By Andy Battle
“City of Workers, City of Struggle.” Since its founding, New York has been emphatically both. A new exhibit with this name, up at the Museum of the City of New York until January, communicates the ways in which the shape of the present city — physical, economic, social, and cultural — has been given to us by the cumulative struggles of its workers for material well-being, autonomy, and a dignified life. The main goal, according to lead curator Steven H. Jaffe, is to communicate “just how intertwined the rise of modern New York City is with working people and their movements.”
The show fulfills this commitment. Housed in a second-floor gallery, the exhibition marshals text, artifacts, images, sound, video, and interactive games to survey the history of work and workers’ struggles in New York from the industrial revolution through the present day. Four main sections -- “In Union There Is Strength” (1830–1900), “Labor Will Rule” (1900–1965) “Sea Change” (1965–2001), and “New Challenges” — chart the ways in which workers both inside and outside the formal labor movement have sought to wrestle the terms of their relationships with their employers, with the state, and with each other to make the conditions for a fulfilling life available to those born without riches. The exhibition also details the ways in which the struggles of New York workers have served as the spearhead of national movements to realize these goals.
How to convey the breadth of two hundred years of workers’ struggles? Artifacts — talismans from a past beyond anyone’s remembrance — conjure the raw immediacy of the challenges workers faced and the strategies they devised to address them. An enlarged reproduction of an image from Frank Leslie's Weekly Illustrated Newspaper depicts the city’s first Labor Day parade in 1882. Workers march in ranks, bearing signs that read “All Men Are Born Equal,” “Labor Creates All Wealth,” and “Agitate, Educate, Organize.” A steel wrench used in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge evokes the ways in which tools shaped the labor process and the lives of those who used them. A cigarmakers’ “blue label,” affixed to union-made products, recalls the labor movement’s earliest attempts to enlist consumers in its cause. An interactive sewing game, which looks easy but proves bewildering, drives home how difficult, deadening, and stressful garment work could be for immigrants forced into the trade.
“The True Remedy is Organization,” read another sign at the 1882 parade. In fits and starts, amid countless setbacks, workers built those organizations, gradually claiming the power that could be theirs by dint of numbers and a sense of justice. During the first half of the twentieth century, “New York’s unions attained power that would have seemed unbelievable in 1900,” the exhibition explains. Today, despite the fact that New York remains the most densely-organized city in the United States, that power has ebbed dramatically. But the issues that called forth the imperative to organize remain. The exhibition closes with a short film that chronicles the recent battles over Amazon’s relationship to New York, an issue on which the city’s unions split. The curious spectacle of building trades officials leading a chant of “New York is a union town” in order to welcome one of the country’s most notoriously anti-union companies to their city reveals that the strategic controversies outlined throughout the exhibition persist into the present.
But in addition to covering the now-cancelled HQ2 project, the film follows a woman named Essiemae Skinner as she travels back and forth to work at Amazon’s recently-opened Staten Island warehouse. Skinner had imagined working for a big company would offer stability, she explains, but long days and remorseless speed-ups have shown her otherwise. She is exhausted all the time. “I feel like an NFL player — without the money,” she sighs. “This can’t be real.” “They let these big corporate giants come in here and treat people with no humanity.”
“There has to be a better way,” Skinner insists. The only thing that can make Amazon respect its workers, she argues, is a union. Jaffe, referring to Skinner’s story, says he hopes this dynamic forms the “thread, the pulse, the cadence of the exhibition.” “Struggle, variously defined,” he says, “has been part and parcel of the city's life for well on two centuries. There has been a lot of pain, failure, corruption, hypocrisy, but it continues because ordinary people want respect and dignity in their lives.”
According to Jaffe, curators’ work is “utterly reliant” on emerging scholarship as well as the team of historians assembled to inform the presentation. Scholars of New York City workers and their movements will recognize the way the exhibition conveys key historiographical themes — the transition to capitalism, the craft versus industrial union question, the struggles that helped establish New York’s unique social-democratic welfare state, the emergence of public employee unionism, the economic crisis of the latter half of the twentieth century, and more. We got in touch with Joshua Freeman, renowned scholar of New York City labor, head of the exhibition’s scholarly advisory committee, and editor of the accompanying book, to learn his thoughts on the show’s main themes as well as the exigencies of translating decades’ worth of scholarship into the sensory language of the museum.
Historians care about periodization because it signals one's interpretative priorities. Why does the exhibition begin in 1830?
