November 6, 2013
Long serving delegate and Vice President, Greater Hartford Central Labor Council
Fearless Fighter for Worker Justice
Emerging Labor Leader Josh Blanchfield paid tribute to Steve Thornton
Steve cut his teeth as a student activist at Windsor High and then UCONN Hartford in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. At this time he organized students against the Viet Nam War and published in the underground press. It may seem surprising now, but he had no real knowledge of what unions were at this time. Among his comrades, he was mentored by many young radical law students at UCONN. One day he decided to ask, “Are unions good?” They responded: “Yes.” Nearly 40 years later, we are here to recognize Steve Thornton at the Great Hartford Central Labor Council’s Labor Honor Roll!
Steve Thorton’s labor legacy is a testament to his nearly four-decades long commitment to the workers of Connecticut and beyond. Steve just retired this past year from 1199/SEIU and our own Greater Hartford Labor Council. He is also on the national steering committee of US Labor Against the War (USLAW).
His union work began as an elected steward while employed as a day care teacher, where he ran for and won the position of Executive Vice President of AFSCME Local 1716. He was later hired as an organizer for the union of community college faculty and professionals, where he built a statewide lobbying effort that increased funding for working people, and where he organized mass student rallies.
Steve then worked with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (now UNITE HERE), organizing and leading strikes primarily with people of color in small manufacturing and the textile industry.
Hartford has always been key to Steve’s labor and activist work. While finishing at UCONN Storrs, he always knew that the real work was back in the city. Steve has been at the fore of innumerable battles here in town from housing rights, to homeless rights, to environmental justice. He has trained hundreds of activists, including myself, in everything from non-violent direction action to the consensus.
Throughout all of this activist work, Steve has devoted what little free time he has to telling the stories of those brave sisters and brothers who came before us. It is his attempt to honor the work they did by telling their stories. In Steve’s words, “we are part of the continuum of struggle by people just like ourselves. Ordinary folk who are capable of extraordinary things.”
His Shoeleather History Project is a treasure trove of radical history from Hartford and Connecticut. Steve has become our own workers’ historian and we are lucky for it. On his website, Steve quotes the great Si Kahn:
The more I study history, the more I seem to find, That in every generation, there are times just like that time, When folks like you and me who thought that we were alone, Within this honored movement found a home.
Steve has just published his first book- a history of the Wobblies in Connecticut. And he is already at work on his second. He clearly has no intention of slowing down and in fact is constantly saying no to work opportunities. Steve can’t do anything half-assed. In his final campaign with 1199, he led a righteous fight in Waterbury and won. This was not the end of Steve’s work, just the closing of a single chapter.
Oh and take a guess how many staffers it took to replace him on that Waterbury campaign: 5
Thank you, Steve and in the words of one of your favorites, Marge Piercy: Never doubt that you can change history. You already have.
MORE ABOUT STEVE....
Steve is a retired organizer with the largest healthcare workers union in Connecticut, District 1199/SEIU, as well as with the Greater Hartford Labor Council. He is also on the national steering committee of US Labor Against the War (USLAW), of which District 1199 was a founding member in 2003.
Steve has spent his adult life as an activist and organizer. In high school and college he organized against racism and the Vietnam War and published in the underground press.
In Hartford, Connecticut, where he has lived since 1973, Steve began as a housing rights activist, organizing tenants being displaced by corporate redevelopment, and homeless men into a direct action group. From 1987 to 1993 he helped create and played a key role in People For Change, a third party that successfully elected City Council members around a pro-union, LGBT-friendly, populist platform.
Steve previously worked with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (now UNITE HERE), organizing and leading strikes primarily with people of color in small manufacturing and the textile industry. His union work began as an elected steward while employed as a day care teacher, where he ran for and won the position of Executive Vice President of AFSCME Local 1716. He was later hired as an organizer for the union of community college faculty and professionals, where he built a statewide lobbying effort that increased funding for working people, and where he organized mass student rallies.
Steve has continued to work with various groups for social, economic, and environmental justice, including the Clamshell Alliance, Anti-Racism Coalition of Connecticut, Irish Northern Aid and the War Resisters League.
Over the past thirty-five years he has trained hundreds of activists in nonviolent direct action in New England, Washington D.C. and Georgia, and more than 2,000 healthcare workers as rank and file leaders. He has helped build solidarity connections with working peoples’ struggles in Havana, Belfast, Managua, Vicenza, and Oslo.
