Providing incisive commentary on the historical and contemporary American working class experience, Banded Together: Economic Democratization in the Brass Valley documents a community's efforts to rebuild and revitalize itself in the aftermath of deindustrialization. Through powerful oral histories and other primary sources, Jeremy Brecher tells the story of a group of average Americans--factory workers, housewives, parishioners, and organizers--who tried to create a democratic alternative to the economic powerlessness caused by the closing of factories in the Connecticut Naugatuck Valley region during the 1970s and 1980s. This volume focuses on grassroots organization, democratically controlled enterprises, and supportive public policies, providing examples from the Naugatuck Valley Project community-alliance that remain relevant to the economic problems of today and tomorrow. Drawing on more than a hundred interviews with Project leaders, staff, and other knowledgeable members of the local community, Brecher illustrates how the Naugatuck Valley Project served as a vehicle for community members to establish greater control over their economic lives.
About the Author
Jeremy Brecher is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, historian, activist, and writer. His other books include Strike! and Globalization from Below: The Power of Solidarity. He lives in western Connecticut.
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Banded TogetherEconomic Democratization in the Brass Valley
By JEREMY BRECHER
University of Illinois PressCopyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
IntroductionThis book tells the story of a group of factory workers, housewives, parishioners, and organizers who tried to create an alternative to the economic powerlessness manifested in the closing of Seth Thomas and dozens of other factories in the Naugatuck Valley region. They sought ways to establish greater democratic control over the economic forces, institutions, and decisions that were devastating their communities, livelihoods, and ways of life. Starting in the early 1980s, they created a community alliance called the Naugatuck Valley Project to serve as a vehicle for their efforts; organized workers in dozens of companies to respond to the threat of plant closings; helped workers buy and run a failing brass mill; started an employee-owned home–health care company; organized tenants to create permanently affordable, democratically run cooperative housing; and addressed the education, transportation, health, and other crises that accompanied the devastation of the local economy. This book draws lessons from their efforts for those who experience the effects of economic powerlessness and want to band together to establish more democratic control over their economic lives.
Shortly before the demise of Seth Thomas, I was engaged in a community-based oral history project on the lives of working people of the Naugatuck Valley called the Brass Workers History Project. Old-timers had told me and my collaborators of their arduous, dangerous, insecure, and oppressive work, but also of their pride in their own labor and in the communities it sustained. They described how they and their parents had built dense community networks and institutions and had used them to gain a degree of power over their conditions of life through unions, community action, and the political process.
As we were recording the experiences of the Naugatuck Valley's workers, the industrial economy that had sustained their way of life was collapsing around us. The unions and community institutions through which they had exercised some degree of collective power were being decimated. It was the start of the era of "Reaganomics," and most government leaders, far from trying to remedy the collapse, argued that government should stand back and let private business and the market provide the answer.
When my collaborators and I looked for someone to provide a positive vision of the future for the tens of thousands who had toiled in the region's factories, we found little more than advice to accept the inevitable, embrace the deterioration of wages and conditions, and hope that cheap labor might lure some new businesses into the region's decaying plants. I felt in my heart that we were writing an epitaph for the traditions of community building, mutuality, and labor solidarity we had found in the valley and that those traditions would have no inheritors.
But something I was not expecting arose almost as if from the ashes of the clock cremated by the Seth Thomas workers. A number of churches, unions, and community organizations decided they had to find a more positive way to address the economic problems of their members in the Naugatuck Valley. With guidance from an experienced organizer, they set up the Naugatuck Valley Project with the stated goal of helping workers and communities gain more control over the economic decisions that were affecting them. Because it identified economic problems as problems of power and control, the NVP promoted local, democratic ownership through such vehicles as employee-owned companies, cooperative housing, and a community land trust. Its strategy was to take the techniques of community organizations and citizen action groups and project them into the economic sphere. According to organizer Ken Galdston, "The idea of the project is that if you bring together the diverse groups in the community that are hit by these decisions made far away, and if you teach them how to organize, how to focus on an issue, how to bring their full pressure to bear, you can get those other people to sit down with you and start making decisions that you want."
