Saturday, January 14, 2012

George R. Lunn and The Socialists of Schenectady


George R. Lunn

As part of the research for The Red Nurse, I visited Schenectady to learn more about George R. Lunn, the Socialist mayor who was such a strong supporter of the Little Falls textile workers. Shortly after the workers at the Gilbert and Phoenix mills walked out, Lunn came to Little Falls to speak on their behalf. The encounter  in the novel between Lunn and Little Falls Police Chief James “Dusty’ Long is based on contemporary newspaper accounts:

“This is my last warning,” said Long. “I don’t care if you’re the mayor of Schenectady. This ain’t Schenectady and you got no right to speak in this park without a permit. I am going to take you in if you don’t shut your yap and get back on that train.”
“Chief, I have to tell you that your municipal law would not stand up in any court in the land. It is clearly a violation of the First Amendment which states, and I quote: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
“I don’t know anything about that. I don’t make the laws. I just enforce them. And you and your friends are breaking the law.”
“Do you know,” the mayor replied very calmly, “what Abraham Lincoln said about tampering with the Constitution?”
“Put the cuffs on him, Allie,” said Long to one of his men.
“He said,” continued Lunn as Officer Baker twisted his arms behind him and clamped on the handcuffs, “and I quote: Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution. It is the only safeguard of our liberties.”
“Tom, grab that woman over there.” Long pointed at me but I ducked down and retreated behind some large men who had come from the hammer factory. “Get all those socialists!” Long was shouting but I couldn’t see him. “We’ll see how smart they are after they’ve cooled their heels in the lock-up.”
The crowd surged back and forth, making it very difficult for the cops to seize everyone Long was pointing out. But the men and women who came from Schenectady didn’t try to get away. They kept moving forward and I even heard one woman asking why she wasn’t being arrested.


The site of Clinton Park and the Phoenix Mill today

Lunn and his comrades repeatedly stood up to speak in Clinton Park and were repeatedly arrested, overwhelming the city and county’s capacity to jail them.  The Socialists employed a form of civil disobedience not so different from that of the Occupy movement, claiming their first amendment rights to assemble and speak in a public park. Invoking a plainly unconstitutional city ordinance banning any congregation of more than twenty people, Long and his men kept making arrests until the city officials finally had to concede defeat. 

This was the first contribution of the Schenectady Socialists to the embattled workers of Little Falls. The second was a successful humanitarian and publicity campaign, also described in The Red Nurse:

     I made another trip to Schenectady to get Lunn’s people moving and met with a large group of women who were ready to welcome children into their homes. Meanwhile, I had enlisted Susie Klimacek and her friends to persuade strikers’ families to let their children go to live in Schenectady or Albany for the worst of the winter months. I knew this was not going to be an easy task and I thought Susie would be better at it than I. Fred Moore was busy getting together the right paperwork to allow the children to leave their parents.
     On December 17 the first group of twenty children left Little Falls under the care of the Women Socialists of Schenectady.  The bosses and their thugs provided all the publicity we could have wanted by constantly harassing the women and children as they made their way to the depot. First they ordered them not to walk in the street. Then they ordered them not to walk on the sidewalk.   Supporters were accompanying the children with placards which the cops said were illegal.
     Truant officers showed up and demanded legal documentation that the parents had approved the exodus. Chief Long threatened to arrest the Schenectady women for kidnapping. But thanks to Moore, we had all the necessary legal papers and the authorities were made to look petty and stupid.
     The next day more children left and their photographs appeared in the Rochester and Utica papers. Sentimentalists of all stripes were touched by the sad picture of poor children being sent away from their families at Christmas. Sympathy was growing for the strikers and the A.F.L. sell-outs were increasingly ignored.  Mayor Lunn wrote that he had spoken with Governor Dix and was hopeful that the state would step in to mediate the strike.

Many of the attacks on the strikers and their supporters in the conservative press of 1912 echo the same themes that can be heard today, directed against union workers in Wisconsin or free speech protestors in Oakland and scores of other American cities. And when the Republicans want to use the worst possible word for President Obama, they call him “a socialist.”

Eugene V. Debs, campaigning in 1912

A hundred years ago Democrats and Republicans were as united in their hatred for socialism as they are today. Unlike today, however, socialism was not simply a mythical bogeyman in 1912. There was a real Socialist Party led by politicians every bit as American as George Lunn. In the same year as the great strike, the party was growing and it was a threat to the two major parties. This was true on a national level where Eugene V. Debs was barnstorming  the country in his own “Red Special” train and it was true on a local level where Socialists came to power not only in Schenectady but in Milwaukee and other cities.

The Socialist Party’s 1912 platform called for the collective ownership of all large scale industries, public employment for the unemployed, shortening the work day, and safety inspection of all workplaces. Politically, the party called for, among other things,  absolute freedom of speech and assembly, graduated income and inheritance taxes, women suffrage, direct election of the President, abolition of the Senate, and abolition of the Supreme Court’s power to overrule Congress. In an echo of the current “We are the 99%” slogan, the platform proclaimed: “The boasted prosperity of this nation is for the owning class alone. To the rest it means only greater hardship and misery.”   Radical, yes, but all quite democratic and non-violent.

Within five years, the party had been destroyed, its leaders jailed or exiled, and the United States had embarked on those foreign wars and entanglements that Washington so strongly warned against. And although the destruction of the Socialist Party was clearly a bipartisan mission, it was the Democratic Wilson administration which used the Espionage Act of 1917 and the 1919 Palmer Raids to suppress every kind of radical dissenter.

It was with all this history I mind that I visited Schenectady where George Lunn dominated city politics for a decade before eventually cutting his losses and becoming a Democrat. Few in the city know anything about Lunn and he has been largely forgotten except among those who value local history. He has no noticeable internet presence and the one book on his life (George R. Lunn and the Socialist Era in Schenectady, 1909-1916 by Kenneth Hendrickson) is long out of print.

