O'Connor's Liquors and the Steel Workers Organizing Committee
Package Store, Restaurant. and New Deal Labor Landmark
O'Connor's, a package store and restaurant, has been located since the early 1920s in the heart of Greektown at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Oldham Street. In the 1940s, this unassuming, two-story, brick building played a significant role in the city labor movement of the New Deal era. Baltimore steel workers fought to unionize between 1940 and 1942 and turned O’Connor’s into the meeting spot where they could discuss the progress of organizing efforts. Similar meetings took place at the Finnish Hall in nearby Highlandtown at Ponca and Foster Streets. The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) moved their headquarters into the second floor of O’Connor’s and, in 1943, the committee became the United Steelworkers of America, a CIO union.
Ellen Pinter was part of the Finnish community of Highlandtown, and her father worked at the steel mill in Sparrow’s Point. She saw firsthand the effects of underemployment on the steelworkers and their families during the Great Depression. Some only received work for one to two days a week. Many families ran up debts at the grocery store or fell behind on rent. Some families took in boarders to try to make ends meet. Ellen took a job for $18 week working for the steel workers’ union SWOC around 1937 in the office on top of O’Connor’s.
In a 1980 interview with the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, Ellen recollected:
"The quarters were small but the activity was small. I can vividly remember when the miners came to Baltimore and started the big organization drive of the CIO. The men were pouring into that hall with their pockets just bulging with dollar bills as they were signing up men into the union. There was such a tremendous upsurge of interest in the union. Of course, the mills were full of foreign-born people who knew the value of unions because they had come from European countries where they had been a little more politically astute. And Finns were aware of unionization and more progressive thought… Oh I can remember the Italians, the Finns, the Czechs, the Americans, they were organizing left and right then, in Bethlehem Steel Company."
Pinter also notes African American participation in the organizing activity—Finnish activists welcomed African Americans at the Finnish Hall during the early days of organizing activity, even though Highlandtown remained a segregated white neighborhood. Racial antagonisms, however, were not absent in the social activities of the union. For instance, Pinter remembers being at a union picnic; a black man asked her to dance and she accepted, only to have a white man cut in and demand to know how she could dare dance with a black man. O’Connor’s still remains in operation today.