On Culturing a Union

On Culturing a Union


American labor still pays lip service to the idea that it seeks “bread and roses too”–a higher standard of living, plus the chance for workers to enjoy some of the finer things in life. In reality, the famous rallying cry of the 1912 textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, is no more than a faint echo in today’s unions. Few offer what anyone would call a rich cultural experience for their members. Most of the labor movement is no longer rooted in immigrant communities or working-class fraternal associations of the sort that once supported folk music, dance, theater and even literature in foreign-language newspapers like the Forward, the Yiddish daily. Postwar assimilation and suburbanization, the decline of indigenous working-class radicalism and the rise of “mass culture” and entertainment have left American workers with little claim to a culture of their own. Beset with many current problems (including threats to their very survival), unions are not inclined to embrace the additional challenge of making drama, poetry or music–in new or old forms–part of their internal life again.

The one AFL-CIO affiliate that has attempted this, on a large scale, is the union of New York City hospital and healthcare workers, best known by its number–1199. Now part of the Service Employees International Union, Local 1199 launched a cultural program called Bread and Roses in 1979, with labor and foundation funding. Since then, B&R has sponsored an impressive stream of union musicals and documentary films; exhibits of paintings, poster art, murals and photography dealing with workplace themes; poetry and writing classes for workers, oral histories of their struggles–all of which help foster membership solidarity and connection to the union.

Not for Bread Alone is the story of that effort and a brief history of the union behind it, as told by 1199’s longtime publicist, campaign strategist and cultural impresario, Moe Foner. The book also traces Foner’s own career as a labor PR man par excellence and contains much useful advice for today’s “union communicators.” The author was a scrappy, streetwise hustler of the press who couldn’t type but had on his desk one of the most formidable Rolodexes in the labor movement. A product of left-wing politics and CIO unionism in its Big Apple heyday, Foner was far more effective than the AFL-CIO’s current crop of blow-dried, inside-the-Beltway “media consultants” (whose idea of”party work” is introducing labor clients to the Democratic candidates served by their firms, so that union treasuries and political action funds can be milked simultaneously). Foner displayed a different kind of political savvy, in countless picket-line battles and major lobbying efforts. As journalist Jack Newfield says, he “could publicize like P.T. Barnum, organize like Joe Hill and network like Bill Clinton.”

For example, Foner’s pioneering work on 1199 campaigns among private, non-profit hospital workers–who didn’t have the right to bargain with management forty years ago–provides a good model for any union trying to make organizing rights a higher-profile issue today. Not for Bread Alone also reminds us about the important role played by the Labor Leadership Assembly for Peace–the anti-Vietnam War coalition launched by Foner, 1199 and their union allies in the late 1960s.

The author completed this memoir, with the assistance of former 1199 news editor Dan North, shortly before his death in January at age 86. As the book recounts, Foner was born into a Jewish working-class family in Brooklyn that produced not one, but four radical activists. A member of the Communist Party from the mid-1930s “until the Khrushchev revelations in 1956 about what went on under Stalin,” Moe–along with his twin brothers, Jack and Phil–was victimized by an early purge of leftists from higher education. All three were forced out ofteaching or administrative jobs at City College of New York (CCNY) in 1941. (The resulting controversy led the highly musical Foners to change the name of their dance band–already popular on the Catskills small-hotel circuit–to “Suspended Swing.”)

Despite their dismissal, Phil and Jack went on to have distinguished careers as academic historians. Henry Foner–youngest of the four and then a student at CCNY–joined the Furriers Union and later became its president. And the author, for much of his forty-year union career, became the living embodiment of the cultural politics that developed during the period of the Popular Front, when American liberals and radicals united to oppose fascism abroad and support Roosevelt’s New Deal at home. Some of the best material in Foner’s book is, thus, like a collection of old photos in a family album, faded but fascinating because of what it reveals about the social and political milieu of a now largely deceased generation of labor activists who managed to survive both McCarthyism and the self-inflicted wounds of the Communist Party.

In the 1930s and ’40s, Foner observes, the left created “a vigorous cultural life that became part of its mass appeal.”

The most famous writers…appeared in the New Masses magazine, which was close to the Communist Party. The Daily Worker had great cartoons by people like Robert Minor, William Gropper, and Art Young, but artists from the New Yorker also appeared there.

    This was the era of the experimental Group Theater and…Waiting for Lefty, the Clifford Odets play about striking taxi drivers…. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union had already put on its immensely successful musical revue, Pins and Needles, and on a smaller scale, the American Student Union put on a musical every year. One of them, called Pens and Pencils, was a takeoff on the Marx Brothers…. There was a Theater Arts Committee that had a cabaret to support the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. And the YCL [Young Communist League] was always putting on skits and shows.

Foner was hired in 1947 as education director for a department store union. Many Manhattan store clerks of that era–like waiters and waitresses today–were aspiring actors. So when Foner put out a call for auditions for the union’s first theatrical venture–a seventeen-song musical review called Thursdays ‘Til Nine–400 members showed up. Through his dance band and party connections, Foner also “had access to an unusually large number of creative people who were, because of their political beliefs, more than happy to participate for little or no money in union cultural events.” For music, lyrics or other help, he tapped show-business talents like Millard Lampell, later a successful Hollywood screenwriter; playwrights Arthur Miller and Norman Rosten; film producer/director Martin Ritt (who went on to win an Oscar for Norma Rae); comedians Sam Levinson and Irwin Corey; actors Jack Gilford and Zero Mostel; and future TV writer Mel Tolkin.