However, the Schenectady Historical Society does preserve his memory along with quite a trove of materials, including clipping files, audio and video tapes of talks on Lunn, and files on the city’s political history.  The Efner History Center and Archives on the top floor of the city hall contains two large scrapbooks composed by one of Lunn’s fellow Socialists, the City Cleark Hawley Van Vechten. The scrapbooks contain a chronological series of newspaper articles covering the whole Lunn era and provided much of the information on this page. The books are fragile but can be made available to researchers to use on site.

Schenectady Socialist women welcoming the children of Little Falls,
from the Van Vechten scrapbook collection


The Van Vechten books provide a glimpse into a much livelier era in the small city’s history. In 1910 24,000 people worked for GE or the American Locomotive Company, and 55% of the city’s 73,000 residents were foreign-born. Rapid growth had led to housing shortages, poor and overcrowded schools, a faltering sewer system, bad roadways – all aggravated by graft and no-bid contracts presided over by a bipartisan series of crooked city officials.

Lunn had arrived in 1904 as minister of the Dutch Reformed Church and was soon hammering away from the pulpit at corrupt politicians and he did not hesitate to name names. Soon enough, his congregation asked him to move on. He responded by founding his own Peoples Church and carrying on the fight. In 1910 he founded a weekly paper, The Citizen, and joined the local Socialist Party.

Steinmetz and Einstein

The Schenectady Socialists had been led by Charles Proteus Steinmetz, a German-born engineer for GE whose genius at developing new patents for the company earned him the right to indulge in radical politics.  Steinmetz developed key theories for the improvement of electrical motors and attracted great attention by his experiments in the production of man-made lightning.  A hunchback and dwarf, he had adopted the middle name Proteus after a dwarf in the Odyssey.

A socialist from his youth who had fled Germany because of his politics, Steinmetz was a brilliant individual but not the kind to make a good candidate for mayor. Lunn, however, was slender and handsome, an eloquent speaker and a veteran of the Spanish-American War. The engineer was overjoyed to have the 38 year old minister carry the party’s standard in the 1911 municipal elections.

Lunn’s oratory was said to be remarkable and he swept into office with a full slate of aldermen. He moved quickly to reform the city, raising the pay for municipal workers, appointing Steinmtez to head the School Board and introducing the novelty of accepting bids for city contracts. He reassessed property, raising the business district’s taxes by $2 million and cutting taxes on workers homes by $300,000. He started free trash collection, free dental care and bought tracts of lands to create the city’s still-existing parks.  For his part, Steinmetz built new schools, hired school doctors and nurses and launched programs for deaf, developmentally delayed and tubercular children.

Walter Lippman was one of the first
 Socialists to break with Lunn

Lunn and his comrades did spread themselves a little thin, it appears. The party was involved for much of October, 1912 in the Little Falls battle and much of November and December was consumed by the project of providing a temporary home for the strikers' children. Some projects faltered, such as plans to sell coal and ice at cost to city residents and to run a municipal grocery store. His secretary Walter Lippmann quit, claiming Lunn was not radical enough to be a real socialist, foreshadowing th ideological split that would soon doom the party locally. At this point Lippmann was just 22, a youthful idealist just out of Harvard, and not yet the world famous journalist and critic of every administration from Wilson to Johnson.

In 1913 the Republicans and Democrats joined with the Progressives to form a Fusion ticket hat defeated Lunn, but in 1915 he was re-elected against all three establishment parties.

A study of Schenectady newspapers from that era reveals the usual shortcoming of Leftist parties: internal doctrinal wrangling turned personal and purists began to attack the pragmatists, and vice-versa. The party's own The Citizen, available on microfilm at the State Library, is the best guide to this process of political dissolution. The end result is that Lunn was ousted from his own party in 1916, though he remained on as mayor.

Fed up, Lunn became a Democrat and was elected to Congress just in time to become an ardent supporter of Mr. Wilson’s war. While Eugene Debs and other national party leaders went to jail for speaking against the war, Lunn grew close to the more liberal  wing of New York’s Democratic party. Defeated for Congress in 1918, he was elected as a Democrat to two more terms as Schenectady’s mayor in 1919 and 1921.  In 1922 was elected Lieutenant Governor. In 1925 Governor Al Smith appointed him to the state’s Public Service Commission where he served until poor health forced him to retire in 1942.

Walter Rauschenbusch was an inspiration to Lunn

Lunn’s is a fascinating American story, echoing themes that are still very contemporary.  He was a Christian minister obsessed with politics, but unlike many preachers then and now who serve as shills for the rich, he was influenced by the Social Gospel promoted by Walter Rauschenbusch, a best-selling religious writer of  those years. 

His pragmatism is also very much in the American tradition and it was not surprising that his more doctrinaire followers broke with Lunn. He preferred to quote Lincoln and the Constitution rather than Marx and he shifted from Republican to Socialist to Democrat over the years. He was always a  patriot, fought against Spain in 1898, and said in Congress that U.S. national honor required entry into World War I.  His long commitment to the state’s Public Service Commission was useful but distinctly unglamorous work.

 Given this record it is no surprise that George Lunn never became the figure of either legend or infamy that was the fate of so many radicals of his generation: Emma Goldman, Big Bill Haywood, Joe Hill, Eugene V. Debs.   But fame was never on Lunn's agenda, despite his considerable personal magnetism. He believed in government and wanted to make it work for the public good and my own view is that he did more to improve the lives of working people than those who never made the compromises necessary to attain political power.

Schenectady's beautiful Central Park 
is one of Lunn's lasting achievements






The Red Nurse is available in print for $9.95 and on Kindle at $2.99.

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