How the Labor Movement Built New York

Workers’ Metropolis

“City of Workers, City of Struggle” at the Museum of the City of New York


The first object you encounter in the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition “City of Workers, City of Struggle: How Labor Movements Changed New York” is a giant wrench. Over four feet long and standing on its end, it is easy to picture it stuck in concrete as a makeshift memorial to a departed industry or displayed in the coffee bar of a coworking space in a gentrified industrial district. A classic “industrial heritage” object, the wrench is at once an obvious curatorial choice and a sly one. Dispensing with sepia-toned photographs and rusted metal, this show tells a story of overlapping and ongoing working people’s movements in New York. As the display text explains, the wrench is on view because the project it came from—the Brooklyn Bridge, of course—encapsulates the diversity and dynamism of the city’s working people. Thousands of laborers—Irish, German, Italian, African American, and Chinese—raised this landmark, fighting with their bosses, and sometimes one another, to survive and thrive as they did so.

“City of Workers” is curated by Steven H. Jaffe, with the aid of an impressive advisory committee of labor historians headed by Joshua Freeman. They divide this long history into three sections. The first, “In Union There Is Strength,” covers the rise of organized labor from 1830 to 1900. The second, “Labor Will Rule,” charts the emergence of workers and their unions as power players in the city from 1900 to 1965. The third, “Sea Change,” captures the trials of globalization and the rise of the public and service sectors as key sites of struggle from 1965 to 2001. An epilogue titled “New Challenges” brings the show up to the present with a pair of short films by Rebecca Jacobs and Nate Lavey about the city’s contemporary working class. A companion volume from Columbia University Press, edited by Freeman, expands the story with essays on topics from the colonial era to the present.

The museum partnered with two of the largest labor archives in the state (the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives at Cornell University and the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University), and the collections on view are incredibly rich. The design, by Pentagram, renders this wealth of material legible by leaving the gallery completely open. With colorful graphics and posters on the walls and vitrines full of flyers, buttons, and more of the everyday ephemera of organizing, the space evokes a union hall. The overall effect is alive and welcoming: Here are New York’s organized workers, in all their chaotic, cacophonous continuity.

As Jaffe explains in the press release for the exhibition, “Labor movements have been central to the rise of the city we know today.” From the radical mayoral campaign of political economist Henry George in 1886 (on a United Labor Party platform that included a land tax, the eight-hour day, and equal pay for men and women) to present-day struggles over Amazon’s misadventure in Queens, working people have fought to make New York a more just and livable city for all of its inhabitants. At the same time, this history cannot be reduced to a simple story of workers united against capital. Across all of the show’s sections, Jaffe and his team have put competing visions for New York’s labor movement in conversation, provocatively and productively. Along the walls are the histories of some of New York’s best-known unions: the early American Federation of Labor (AFL), the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and 1199, the Health and Hospital Workers Union (now 1199SEIU). Facing the walls, and sometimes perpendicular to them, are cases packed with images, objects, and quotations from workers who did not fit, or were not welcome, in these unions. As the section text for “In Union There Is Strength” explains at the outset, “Multiple labor movements—with unequal access to power—challenged employers and each other” in New York City from the beginning.

As an organizing principle for the show, this strategy works wonders. It brings diversity and complexity to labor’s story in New York, and helps viewers make connections between workers and organizing strategies across time and space. It also sets up some fabulous encounters between historical figures.

The antebellum artisans who organized to defend their white masculinity as they lost ownership of their labor sit across from Augusta Lewis “Gussie” Troup, who watched as women were used to break a typesetters’ strike in 1867 and promptly organized the Women’s Typographical Union in 1868. Further down the wall, the AFL’s Samuel Gompers, who endorsed Chinese exclusion and privileged white, native-born workers in the Federation’s ranks, faces off with Frank J. Farrell, a black postal worker and Knights of Labor delegate from New York who fought racism in organized labor.