It made a difference. Less than a year after Seth Thomas closed, for instance, a local union leader at another Talley subsidiary attended an NVP briefing on the "early warning signs" of a plant closing. When he said those signs were already appearing in his shop, the NVP immediately pulled together a local coalition of union and church people. Confronted by a story in the newspaper and a call from a local minister, the president of the subsidiary agreed to meet with the NVP. Eventually, he agreed to an NVP proposal that Talley give preference in any sale to buyers who would keep the jobs in the area; some, though not all, of the purchasers did so.
Where workers and residents had previously stood by, helpless to affect the forces that were eliminating their jobs and devastating their communities, now they had become players. They made the heads of corporations sit down and bargain with them. They influenced corporate policy—no doubt in a limited way, but enough to mean that the story did not always have to end with a funeral.
The NVP's goal was not just to save one or another set of jobs, but rather to build an organization that could help valley communities enhance their economic conditions on a continuing basis. It set out, therefore, to train leaders rooted in the congregations, unions, and community organizations of the valley who could mobilize these institutions to jointly address problems in the face of which they separately were powerless. The NVP became a vital force in the Naugatuck Valley, with sixty-five member organizations, chapters in six towns, hundreds of active supporters, and meetings almost daily in one or another part of the valley.
As this book was being completed in 2009, the NVP was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. Its accomplishments over that quarter century have been substantial. It has trained hundreds of leaders and organized hundreds of campaigns around jobs, housing, health care, education, environment, industrial brownfield redevelopment, job training, neighborhood blight, community services, youth leadership training, and many other issues that affect the lives of ordinary people in the Naugatuck Valley. It has drawn participation from up and down the Naugatuck Valley; from the cities and the suburbs; from congregations, unions, small business organizations, and community groups; and from diverse ethnic, racial, and religious subcultures. It has been widely recognized as a national leader in efforts to train and empower community residents to address economic and social problems through their own action.
I was aware of the NVP from its inception, and as the self-appointed chronicler of Naugatuck Valley social movements, I began tracking and documenting its activities, attending meetings and conventions, and periodically interviewing staff and leaders. My relationship to the project was essentially that of a historian who could be drawn on for background about the valley and a sympathetic journalist reporting on some of its more noteworthy efforts.
As a historian, I found this an extraordinary opportunity to observe the emergence of a new kind of social enterprise—right in the middle of a social world I had spent the preceding years studying. It promised to illuminate the vexed historical problem of how new movements arise and their relation to what preceded them. It also whetted my growing interest in globalization, contemporary community-labor coalitions, and network-based forms of organization.
The NVP was not necessarily the kind of organization I would have envisioned as a solution to the problems of working people in the Naugatuck Valley. Nonetheless, I have utmost respect for what the NVP accomplished, and I believe its experience illuminates not just one policy or strategy but the entire problem of economic empowerment. I share the NVP's commitment to a more democratic way of organizing economic life, and I willingly appear as an advocate for the proposition that ordinary people need to organize themselves to challenge decisions that profoundly affect them but over which they have little power. I consider the NVP as a series of experiments in trying to do just that. Whether successful or unsuccessful, these experiments provide insight into the process of economic democratization.
NVP's Victories and Accomplishments, 1984–2009
General Time Controls (GTC)—organized employees and religious leaders to have one line of production sold to a local buyer when the Thomaston company was shut down
Uniroyal Rubber—organized congregations and employees of the Naugatuck company to protect retirement benefits, including health care and pension plans
Seymour Specialty Wire—organized an employee buyout to create the largest democratically owned industrial firm in the nation from 1984 to 1991
Reymond's Bakery—worked with the union to secure the "right of first refusal" for employees to purchase the bakery when it was sold, setting a national precedent
Bristol Babcock—the NVP's organizing campaign strengthened the union and prevented the workers from granting unwarranted concessions demanded by the company
Berkeley Heights Tenant Council—organized public housing residents to create a tenants' council and to secure complete renovations of the apartment buildings, eliminating common hallways so the housing was safer for all residents
Naugatuck Supermarket—organized congregations to secure a new supermarket to improve access to food for low-income residents in an area of town without a grocery store