Although professionally written and produced, Thursdays ‘Til Nine drew on the job experiences of store workers themselves and provided humorous commentary on contemporary labor issues (in numbers like “The Taft-Hartley Rumba”). Thousands of members applauded its performances, and Foner’s singular career was launched. The show cost only a few thousand dollars, but in return it “reaped immense rewards in good publicity, education on labor issues, and membership pride in their union.”

These positive results became a hallmark of Foner productions for his later union employers as well. The store workers soon merged with District 65, another “center of left unionism in New York,” whose stewards were deployed in Peekskill in 1949 to protect Paul Robeson when a right-wing mob attacked one of his concerts. At District 65, Foner ran educational, social and cultural programs for 20,000 workers in retail, wholesale and warehouse jobs. One of the first things he did was start a nightclub on the top floor of the union’s lower Manhattan office building.

Each week, a different group of members would be in charge of selling 400 tickets at fifty cents each. Rank-and-file committees would set up, check coats, wait on tables, serve drinks, etc…. I’d line up a band. And every Saturday night, I’d get a guest star to perform for free…. Harry Belafonte was just breaking in then, and he’d come down and sing in his dark glasses. We were packing them in, the place was always full.

On Saturday mornings, District 65 also had a “kiddy program,” which featured sing-alongs with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, dance programs conducted by Guthrie’s wife, Margie, and magic shows by Doc Horowitz, who brought along his daughter, a “terrific ventriloquist and puppeteer” who acted as emcee. Her name? Shari Lewis, later the star of one of the 1950s’ most popular children’s TV shows.

In 1952 Foner moved to 1199, where he spent three decades–editing the union newspaper, aiding strikes and organizing campaigns, advising union founder Leon Davis and eventually creating Bread and Roses. At midcentury, the union was quite different from what it is today; now it has more than 200,000 members, most of whom are black, Hispanic and/or female. When Foner was hired by Davis, a radical immigrant from Russia, 1199 had only 5,000 members and was overwhelmingly composed of Jewish men working as pharmacists or clerks in New York City drugstores. But, as Foner notes, 1199 had campaigned since the late 1930s for the hiring of black pharmacists and was one of the first unions anywhere to celebrate Negro History Week. When 1199 began organizing primarily nonwhite hospital workers in the late 1950s–which led to its explosive growth over the next twenty years–the union already had a strong record of support for civil rights.

Commitment to that cause was symbolized by 1199’s close relationships with leading black artists and entertainers. Then relatively unknown as actors, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis (who contributed a loving foreword to this book) became lifelong friends and collaborators with the author. The couple directed or performed in a series of productions at 1199’s annual “Salute to Freedom.” Much later they helped Foner create Bread and Roses’ best-known musical review, Take Care, which used humorous songs and sketches to tell the story of hospital workers’ daily lives, their frustrations on the job and hopes for the future.

In 1199’s initial hospital organizing and strikes, the union tried to fuse civil rights and working-class consciousness. Several vivid chapters in Not for Bread Alone describe how its “Union Power, Soul Power” campaigns were built–first in New York, then in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Charleston, South Carolina, site of an epic 113-day walkout aided by Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The photographs accompanying Foner’s memoir confirm the breadth of the union’s political alliances–with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Adam Clayton Powell.

If the 1960s and early ’70s were years of triumph for 1199, they culminated in a decade of byzantine internal feuding. Leon Davis suffered a stroke in 1979 and decided, after nearly five decades as president, to turn over the reins to Doris Turner, an African-American and former dietary clerk who headed 1199’s hospital division. At the same time, the union’s founder tried to realize his longtime dream of creating “one big union for all healthcare workers” by merging 1199 with SEIU. Neither the merger nor the internal transfer of power proceeded as planned. Instead, the union was plunged into a terrible “civil war,” replete with “bitter elements of racism, sexism, red-baiting, violence, and corruption.”

For a majority of 1199 members, two things eventually became clear: Turner was an incompetent autocrat and their union had become a “busted Stradivarius.” Turner purged all staff critics, surrounded herself with goons, moved the union to the right politically, engaged in vote fraud to win re-election and then, in 1984, led “one of the most inept, unplanned, and disastrous strikes in New York history.” To get the union back on track, Foner and other 1199 veterans joined forces with Dennis Rivera, a staff organizer from Puerto Rico recently fired by Turner. They created a dissident group called “Save Our Union,” which ran a slate headed by Georgianna Johnson in a federally supervised rerun election for 1199 officers. Johnson narrowly defeated Turner, but her presidency was only slightly less troubled. She was soon ousted by her former backer, Rivera, who has led 1199 in New York since 1989 (and engineered its long-delayed affiliation with SEIU three years ago).

