In 1976, a labor organizer named Nicholas Aiello accosted Martin Looney, then a young aide to Mayor Frank Logue, at City Hall.
Aiello, gesticulating wildly as he spoke, said he needed Looney to inform the top brass at Macy’s that the mayor stood behind the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union in its boycott campaign against the textile company J.P. Stevens. Looney — both frightened and captivated by the enthusiasm radiating from his insistent interlocutor — reluctantly obliged.
“It wasn’t what Mayor Logue was telling me to say,” said Looney, now the president of Connecticut’s State Senate. “It was what Nick Aiello was telling me to say.”
Looney, whose first encounter with Aiello soon blossomed into a sustained friendship, recounted the story to an enthusiastic crowd gathered at the headquarters of the Greater New Haven Labor History Association on Sunday for the organization’s annual conference.
Aiello, who died last November at age 90, cofounded the GNHLHA in 1988 to preserve New Haven’s labor history after a long and influential career as a union leader in the city. On Sunday, he was honored posthumously with a three-hour retrospective devoted to his legacy.
Aiello grew up in New Haven during the Great Depression, surrounded by older sisters whose stories of brutal working conditions helped inspire his career as a labor advocate. After a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Aiello returned to the Elm City, where he became an organizer and business agent for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. He also served on the Board of Aldermen (as it was then known) and worked as a commissioner for the New Haven Housing Authority.
“It’s the families like the Aiellos that made this country,” said Anthony Riccio, a GNHLHA member who spoke at the meeting. “It’s all the work they did every day that made this country so great.”
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who also spoke, called Aiello “a force of nature” and the primary architect of New Haven’s labor movement.
DeLauro told the Independent that she got to know Aiello on the campaign trail in 1975, when he led Logue on a tour of a local garment shop.
“I watched his care and concern for these women, with their backs bent over these sewing machines, working as hard as they could because they were trying to take care of their families,” DeLauro said. “He was their champion, he was their caretaker, he was their family.”
Tough Times Ahead
Sunday’s GNHLHA conference, titled “Looking Back, Moving Forward,” not only was a moving tribute to the group’s co-founder. It also was infused with the energy and anxiety of the current political moment.
Frank Panzarella, the unofficial troubadour of the GNHLHA, set the tone with a defiant tribute to socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. He was greeted with rousing applause from members, some of whom sported badges in support of the candidate. In a speech, GNHLHA Vice- President Steve Kass praised Sanders for creating intense excitement among young people across the country.
But those enthusiastic odes to the Sanders campaign stood out against the grimmer reality facing the GNHLHA. The organization will not have any paid positions next year, as a result of funding cuts.
“We’re facing a situation now that’s very, very difficult,” Kass said. “It’s critical,”
He urged members to donate money to help “bring this dream forward.”
“And honor Nick,” he added. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Click on or download the above sound file to listen to an episode of “Dateline New Haven” on which GNHLHA co-founder Frank Annunziato and archivist Joan Cavanagh discussed the history and current activities of the group, which are also touched on in this recent article.