Naugatuck Valley Housing Development Corporation—created a community land trust to pursue development of permanently affordable housing in the valley
Brookside Housing Cooperatives—organized to win the construction of 102 units of permanently affordable, cooperatively owned, democratically controlled, limited-equity cooperative housing in Waterbury
ValleyCare Cooperative—created an employee-owned home–health care company that provided high-quality, low-cost health care and employed more than eighty people
Waterbury Seniors/Grocery Committee—organized downtown residents to secure free van transportation to outlying grocery stores and later helped secure the new Shaw's Supermarket
Multi-Metals Training Center—worked with local manufacturers and Waterbury Adult Education to create a model job training program that has placed hundreds of workers in the eyelet and screw machine industries
Neighborhood Blight—through creative actions, including a "Badder Homes and Gardens Tour," secured a city blight officer and a new police precinct in Waterbury
UConn Torrington—organized to save this branch of the university from closure
Thomaston Area Youth Activities Council—organized to create a youth center with a variety of programs for area youth, spurring youth and parents into action
Naugatuck Valley Brownfields Pilot—led the effort to secure federal pilot status and funding for a regional effort to clean up and redevelop abandoned and polluted industrial sites, including the redevelopment of a brass factory in Thomaston, bringing brass production and jobs back to the community in 2000
Waterbury's Inner-City Neighborhoods—organized a network of religious, tenant, and neighborhood leaders in the inner-city neighborhoods of Waterbury concerned about critical community reinvestment issues such as abandoned housing, inadequate policies and services, and lack of recreational space
Waterbury Housing Coalition—the NVP partnered with Neighborhood Housing Services and Mutual Housing Association of South Central Connecticut to create the WHC to rehab 33 units of housing on Willow Street and Chestnut Avenue that is affordable, safe, and clean
Tax Relief for Low-Income Residents—provided the City of Waterbury with an Economic Impact Study prepared by Amadon and Associates, Professor John Clapp from the University of Connecticut, and Nicholas Carbone, retired president of the Connecticut Institute for Municipal Studies, to determine the impact of shifting the burden of taxes to residential property owners by examining residents' ability to pay the higher taxes by estimating the resulting increase in the number of delinquencies; the NVP empowered the City of Waterbury to create a $2.49 million tax circuit breaker, giving tax relief to lowincome families
Latino Caucus and Volunteer Translation Office—created the Latino/Hispanic Resource Center (LHRC) in Derby, which provides referral interpretation services on a volunteer basis to one thousand people per year and is an important link between newer immigrants and local social service agencies
NVP Youth Empowerment—along with St. John of the Cross Church, in Middlebury, conducted Youth Leadership Trainings for three summers at Westover School in Middlebury, bringing together more than one hundred youth from diverse backgrounds and ten different towns in the valley
Predatory Lending/Unfair Trade Practices—brought more than seventy-five cases to the Connecticut attorney general, who then brought a suit against four major Waterbury predatory lenders and realtors, which resulted in more than forty-five cases charging predatory lending and consumer fraud; the suit settled for $750,000
Environmental Remediation Technician Training Program—worked to get an agreement from two district Workforce Investment Boards to create an environmental remediation technician training program at Naugatuck Valley Community College, to train valley residents in its first year to clean up the valley's 189 brownfield sites
Public Act 07-185—in collaboration with a statewide coalition won the passage of a health care bill by the Connecticut legislature that included $4.7 million in Medicaid reimbursement for medical interpretation services, as well as empowering this group to form an official Medical Interpreting Association of Connecticut to set statewide standards, inaugurated in June 2007
Medical Interpretation Services—won Griffin Hospital's hiring of a Radiology Department staff member to serve the Polish community, complementing the part-time Spanish-language interpreters previously hired by Griffin and Charlotte-Hungerford hospitals; won agreement from three of four valley hospitals to install videoconferencing medical interpretation services to further improve interpretation service for Limited English Proficient patients; reached at least seventy-five hundred LEP residents, in person and through public access television, through Health Care Navigation Training, which uses community volunteers to teach LEP speakers how to navigate the health care system and about their right to medical interpretation
Excerpted from Banded Together by JEREMY BRECHER Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Roots of Powerlessness in the Brass Valley 1
2 Banding Together 21
3 Buyout 35
4 Organizing 49
5 Century Brass 67
6 The Life and Death of Seymour Specialty Wire 84
7 Founding ValleyCare Cooperative 111
8 Taking Care of Business 130
9 The Demise of ValleyCare 149
10 Brookside Housing Cooperative 164
11 Economic Democratization from Below 186
12 Afterstories 203
List of Interviews 241