On the subject of 1199’s “self-destruction”–what Foner calls “the most heart-breaking experience” of his life–Not for Bread Alone is both unreflective and unrevealing. “To some extent, we all played out events based on our backgrounds, and mistakes were made. But the union survived,” the author writes. Elsewhere, Foner admits that “the whole affair had disturbing overtones” but claims, unconvincingly, that during the union’s 1989 leadership race he “was removed from the day-to-day running of 1199, and [has] only a hazy idea of the details.”

As a history of 1199, then, Not for Bread Alone is best read along with Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg’s Upheaval in the Quiet Zone (which Foner, to his credit, helped the authors research, despite its dissection of various 1199 flaws). Upheaval appeared thirteen years ago, when the union’s bloody and embarrassing leadership succession fight was still unresolved. Yet it remains the definitive study of what went wrong then–and its analysis is just as relevant today, in light of 1199’s recent right turn, under Rivera, into the camp of Republican Governor George Pataki, a questionable ally for any “progressive” trade union.

Fink and Greenberg criticize Davis not only for his disastrous choice of Turner as heir apparent but also for functioning as a “charismatic patriarch” whose “unquestioned authority verged on benevolent despotism.” According to them, even the 1199 bylaw reforms championed by Save Our Union failed to address the problem of overly centralized decision-making in a “local” union far larger than most national ones. “Without provisions for an elected ‘chief delegate’ at each hospital or elected area directors, there is still no structural accommodation to pluralistic power centers within the union and little place for leaders of the future to spread their wings,” they contended. “Communication as well as decision-making will still be formulated in a room at the top.”

The local’s history and internal politics aside, the main question raised by Foner’s memoir is whether Bread and Roses offers a viable model for cultural programming elsewhere in labor. Or is it too much a product of New York City exceptionalism–a unique expression of 1199’s interracialism and now-fading political traditions, including its Popular Front alliance with artists and entertainers long in the orbit of the Old Left?

B&R has, from the beginning, inspired other labor arts initiatives. Just as 1199 once tried to spread its unique brand of hospital unionism elsewhere in the country (with varying degrees of success), Foner helped organize, in 1980, the first in a series of Bread and Roses cultural festivals in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which have been held there on Labor Day weekend ever since. For almost as long, the Labor Heritage Foundation in Washington has hosted an annual Arts Exchange and Conference on Creative Organizing, which brings together union activists and entertainers. LHF also sells poster art, videos and CDs of union music to help publicize the work of labor choruses and individual singer-songwriters. At the local level, however, few unions have the kind of membership base and staff support–or access to foundation funding–that has kept B&R afloat for nearly twenty-five years. (During his period of forced exile from 1199 during the mid-1980s, even Foner found it hard to reproduce his past successes while working part-time for a small Meat Cutters local in Queens.)

According to Esther Cohen, Bread and Roses’ current director, the project continues to achieve its founder’s goal of providing professional-quality programming and opportunities for creative expression by 1199 members themselves. B&R’s permanent art gallery at union headquarters currently hosts eight exhibits a year, on topics ranging from Haitian culture and Dominican religion to the lives of Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Pennsylvania coal miners, and the death-row experiences of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Once a month, Cohen reports, the gallery becomes “a cozy nightclub” and cafe, with entertainment provided by 1199 rank-and-filers. More than 150 members recently signed up for a creative-writing workshop as well; and as part of an amateur photography program called “Unseen America,” Bread and Roses is helping scores of its members–and other immigrant workers–record and display scenes of workplace and community life rarely shown in the mass media.

However, in the issue of New Labor Forum that recently published Cohen’s account of B&R activity, the Queens College magazine also bemoaned the fact that most professionals in the arts are no longer stirred by “the plight of working people and the intoxicating promise of their liberation.” According to NLF‘s editors:

For two centuries, until now that is, there was always a cultural alternative, a point of opposition that said no to the callous calculations of the marketplace…. While many kinds of people and institutions have, at one time or another, joined the opposition, the labor movement was always part of the picture, sometimes at the center of the canvas. No more…. The labor movement is at a cultural dead end. It has been defeated in the struggle for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens.

Such funereal observations were not part of Moe Foner’s game. He was ever the optimist, the union survivor and upbeat promoter of new ideas and causes. If still on the job at B&R, he’d be on the phone right now buttonholing talent for its next production, badgering reporters to cover it and rallying members to fill every seat in the house–while organizing labor opposition to US intervention in Iraq on the side! He’d also be applauding the role played by hip-hop stars in the mass rally of New York City teachers (and thousands of their music-loving students) held in late May during contract talks between Mayor Bloomberg and the United Federation of Teachers. Better than some activists in his field, the author knew that if “labor culture” is going to be sustained, it must be periodically renewed–that Ossie and Ruby must finally give way to the likes of Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, and Erykah Badu, all of whom graced the platform of the UFT.

As New York City union historian Joshua Freeman observed, in another recent exchange about the future of labor-oriented art and entertainment: “There is no going back in time, and no reason to do so. The strength of mid-century New York left culture lay in its organic relationship to the needs and tastes of the city’s working class. It remains for another generation, in its own way, to build a new culture of labor and the left.”

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