Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement.
By Jason Sibert
Like urban America in general, Schenectady, a mini-metro area located in upstate New York, possesses a fascinating history. Located just 15 miles southeast of the state capital of Albany, it once attracted immigrants from eastern and southern Europe in the early part of the 20th century. Many came to fill industrial jobs in the booming factory economy. It also attracted African Americans in the Great Migration from the rural south to the industrial urban north. General Electric and American Locomotive Company played a big role in the industrial economy of the day.
The city suffered through the Great Depression when it lost jobs, like the country in general. Late in the 20th century, the city – like many cities in New York – lost industrial jobs. Schenectady experienced a revitalization in the 21st century, as it became a renewable energy hub with GE establishing a renewable energy center. The population rebounded from 2000 to 2010. Numerous small businesses, retail stores and restaurants have developed on State Street downtown.
In the early 20th century, the city played a role in the movement sometimes called “sewer socialism, “a term that meant an efficient delivery of public services and support for unions on a municipal level. There was also support for social insurance on the state level in the case of workmen’s compensation and on the national level. In addition, sewer socialists fought for the municipalization of functions such as trash collection, sewers, and electrical grids. Schenectady had a socialist mayor, George Lunn, who served in the office twice from 1912 to 1913 and again from 1916 to 1917. Lunn was originally a man of the cloth, graduating from Union Theological Seminary and then pursuing a career in the ministry. Lunn served as a Presbyterian minister in New York City and as a Dutch Reformed minister in Schenectady. He considered himself a Christian Socialist.
As mayor of Schenectady, Lunn was invited to speak in favor of the 1912 Little Falls Textile Strike in a public park but was denied that right by city officials. Refusing to be silenced, Lunn read from the Gettysburg address and was one of four people arrested for “inciting to riot.” In terms of legislative accomplishments, he moved quickly to reform the city, raising the pay for municipal workers 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. Lunn also started free trash collection, free dental care and bought tracts of lands to create the city’s still-existing parks
One interesting historical note: famed journalist Walter Lippman worked for Lunn as his secretary. This chapter of Lippman’s life is covered in Ronald Steel’s biography “Walter Lippman and the American Century.” Lippman started his political life as a Socialist Party member but broke with it due to differences over World War I and his belief that the Lunn administration didn’t go far enough; a curious fact because Lippman was very much a part of the reformist wing of the SP.
Lunn later became a Democrat, attending the Democratic National Conventions in 1920, 1924, 1928, 1932, and 1936. Lunn became the Democratic Lt. Governor of New York from 1923 to 1924. In 1925, he was appointed to the New York Public Service Commission where he served until 1942. Lunn passed away in 1948. Bill Buell’s book “George Lunn: the 1912 Socialist Victory in Schenectady” provides a good overview of the socialist mayor’s career. To all interested public servants, Lunn’s mayoral career provides a good template for a modern version of sewer socialism!
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.
I’m grateful to Jason for persistently dredging up this glorious (often hidden) facet of American history and American identity — a stark contrast to the neglect-incurred suffering in Flint, Michigan. A previous blog commenter had urged for a new term to replace “sewer socialism” — but to me, the term emphasizes the crucial SERVANT aspect of public service. We MUST elect leaders willing to incline their ear to, and take into their heart, our most primal human needs and ailments!