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The exhibition City of Workers, City of Struggle: How Labor Movements Changed New York, mounted at the Museum of the City of New York, does almost everything it needs to do in telling the story of a critical mass movement that microcosmically mirrors the large forces that have shaped the nation’s economic and political history. This story is told through a variety of media: photographs, wood engravings, lithographs, digital reproductions, plus a host of pieces of material culture.
Because of the complexity of this saga, there’s also a good deal of reading to do here. The show provides a wealth of didactic information breaking down into discrete themes (such as “Workers and Racism,” “Red Scare,” “Disaster and Ferment”) what might have been a tedious lock-step march through a chronology of the development of labor movements in New York. To my eyes, all of it is fascinating, especially the pointedly contemporary viewpoint taken by the author of the majority of the wall texts and captions, the show’s curator Steven H. Jaffe. This perspective is sensitive to the plights of those typically ignored by canonized historical accounts: women, African-Americans, non-English speaking people, non-European immigrants, and the poor.
From the start, Jaffe avoids the gooey, milquetoast center of insipid contemporary political sentiment. Instead the first wall text encountered positively declares “In unions there is strength.” But the show doesn’t just rely on platitudes; it breaks down all the convoluted and contrary forces and factions that made the labor movement from the early 19th century through now. Much of this I did not know. I discover that in the 1820s and ’30s, a cadre of master artisans who trained journeymen for in-demand manufacturing skills (millinery, plumbing, clothing design and production, etc.) resisted what they called “wage slavery” — which was the prospect of being hired on as a salaried worker in a factory. At the same time, some of these masters turned their workshops into factories that paid regular wages to workers for an emerging mass market, rather than training them to become their own potential independent business owners. This historical vignette demonstrates that in these early stages of industrialized production, there was a rapaciousness to the supposedly entrepreneurial spirit, which ultimately disadvantaged many to benefit a few.
The conditions of factory work, with its low pay and agonizingly long hours, spurred the creation of several unions that were short lived in the mid-19th century. And though many wage laborers desired unions to protect them from the schemes of mercenary and pitiless employers, competition among the various ethnic and gender groups complicated the effort. In fact, unions began to cohere around a male, European-American profile, thus both demonstrating the need for worker alliances and forcing those left out to form alternative ones.
According to Jaffe’s research, male unionists agitated for wages that could support women staying at home, rather than be undercut by competition from lower-paid female workers. Women had to band together to create their own means of economic empowerment, which included developing strike committees and networks of friends and kin who shared resources and advice. I read that in a similar fashion, African-Americans were systematically excluded from labor unions with few exceptions and thus were forced to rely on their own benevolent societies, churches, schools, and social networks to find and keep gainful employment.
For non-European immigrants, the 20th century made their fates seesaw around the fulcrum of labor organizations. In the early 1930s groups organized around a shared status, such as the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance, were formed to shared legal services and death benefits and protect members against discrimination. A decade later it became the largest occupational society among the Chinese. But then decades after that its ranks were decimated by FBI arrests and deportations brought about by the “Red Scare.” And then by the 1960s and 1970s surviving members of that group would join the Asian American Civil Rights movements.
This is the other strategic choice that makes this exhibition engrossing: it effectively demonstrates that the evolution of the labor movement was not a story with an inevitable ending, but a passage with pitfalls, failures, switchbacks and outcomes that could not have been predicted. There are demonstrations, fires, and pernicious economic disasters that caused some unions to lose steam, and then other crucial moments, like the Great Depression, engendered profound labor reform. There are the challenges of new tools appearing in factories, surges in union membership that made these organizations powerful voting blocs and political machines, and then there is the post-1960 crisis when New York City lost over 650,000 manufacturing and port jobs. Throughout this history the controversial tool of the strike is deployed — sometimes in instances such as the 2005 New York City transit strike that cripple the city’s ability to function. The labor movement in New York is shown to be complex, fractious, and even reactionary, but absolutely crucial to forcing capital to concede to the labor force in collective bargaining, arbitration to settle disputes, and access to healthcare. On this foundation, the workers movement has continued to organize action and has impelled employers in many cases to provide paid family leave, a safe working environment, guaranteed sick leave, and a minimum wage. Workers like me stand on the shoulders, not of giants, but of principled women and men who made giant steps.
Besides the visual representations, that is, the photos, engravings, paintings, lithographs, and digital reproductions, other ephemera include postcards, menus, membership cards, sheet music. Additionally, there are interactive consoles that deliver information through quizzes and polls and games that mean to illustrate physical labor. The responsive gadgetry is the only place where the exhibition falters. The headphones that accompany the makeshift switchboard have a spotty connection, and I couldn’t figure out what to do with the plug-in wires. However, the electronic version of a sewing machine was curiously challenging in its game of following a curving seam as the appliance lays down imaginary thread.
City of Workers, City of Struggle made me recall a poem from the collection What Work Is by Phillip Levine. “Coming Close” brings to mind the necessity of understanding labor, not as an abstracted notion, but as a corporeal, lived experience, so that one can understand how it can either nourish and demean the soul. Levine writes:
You must come closer
to find out, you must hang your tie
and jacket in one of the lockers
in favor of a black smock, you must
be prepared to spend shift after shift
hauling off the metal trays of stock,
bowing first, knees bent for purchase,
then lifting with a gasp, the first word
of tenderness between the two of you
That gasp, that sense of realizing what the task requires of us and of our bodies, that moment of simultaneous awareness of realizing how hard the work will be even as we marshal our forces to do it — that is the initial, difficult part for a process in which the other parts may be even more arduous. This exhibition reminds me that most of us will only get through by cooperation, by banding together and pooling our strengths. When there are enough of us putting our hands to the task, then an entire city or nation will move a few inches off the ground.
City of Workers, City of Struggle: How Labor Movements Changed New York continues at the Museum of the City of New York through January 5. It was curated by Steven H. Jaffe with the help of Sarah Henry and Rebecca Jacobs.