The periodization of the exhibition reflected logistical issues as much as historical interpretation. One factor was simply the size of the space available to display artifacts, illustrations, and texts. Covering a longer time period would have meant thinner presentation on any given issue. This would have been particularly true for the text, which has to be much more concise in an exhibition than in an article or book. Also, there are far fewer artifacts available for the 17th and 18th and very early 19th centuries than for later. Given a different set of constraints, in the book that accompanies the show we were able to cover a longer time span, starting in the early colonial period. All this said, 1830 does make for a logical periodization point for New York labor movements, since it roughly coincides with the expansion of trade and manufacturing that came in the wake of the Erie Canal, the beginning of mass immigration, and the explosion of labor activity during the Jackson years.
How did race and gender shape working-class politics in New York during the nineteenth century?
This is an epic question; every aspect of labor activity in the nineteenth century was at least somewhat shaped by race and gender, directly or indirectly. For one thing, the labor market itself was generally segmented by race and gender, so the collective activity of workers tended also to be segmented. For another thing, the context in which labor movements developed reflected the deep divisions and inequities of race and gender in American life. One theme the museum exhibition focuses on is the ways in which New York labor movements were both inclusive and exclusive throughout their history.
The portion of the exhibition covering the first half of the twentieth century is titled "Labor Will Rule." The placard reads "In the first half of the 20th century, New York's unions attained power that would have seemed unbelievable in 1900." What happened? Why then? And why New York? Are there features of the contemporary city we can attribute to this power?
The first half of the twentieth century saw an explosion of labor activity across the country, not just in New York, but then, as now, the city was a particularly strong center of working-class collective action. Some of it reflected ideas brought to the city by newcomers, particularly European immigrants already exposed to radical ideas and collective action. Also, with a large, progressive professional and middle-class, New York became an arena for cross-class, pro-labor efforts. The growth of labor movements and labor power was far from steady, rapidly growing before World War I, then diminishing after the war, only to re-arise on an even more impressive scale during the New Deal. Much of the physical and social armature of New York dates from those two moments, from unions to labor laws to a robust set of social welfare institutions — at least by U.S. standards.
Many of the key players in the New Deal were New Yorkers. And the labor-liberal coalition in New York exerted a significant influence in national Democratic Party politics. Why was New York at the center of the New Deal?
The simplest answer is that Franklin D. Roosevelt came from New York and brought many New Yorkers he knew with him to Washington. But it goes beyond personal connections, important though they were. New York City had seen decades of experimentation with progressive measures that would shape the New Deal, in part in response to demands from the labor movement. The garment unions were particularly important in creating new social programs and arrangements, from grievance mediation to unemployment insurance to affordable housing, that would be scaled up during New Deal. With its combination of a powerful labor movement, a strong radical left, and many progressive social workers, doctors, public health officials, and urban planners, New York had many of the social ingredients that would be combined to create the New Deal order.
What happened to this world beginning in the 1960s?
Changes in the New York City economy, and ultimately changes in the national and international economies, undermined some of the basis for the progressive order that came out of the 1930s and 1940s. Industrial relocation and suburbanization had a huge impact. But many of the changes were political, too, including both the civil rights movement and the backlash against it and the revolt of the rich, if you want to call it that, during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which boosted a neoliberal outlook that soon spread far beyond New York.
Museums are different than books — they are physical experiences, using a variety of media, and are less tightly-structured than a scholarly text. Did the nature of the medium affect how you go about presenting this history? Did it cause you to re-think anything?
Museums are very different from books, or for that matter from classrooms. Which is why historical advisers, including myself, are advisers, not the ones ultimately in charge. The Museum of the City of New York has a fabulous staff of curators and other museum professionals who know all about how people who visit an exhibition approach it and absorb information, what works and what does not, how to combine objects, texts, video, audio, and interactive elements, the technical demands for displaying and conserving items, and so forth. It was great to be part of a team of historians that helped conceptualize the show, but in the end the real credit goes to the curator, Steve Jaffe, Sarah Henry, who oversaw the whole process, and all the other folks at the museum who made the exhibition happen.
If there is one thing it's essential for ordinary people to know about the history of work in New York, what is it?
New York workers, time and again, have been able to shape their world by banding together, not always achieving all that they sought but, all in all, achieving an enormous amount to make the city a more just, equitable, and livable place.
Andy Battle is an editor at the Gotham blog.
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