor's national reputation took a hit when they were accused of being linked to the Haymarket Riot on May 4 in Chicago—an event marked by labor-related protests that turned violent, casting a shadow over the organization's standing. In Connecticut, the local assemblies encountered challenges in rallying support for members' strikes, such as those at the Derby Silver Co., the Southington Cutlery Co., and the P. & F. Corbin Co. in New Britain. Despite their efforts, these local assemblies leaned towards negotiation over confrontation with anti-union owners. This stance led to a decline in the Knights' membership in Connecticut from 12,000 to 5,622.
On November 23, 1886, some striking employees of the wood screw shop at the Southington Cutlery Company began to return to work, indicating a turning point in the labor conflict. The beginning of 1887 saw further tensions as the company considered repurposing the knife shop and paused knife production until wage disputes were settled.
On January 22, 1887, the strikers, led by the Knights of Labor, marched to the Southington cutlery knife shop and collected their tools, a symbolic gesture of their unity and resolve.
The strike continued for twelve weeks, eventually concluding in February 1887. While some strikers grew disheartened about achieving the desired pay increase, several men agreed to return to work as a collective entity, demonstrating the strength of solidarity. The company's declaration that certain leaders would not be able to return to work there underscored the lasting impact of this labor movement.
As we bask in the joy of Labor Day, let's not forget the resilience of those who came before us, the champions of workers' rights who navigated through challenging times to lay the foundation for the dignified workplace we enjoy today. The Southington Cutlery Company's labor struggles are a testament to the enduring spirit of unity we commemorate on this special day.
Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 1pm - 5pm
Or by Appointment.
Last tour begins one hour prior to close.
General Admission - $10
Seniors - $8
Students - $5
Members & Children under 5 - FREE