He has researched and written extensively on current political issues and local peoples’ history, particularly the forgotten stories of workers, for a variety of publications, including the Hartford Courant, the Industrial Worker, Labor Notes, Justice, Hartford Business Journal, Hartford News, The Guardian (U.S.), Z Magazine, and other publications.
Steve’s work as a local activist is featured in the new book Social Movements and Activists in the USA by Stephen Valocchi. He maintains the website The Shoeleather History Project (www.shoeleatherhistoryproject.com) which documents and explores progressive organizing from Hartford’s grassroots. He appears in three documentary films: America: From Hitler to MX (1983) about the intersection of nuclear weapons and U.S. foreign and domestic policy, Crossing the American Crises (2011) exploring the 2008 economic collapse and workers’ response, and Bloodletting (2004), about the disparities between the U.S. and Cuban healthcare systems, and in a loud cameo in the feature film The Conventioneers (2005). Steve is a proud father, grandfather and husband.
President, Greater Hartford Central Labor Council
President, Hartford Federation of Teachers
Longtime friend Nancy Swanson delivered remarks paying tribute to Edwin Vargas
I’ve worked with Edwin for the better part of 30 years and there are just too many stories to tell but one of the most memorable one was when his children were in school at Parkville Elementary in Hartford. They were about 7 and 8 years old at the time. Edwin, being a union leader, knew all the teachers there so was used to receiving calls from teachers seeking help or advice. One day, however, he was a little taken back when one of the teachers called him at the HFT office.
Back then we all shared offices, there was no such thing as cell phones, so everyone could hear everyone’s conversations. Edwin’s part of the conversation was “I see….oh dear….we’ll address that…and thank you for calling”.
When the conversation ended, he turned to us and calmly stated:
“You know, I just don’t understand why my boys have this need to defy authority all the time”…..
Needless to say laughter erupted as Edwin and his sons had just been picketing with the Patco strikers which led to a temporary shutdown of the airport about a week earlier.
And ironically both of Sylvia and Edwin’s sons are in law enforcement now.
Seriously, working with someone for so many years you really get to know them. I have seen him answer the door at work, only to find someone he has never met before, asking him for help. The person had “heard of him” through the community. Off he went to help the person, this was routine for him.
Edwin’s passion has always been to do what is right for the worker and has worked tirelessly to achieve this. The honor he is receiving is well deserved.
MORE ABOUT EDWIN...
Edwin “Ed” Vargas, Jr. is a lifelong educator and a leader in political, civic, labor, civil rights, and public policy circles. He was born in Brooklyn, New York of Puerto Rican parentage. He has been a resident of Hartford, Connecticut since 1972 when he was recruited to serve as an educator in the Hartford Public Schools by the legendary community leader Maria Sanchez. He was a Hartford Public School teacher for 35 years (1972-2007). During most of his career he taught secondary math and social sciences at different schools including Bulkeley High School, West Middle School, Quirk Middle School and Hartford Public High School. During his last 5 years he was the Lead Teacher at the Hartford Adult School where he taught English (ESL) to adult immigrants from around the world. After a 35 year teaching career Ed retired in 2007. Beyond his career as an educator, Ed has also been involved in a wide spectrum of civic affairs. Whether serving as a leader, an advisor, a mentor, a consultant or an activist, Ed has always been an active participant at every level of our community life. He was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly in 2012 serving in the 6th Assembly District, located in the south end of Hartford.
Vargas completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Education and a Masters degree in Public Administration at the University of Hartford. He is married to fellow educator Sylvia (Carrasquillo) Vargas who has served on the Franklin Trust Federal Credit Union board. They have two adult sons and four grandchildren.
Founder and National Board member of LCLAA
President, Hartford Federation of Teachers, AFT 1018
Executive VP of AFT CT under President George Springer
VP of CT AFL-CIO during John Driscoll’s presidency
President, Greater Hartford Labor Council, AFL-CIO
Boycott Coordinator UFW, appointed by Cesar Chavez
Labor Advisor to Hartford Mayor, Hon. Eddie Perez
Volunteer Organizer, ILGWU with Danny Perez
AFT Negotiations Trainer and Organizer
AFT National Human and Civil Rights Committee
AFT CT Executive Council
HFT’s Retirees Chapter
Delegate to Greater Hartford Labor Council, AFL-CIO
Delegate to CT AFL-CIO