The show uses these confrontations to illustrate the “two visions of labor” that animated workers’ organizing in New York and across the nation: the broad, inclusive producerism of the Knights, Henry George, and the city’s Central Labor Union, and the “pure and simple unionism” of skilled white men promoted by Gompers and the AFL. These struggles were, in part, debates about how best to build and wield power, but they also imagined fundamentally different futures for the labor movement. The producerists—and the early socialists who joined them—dreamed big, striving for a multiracial movement of workers to seize the reins of industry and politics. The craft unionists wanted, as Gompers put it, “more”; they bargained victories for the organized and eschewed radical politics. Producerism proved impossible to sustain in the face of violent repression by the state and the bosses, but Gompers’s narrow focus offered little to the immigrant workers flooding into the city’s garment industry at the turn of the 20th century.

In the transition to the show’s second section, “Labor Will Rule,” the narrative jumps ahead with a life-sized photograph of ILGWU president David Dubinsky introducing Vice President Hubert Humphrey at a massive campaign rally on Seventh Avenue in 1964. Gompers and George only ever dreamed of such power. What follows, along the exhibit’s back wall, is the story of how the ILGWU organized itself into a union of half a million workers—nearly 80 percent of whom were women—in the city’s largest industry with the power to shape national politics. The ILGWU was, from its inception, a central node in the struggle between the two visions of labor. It was founded by skilled male tailors in the craft union tradition in 1900, but the union owed nearly all of its early growth to Yiddish women socialist organizers who made the union a laboratory for social democracy.

Some of the most important strikes and events in US labor history are represented here: the “Uprising of the 20,000,” the massive strike of 1909–10 that brought the ILGWU into half of New York’s garment shops, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, a galvanizing force for the union’s organizing and a spate of Progressive and, later, New Deal labor regulations. The ILGWU’s pioneering efforts in social unionism are celebrated in posters, photos, and pamphlets: the first union health center, the plethora of educational programs, the locals’ recreational offerings, the Unity House workers’ resort, and, by the postwar period, the construction of worker housing. This is one of the clearest ways in which labor shaped the modern city: New York became a center of American social democracy not just because organized workers had power at the ballot box, but also because they, and their unions, built it from the ground up.

Alongside these achievements, the show chronicles the ILGWU’s voluminous internal struggles. Battles between communists and socialists decimated the union’s ranks in the 1920s. Black and Puerto Rican workers, labeled “invaders” by one local president in New York, spent decades fighting for better treatment and representation. The ever-present gap between the union’s male leadership and its female rank and file cost the union several leading organizers. At the height of its power, the ILGWU embodied all the contradictions of the mid-century labor movement. It made the garment industry and the city where it thrived a more democratic, equitable place for women and people of color, even as hierarchies of race and gender persisted in its midst. It was at once a bastion of liberal social democracy that improved millions of lives and a bureaucratic bulwark against radicalism in its own ranks and beyond.

In the vitrines that sit perpendicular to the ILGWU’s wall, the curators do a wonderful job of widening the scope of worker organizing in the early 20th century, focusing particularly on the hothouse years of the 1930s. The Young People’s Socialist League is represented, as is the radical, racially integrated National Maritime Union (strong in New York when it was still the largest port in the country) and the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance. The CHLA, an extensive organization of semi-independent laundry workers, would be described as an “alt-labor” formation today, but the show makes clear that despite their being “independent contractors” of a sort, these immigrant launderers understood themselves as workers. Among the communities in which these groups had strong standing, their histories are remembered, but none of these organizations have public monuments in midtown the way the ILGWU does. Still, as the courts and the Trump NLRB eviscerate 20th-century labor law, the work of these small, radical organizations the margins of the old regime are as worthy of commemoration as Dubinsky’s ILGWU.

And, of course, by the time Dubinsky was introducing Humphrey, that old regime was showing signs of collapse. “Sea Change,” the final section of the show, runs through the big structural changes on the wall and puts a wide range of responses to them in the cases. Deindustrialization is here, in the form of the ILGWU’s campaign against clothing manufacturer Judy Bond Inc., which packed up its unionized shops and fled south in 1964, the first trickle of what soon became a deluge. New York’s 1975 fiscal crisis is discussed with the necessary reminder that public-sector unions bailed the city out and got nothing but austerity in return. In both instances, we learn that at precisely the moment women and nonwhite workers began making gains, whether in industrial or public sector workplaces, globalizing capital pulled the rug out from under them.

Nonetheless, 24 percent of New York’s workers are unionized today, primarily in the public sector and service sector, as represented here by DC37 and 1199. We learn that these unions did not just organize burgeoning new sectors and new immigrants arriving in the city. They were led by organizers who were no longer white men and who consciously deployed the rhetoric and tactics of the black freedom struggle, the women’s movement, and fights for immigrant rights. These unions also continued the tradition of social unionism started by the ILGWU, offering many services and, crucially, “career ladders” to workers. These helped members earn valuable credentials and move from entry-level to stable, full-time work in the city’s increasingly stratified postindustrial economy.

Professionalism, however, could be a double-edged sword. Among the cases is one devoted to the 1968 teachers’ strikes, in which the United Federation of Teachers claimed a monopoly on educational knowledge as it fought the efforts of black and Latinx parent activists to establish community control of schools. Gompers would surely have supported the teachers in defense of their craft; those seeking a united working class in a changing city wrung their hands.

Having made a circuit of the gallery, visitors have two options: watch a film or grab a seat at the tables at the center of the room, where four interactive games await. Two of them are replicas of workstations: a sewing machine and a switchboard, inviting you to try your hand. Doing either task well is impossible; there is no such thing as unskilled labor. A simple open-and-shut game of “guess who said it” introduces labor and community leaders of many stripes who do not otherwise appear in the show. The final interactive asks visitors to “resolve a labor dispute” in the cases of three historic strikes: the 1910 cloakmakers’ strike, the 1962 newspaper strike, and the 2005 transit strike. It turns out to be an effective introduction to the intricacies and mundanity of collective bargaining. It also tabulates the results (at present, visitors have met the workers’ demands far more often than not).

The show concludes with a short film, NYC Labor: Present and Future, which features interviews with seven contemporary labor leaders. It is an excellent overview of the state of the city’s unions and of the plight and power of New York’s working people today. The film is screened in an alcove from which visitors can exit the show. If you go, however, be sure not to miss the other video. Playing on a small monitor just before you enter the alcove, Amazon in a Union Town is the final piece of the ongoing back-and-forth set in motion at the beginning of the exhibition by the curators. The first half of this video features the struggle over Amazon’s now-cancelled HQ2, with labor leaders giving interviews and making speeches on both sides of the issue. The second half shifts to Staten Island, where Amazon continues to operate a warehouse. The film follows Essiemae Skinner, a worker in the warehouse, as she compares the brutal physicality of her day to playing in the NFL and explains why she has joined a unionization campaign organized both by the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road NY and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. Here is the voice of a worker organizing in the shadow of the HQ2 debate, but on the front lines of the new economy.

Museum shows take years to plan, and yet “City of Workers” has arrived right on time. Nearly half a million American workers participated in strikes or walkouts in 2018, a generational upsurge that exhibits no sign of slowing. Some of these strikes have been organized and led by well-established unions with collective bargaining rights; others were led by rank-and-file radicals in open defiance of state laws. As workers and their unions seek to sustain this militancy and secure their gains, the conversation that “City of Workers” provokes about the form and function of labor movements is vitally important. What is at stake, as Essiemae Skinner tells her interviewers, is the possibility of recapturing “a little more humanity” in the face of alienation and exploitation. The workers who turned that giant wrench would surely agree.

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